Sabah Randhawa understands the power of opportunity offered by higher education. He has lived it.
Western Washington University’s 14th president was born in Lahore, the second-largest city of Pakistan, in 1954 to parents who had never attended college. But they understood the importance of education; despite financial struggles Randhawa says that his father likely used as much as half his salary as a pharmaceutical salesman to send both him and his sister to an excellent co-ed school run by the Church of England.
“I really admired his courage, that he made sure my sister received the same education as me,” Randhawa says. “There weren’t that many co-ed schools at that time, and a lot of social pressure about not sending girls to co-ed schools.”
Randhawa went on to get his bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Engineering and Technology in Pakistan. That led to a job as an engineer with a British multinational company, which operated a chemical plant in rural Pakistan.
Randhawa says getting to his first job involved a crowded 200-mile bus trip that took six hours to stop in every tiny village along the way. During the summer, it was brutally hot.
The chemical plant, built in the 1930s next to a salt mine, produced sodium carbonate from salt, ammonia and chlorine, which was used in a range of products from steel to soap. Back then in Pakistan, there were few if any environmental regulations, and hot summer temperatures only increased the toxic gases around the plant. Randhawa soon noticed that management and engineers were housed at one end of the plant, with the shift workers housed at the other end where steady winds blew ammonia and chlorine fumes.
“That really stuck with me—I learned about unjust hierarchies in society,” Randhawa says.
Soon after he arrived, there was a need for a factory shift leader and Randhawa found himself supervising 40 to 50 people during the day and as many as 200 workers during the night shift. Randhawa had to quickly develop effective ways to deal with a wide range of people and problems. Those early leadership challenges would serve him well throughout his career.
After two years at the plant, Randhawa had saved enough money for his long-held dream of studying overseas. He had developed an interest in systems engineering— which includes design and management of complex systems—and selected a graduate program in Industrial Engineering at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
He completed his master’s degree in Industrial Engineering at OSU, followed by a doctorate in Industrial Engineering at Arizona State University. Randhawa’s intent was to return to work in industry; he had no interest in education as a career field and had resisted entreaties to teach at Arizona State. That was until the third year of his doctoral program when the department head he admired was facing surgery and asked Randhawa to cover for him and teach one of his classes. “I just didn’t have the heart to say no to him,” Randhawa says.
To prepare for teaching a class for the first time ever, Randhawa practiced lecturing in empty classrooms, in part to overcome his anxiety and discomfort at speaking in front of a class. But the actual experience of teaching surprised Randhawa—he enjoyed it. “That got me going in my teaching career,” he says, adding that he learned from the experience to “never say no until you have tried something new; sometimes in life, you just need to face and overcome your fears.”
That new willingness to try new things led Randhawa to a career in higher education at Oregon State University, including as professor; head of OSU’s Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering; associate dean for Operations in the College of Engineering; interim dean of the College of Business; vice provost for Academic Affairs and International Programs and then, for 11 years, as OSU’s provost and chief operating officer.
As provost, Randhawa was the second-ranking administrator at OSU, responsible for academic, research and many other facets of the large public research university with 30,000 students. While he was provost, overall OSU enrollment, including underrepresented minorities and international students, surged. OSU made significant investments in tenure-track faculty hiring; established an accredited public health program; developed OSU-Cascades, the university’s branch campus in Bend; and the university’s first comprehensive fund-raising initiative brought in over $1 billion.
This summer, OSU President Edward J. Ray praised Randhawa for his contributions to the university: “Sabah blends skill and efficiency with fairness and personal compassion, and he’s left a lasting mark on OSU.”
A family person
While a faculty member at Arizona State University in 1986, Randhawa was introduced to his future wife, Uzma Ahmad, through their parents, who knew each other.
“We felt mutual attraction for each other, I think,” says Randhawa.
That led to a long-distance courtship, Randhawa in Oregon and Ahmad in Pakistan. Decades before the Internet and Skype, they used old-fashioned communications methods – the phone and letters.
“I still give Uzma a hard time that I would have bought a house earlier if I hadn’t been spending $1,000 a month on phone bills calling her,” says Randhawa, laughing.
“I always tell him, you are smart if you invest in relationships,” Ahmad says. “Investing in relationships enriches life.”
