When Bruce Shepard started as Western’s 13th president in the fall of 2008, he soon made clear his leadership style — listening to others and asking questions before collectively setting the university on a particular course.
In conversations both on campus and off, Shepard learned how prized Western was to so many; from them he also learned they wanted to see an engaged university making a difference in their community, state and world.
Now, full circle, as Shepard and his wife Cyndie retire from Western at the end of June, that shared vision for Western is being realized.
Cyndie Shepard started the highly regarded Compass to Campus mentoring program at Western, pairing university students with children at schools throughout Whatcom and Skagit counties. Thousands have been helped by the program whose ultimate goal is to inspire those children, many from homes where higher education is not an aspiration, to succeed in school and with their lives.
For Bruce Shepard, the timing for the start of his presidency in 2008 was inauspicious, begun as the worst economic recession in decades took hold across the nation. Facing dramatic state budget cuts, Shepard’s leadership fostered a bottom-up, transparent process that brought the entire campus into the fold of tough university budget-cutting decisions. With such broad participation, Western protected its academic core and excellence. Not only did the university weather the Great Recession, but it looked for even more ways to make significant differences, across a whole host of programs, research, partnerships and collaborations.
In that spirit, here are some examples of what Western has accomplished — together — during Shepard’s presidency.
The Western Stands for Washington Campaign
Thanks to 21,700 donors, Western’s largest-ever comprehensive fundraising campaign passed its $60 million goal seven months ahead of schedule and is now closing in on $63 million. With more than 100 new endowments and a doubling of the amount of funding for scholarships, the campaign will benefit Western students and faculty for generations. See our special centerfold section to learn more about how the Western Stands for Washington campaign is making changes across campus.
Since 2008, Western officials have signed 22 new international agreements with universities abroad, including those in Africa, Asia, Europe and Central and South America. Shepard traveled to Korea, Japan, Mongolia and China to sign half of the agreements himself. This spring, a faculty member from the National University of Mongolia has come to Western to teach Mongolian language and culture, thanks in part to Shepard’s visit to Mongolia. And the number of students studying abroad is going up — along with the number of international students coming to Western.
Education and Social Justice
Right before the first day of his first fall quarter at Western, Bruce Shepard told staff and faculty in his 2008 convocation remarks that higher education was in a period of major transition and transformation that inevitably threatened the status quo. “We will be changed,” he said. “With foresight, we will lead in changing the society we exist to serve. But, not without also changing ourselves.” Since then, Western has increasingly become a school of choice for students of color, including
25 percent of today’s student body. And in the last five years, the gap between white students and students of color in freshman-to-sophomore retention has virtually disappeared. Shepard’s unapologetic support for diversity has made national news — such as when he canceled classes one day last November after WWU students of color were targeted by threatening language on social media. “On behalf of Western I apologize to our students, faculty, and staff of color,” Shepard said to a gathering a few days later. “It should not have taken an incident such as this for all of us to recognize and empathically understand their experiences.” Meanwhile on campus, faculty, staff and students work toward breaking down barriers. The work continues.
Before the state’s voters approved it in 2012, Shepard told the state Legislature that, while students, faculty and staff held a variety of opinions on the issue, marriage equality would improve the university’s ability to recruit and retain outstanding faculty and staff. Shepard also wrote in a blog post that it can be easy to forget how privileged he is to not worry about who sees him kiss his wife when they arrive on campus first thing in the morning. “A hostile environment is real, ugly, and damaging,” he wrote. “It is another and very real limitation on our effectiveness as a place for inquiry and learning.”
Since 2010, the second weekend in May has been the biggest community party on Western’s campus, with Back2Bellingham. Not only that, but Western has extended its reach throughout the Puget Sound with new partnerships with Olympic College in Poulsbo and Port Angeles, while continuing as the leading provider of higher ed services at University Center in Everett. Western also strengthened connections to neighborhood groups, continued its involvement in Bellingham waterfront redevelopment and set up offices in downtown Bellingham and Seattle to make it easier to connect with community members.
More STEM degrees
Since 2008, Western’s STEM degree production has increased by 50 percent, including a tripling in the number of Computer Science degrees. Meanwhile, Western’s well-regarded Engineering Technology programs have transitioned to Engineering, providing more opportunities for graduates — and the businesses that employ them.
Navigating Western through state budget crises
The Great Recession left its mark on Western, including double-digit tuition increases. But thanks to a team approach among students, faculty, staff, unions and alumni, Western was better able to withstand the cuts and prevent future budget cuts. Western was even able to attract new state funding for Computer Science and Engineering. As Shepard told faculty and staff in 2011, “I saw more clearly than ever what I think most unites us in the face of potentially divisive challenges: We all deeply care about Western students and the quality and completeness of their Western education.”
Looking out for faculty and staff
Raising salaries during tough budget times might seem counterintuitive — and even evoked the very public wrath of former Gov. Christine Gregoire in 2012. But as Shepard told faculty and staff the following year, “Western’s strength is its people.” Competitive compensation, including a living wage for Western’s lowest-paid workers, has remained a top legislative priority.
Institute for Energy Studies
The pioneering program launched in 2012, with significant input from industry leaders who say these are the graduates the state needs, offers one of the nation’s first comprehensive bachelor’s degree programs combining science, technology, economics, business management, politics and public policy to prepare students to become leaders in the state’s new energy economy. The first graduates are already at work.