Shortly after the end of the spring 2022 semester, I shared the below message with the Willamette staff and faculty community. I wanted to make sure that you, our alumni and family community, had the chance to hear reflections on the previous year and our vision for the future.
This weekend’s commencement ceremonies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art will mark the end of Willamette’s 2021-22 academic year. Last weekend we held our first fully in-person commencement on the Salem campus since 2019 and helped almost 550 students launch into the next phase of their journey. It is inspiring to celebrate our students’ achievements with friends, family, and members of our campus community, and to think about all that we have accomplished over the last two difficult years to sustain Willamette’s mission.
I want to offer some end-of-year reflections.
Our most transformative work continues to be the integration of PNCA into Willamette. For PNCA, this has brought new financial stability that reinforces existing programs as well as access to the broader intellectual community and support services of a larger university. For the rest of Willamette, it brings exciting connections to some of the finest work in art and design in the Northwest, that in the years ahead will deepen the capacity in all of our schools to connect students with creative work driving social, cultural and economic change in our region and the world.
Combining the operations and the cultures of two complex institutions is not easy, of course, and this first year of combined operations has, as expected, stretched the staff on both campuses who have been working to make sure systems talk to each other and that processes are aligned. This work will continue, but I expect there will be fewer surprises and unexpected bumps as we move into our second year together. I am grateful for the arrival of Jen Cole, PNCA’s new dean, who has hit the ground running and has been at work shaping strategic initiatives to deepen the connection between art, design, and the liberal arts and sciences and is working to build partnerships and connections in the community. This is the work that over the next few years will really show off the power of the combined university.
Another big story this year has been the surge of student interest in Willamette, as shown by our successful enrollment results, with about 950 new students expected next year between the two campuses. Thanks to the efforts of the Admissions teams of all of our schools, and the work of Marketing, Financial Aid and support from faculty and all departments and divisions across our community, we have surpassed our budgeted enrollment targets in most programs, most spectacularly in the College of Arts & Sciences. The turnout during admitted student days exceeded expectations, and more than half of all students who attended Bearcat Days chose Willamette. Given the small undergraduate enrollments of the “COVID years,” this year’s results feel particularly satisfying, and are a good reminder of the fundamental strength of Willamette’s reputation and programs.
In addition to the festivities of commencement, this past weekend was also the spring meeting of the Board of Trustees, at which they approved the budget for the 2022-23 academic year. Even with strong enrollments of new students, the budget will remain challenging for at least two more years until the small COVID-era undergraduate classes graduate, and financial aid budgets were substantially increased in both PNCA and CAS this year. We will continue to use our accumulated reserve funds for two or three more years to balance the budget while providing the necessary student support.
Fortunately, long-term prudent management means that we have some flexibility, and the board has strong confidence in the long-term financial strength of the university.
The Board of Trustees also approved a vision of our university in the years ahead and a framework for developing Willamette’s strategic plan, which we’ll discuss in more detail in the fall. The new document builds on the 2013 strategic plan, emphasizing the importance of our engagement with the Northwest and our integration of the liberal arts and professions into a university that has distinctive strengths in preparing students to turn knowledge into action in service of building a better, more just, and more sustainable world.
In this stage of our planning process, the board has approved an update and restatement of the institution’s vision, values, and strategy. In particular, they outline a vision for Willamette that describes a university that is designed to support students who seek to contribute to the major challenges of this century, including the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals identified by the United Nations and endorsed as priorities by every UN member state. These “wicked problems” are inherently complex, requiring multidisciplinary approaches, international and cross-cultural collaboration, and new and creative ways to build public understanding and new social and political structures to support progress. In addition to strengthening our existing programs, the strategic plan identifies three key areas for new program development and investment: big data and human-focused computation, strengthening democratic institutions, and climate change and sustainability.
Many of you have already been involved in the various stages of the planning process and have participated in conversations, shared ideas, and reviewed drafts. With the basic vision and framework now in place, the next step will be to translate the strategy into specific annual and medium-term objectives at the university and individual-unit levels, as well as key performance indicators and an assessment plan, which the board will review in the fall.
Over the last few years, Willamette has developed a national reputation for our bold and creative moves, including not just the merger but also for our tuition reset and for development of new programs such as public health and data science. The sharpening focus on being a student-centered university in deep engagement with our region and the world is, I think, very exciting. It is tempting to try to fit ourselves into boxes defined by others: this is what a national liberal arts college looks like, this is the typical curriculum of an AICAD school, this is how departments and schools relate to each other in big universities. But increasingly, I see a confidence at Willamette to chart our own path, and to build a university that is designed not on 19th or 20th century models but on a new model to meet this century’s needs. I see an understanding that working to optimize our rankings in news magazines is not nearly as important as working to optimize our students’ ability to contribute to their communities and the world and to find meaning in their lives — and I am inspired.
Summer is short and this year has been long, but I hope each of you finds opportunities to relax, recharge, and connect with family and friends. I want to offer heartfelt thanks to the entire Willamette community for your role in ensuring we had a safe and successful year. For those working on campus for the summer, I hope you get to enjoy a slightly slower pace, catch up on projects, and plan for the next academic year, which will be here before we know it. We have a lot of important work to do together.
Non nobis solum,