Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard announced on Thursday, June 11, his plans to retire after the upcoming 2015-2016 academic year. Shepard has been the university’s president since 2008, and is institution’s 13th president. The Western Front recently sat down with Shepard to talk about his time with the university and his future plans.
Q: Why is now the time to move on?
A: It’s a variety of factors. One is that there’s a lot of research that shows that seven to nine years is about the right time for a person to serve as a president. That view is held most strongly by those who’ve served 12-15 years. They realize as they look back that you start to get in the way. When you come in, you really have new ideas, you can help, and then you get vested in those ideas. It’s time for someone else to come in and take a critical look at them.
My wife and I want to go do other things. We aren’t moving on to another job, but we’ll both stay involved in higher ed.
Q: Is there anything that you set out to do that you think you’ve really accomplished?
A: Universities are complex organizations with lots of people, so a president doesn’t accomplish anything on their own, and I would never claim anything is an accomplishment of mine.
I came in here and I met with all of the faculty and staff, and I said I’ll meet with everybody who works with the university, a lot of student groups as well. I heard what the university’s agenda was and the first and foremost is they really wanted to open up decision making. All these things emerged, so that then became the agenda. People would ask me, “what’s your vision for the university?” And I’d say, “well if I have one, it’s really irrelevant. That doesn’t really matter.” The question is, what’s a university’s vision for itself?
When I got here, my biggest surprise was how little regard there was for higher education down in Olympia. In fact, higher ed was seen as part of the problem, it was seen as elitist, removed, irrelevant to the people of the state of Washington. So we set out an agenda to really turn that around and it really has. About two years ago, the legislature started reinvesting in higher education.
Q: Do you have a favorite memory of your time at Western?
A: The times to reflect on that will come. What I’m focused on is a busy year ahead and I really haven’t thought about that. I know the best times always involve people, and in my case always involve students. You get in this line of work because you love being with students.
My wife and I use a lot of different opportunities to get students to our house to celebrate and enjoy their company. Those are the memories I enjoy most. Any student group who wins something significant on campus comes to the house for dinner.
Q: How do you want to focus the university in your last year? Are there any other issues you want to tackle?
A: I’ve asked a variety of groups to help me understand what needs to be our focus next year. I use the opening convocation talk as my chance to bring together the thinking of the campus and share it. Certainly, the search for the next president is going to be very important. I have nothing to do with who that’s going to be, but our trustees will go through a process asking not who should the next president be, but who should the next Western be? Over the next five years, what should the priorities be? That’s a process of consulting, there’s going to be a lot of discussions with faculty, staff, students and alumni about this.
Q: Speaking of your convocation speech, you use that every year to talk about a lack of diversity on campus. How has diversity at Western changed in the time you’ve been here?
A: It’s changed a lot. We have made substantial progress in seeing the campus enriched by diversity. Each incoming class of first-year students is more diverse than the one that has preceded it. We still have progress to make in closing the gap. If you look at the percentage of high school graduates in the state of Washington by race and ethnicity and look at our incoming class, we’re lagging about seven percentage points behind there. So there’s always opportunities to make more progress and I think that will continue.
I really wanted to start conversations. This is talking about a need to have a different climate on campus, a more open and accepting climate.
Q: What about divestment? That’s an issue that people have been very vocal about, especially very recently on campus. How do you want to focus the university on that aspect?
A: First, I deeply appreciate all of the good work our students are doing to push that issue. I respect it greatly and we will fully protect their rights to demonstrate.
When it comes to divestment, as far as a university president I have a real easy job because this university doesn’t own a single share of stock. There’s nothing to divest. That’s the complication that people don’t always think through when it comes to the university president’s role. Big universities own stocks, the Stanfords, and the UWs. We’re a small operation so we don’t do that. We don’t even own mutual funds. We set up a foundation that is entirely separate from the university to do that. So I don’t have any control over that at all. Instead, what I do have responsibility is what we are doing to make meaningful change with climate change.
What can we be doing as a university? We have an admirable record here as a university when it comes to issues of sustainability and environmental issues. Other universities around the country seem to have come to this very late. It’s something that has been part of Western going back decades. And so what I’ve tried to do since I’ve been here, certainly in recent years, is keep our focus on what additionally we can be doing at the university to make significant change. It includes our own practices.
I just love that three years ago our custodians won the national award for green cleaning. I thought that was really cool. The whole university is involved in these sorts of things. Our practices and how we use energy always have us at the top of EPA’s list of universities when it comes to green universities. But also in terms of our academic programing and what we do, I’m very proud of our energy studies program which we got started here with a lot of help from faculty and students, and the outside with the corporate sector that got that going.
Q: Can you talk about the selection process for the new president?
A: It really is true that our Board of Trustees is 100 percent responsible for that and in control of that. These decisions take about two years. About a year ago I let the board know for sure to count on 2015-2016 being my last year, so they’ve been studying and talking to experts and figuring that out. The way they work across the country is that there’s a search and screen committee that will include some trustees, students, faculty, staff and community representative. They will go through and first conduct these conversations that I was talking about. Where does the university want to be? And they have to do a lot of consulting. One of the things that will come out of that then is a position description, but also what’s called a case statement. This is used to advertise a position, but it could be eight pages long of the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and challenges for the next president.
This will be, among state colleges and universities, the premier job opening in the nation. I’m confident of this over the next year or so. The question won’t be of finding strong candidates, the question will be of making sure we know what it is we need. There’s also a search-consulting firm that will be picked out. That’s one reason why I announced early because that’s about a 60-day process. We need to have that in place before things can really get going in September.