Like Randhawa, Ahmad is highly educated, including master’s degrees in Psychology from Pakistan and in Counseling from Oregon State University. She has 25 years of experience working in mental health, specializing in building resilience in children and families. For instance, for several years, she directed the DHS Family Sexual Abuse Treatment Program in Albany, Oregon, planning treatment and training therapists to support abused children and their non-offending parents.
“Uzma is a lovely person—inside and out. Very caring, just deeply connects with people, and is genuinely interested in others,” Randhawa says.
Ahmad describes her husband as “a caring, family person who works very hard, and even though work is very important to him, I know that he is there for us.” She added that Randhawa is well-organized: “He manages his time very effectively.” “I have a bad reputation at home,” Randhawa confesses. “If they can’t find something, they think that I must have organized it off someplace.”
They have a daughter, Tanya Randhawa, who will graduate in 2016 from Oregon State University in Digital Communications. Ahmad says that a close-knit family has been very important to them. “In spite of our busy schedules,” she says, “we always managed to regularly have home-cooked dinners together as a family.”
They have tried to make sure Tanya learned important family values from them through the years. “We emphasized with her to be a good person at heart, to honor and respect other people, and the value of hard work, and to be honest with others and with oneself, which brings satisfaction to your core,” Ahmad says.
Both Randhawa and Ahmad value the richness and humility that comes from understanding different cultures, values and perspectives. They say that this has been important in their own personal lives and in Tanya’s development, including her participation in a study abroad program.
“Long before getting into administration, Uzma and I served as co-presidents of OSU’s Crossroads International Program,” Randhawa says. “We hosted a number of students from different countries as part of a home-stay program; those interactions were powerful learning experiences.”
An excellent university with enormous potential
The idea of educational opportunity has permeated Randhawa’s entire career; in fact that was one of Randhawa’s attributes that most impressed Western’s presidential search committee.
“As we considered Sabah for Western’s president, one quality stood out – his strong focus on student success, and his belief in the importance of higher education opening doors of opportunity to people from all walks of life,” says Sue Sharpe, chair of Western’s Board of Trustees and chair of the university’s search committee.
While Western’s campus community evaluated Randhawa, he and Ahmad were doing the same for Western, and they liked what they saw.
“Western is a place that really cares for students and that showed through and through,” Randhawa says. “The right fit was really critical for us. Both Uzma and I felt this was a place we could call home.”
Randhawa succeeds former President Bruce Shepard, who retired after eight years as WWU president. Since he started Aug. 1 there’s been a steep learning curve, meeting with students, faculty, staff, alumni, the governor, legislators, and many more. Randhawa is listening and learning.
The new president says Western is an excellent university with enormous potential. At a packed Opening Convocation in September, Randhawa outlined some of his observations about Western and his hopes for the future. His talk touched on the importance of advancing inclusive excellence, supporting student success, closing the achievement gap for students from diverse and first-generation backgrounds, encouraging students’ global knowledge for a rapidly changing world and serving the state and region through outreach and partnerships. The audience of faculty and staff responded to his remarks with a standing ovation.
A systems engineer by training, Randhawa enjoys “intentionally helping institutions and organizations evolve and grow” and he is encouraging a robust strategic planning process at Western to further reimagine and guide Western’s continued transformation.
“Plans do not produce results. People do,” Randhawa says. “It’s all about having people who are supportive of the mission of the university and then caring about them and mentoring them in their success.”
As he begins his tenure as Western’s next president, Randhawa is full of optimism about new emerging opportunities for the university.
“Western should be proud of where they have been. Excellence is a journey and to sustain and build on that requires continuous work and effort. We are either moving up or we are moving down, relative to the world around us,” Randhawa says.
“What I am most excited about is trying to find out, on this ‘excellence ladder,’ what the next step for Western is,” he says, “and how we get from where we are to that future point of our shared aspirations.
“I have learned that successful organizations, while being effective in the present, bring a focus to the future,” he says. “Understanding that possibility gap and ensuring that Western is well positioned for the future will be a critical element of our strategic planning effort.”
While he collaboratively works with the campus to position Western for the future, Randhawa’s strong interest in providing bright futures for all students is evident in his leadership. “I want the chance to create opportunities for others,” Randhawa says, “as opportunities were created for me, by so many others.”