At the end of the academic year, Western will say goodbye to university president Bruce Shepard as he retires. Until then, he plans on using his remaining time to continue pushing issues that he is passionate about.
This year, Shepard looks to better the campus social climate for a diverse body and to address learning issues in the classroom—both through the use of empathy in the campus community.
In September’s opening convocation, Shepard spoke of the need to address the issues of trigger warnings, as well as power and privilege, in the learning environment.
“Our campus climate as viewed by women, LGBTQ colleagues and people from racial ethnic minorities is experienced very differently than those of us who are in the majority,” Shepard said.
Compared to similar universities, Western’s social climate is average.
“That’s just not good enough for Western,” Shepard said. “We need to be better.”
Reconciling the need for a comfortable campus environment with freedom to confront sensitive topics is challenging, but important. Shepard suggests empathy can help to balance the social and academic constraints of these issues.
Having empathy and respect for colleagues allows us to understand their perspectives and address issues without overstepping lines and causing people pain, he said.
Empathy is also a practical skill professionally, Shepard said. Corporations look for empathy in new employees because they need people who work well in diverse groups, can put themselves in other people’s shoes, and who are willing to listen.
Initially, Shepard was planning to quiet his views in discussions this year, as he wouldn’t be here long enough to help develop solutions. However, the board of trustees encouraged him to continue pushing topics he cares about, Shepard said.
“I’m known for times of opening my mouth and saying controversial things,” Shepard said. “If I can get things stirred up, I don’t know exactly how it’s going to work out, but I know it’s going to be healthy in the long run to have had these discussions.”
There’s still a university to run and objectives to move forward, Shepard said.
Now he intends to prioritize objectives that will smooth the transition and help the incoming president succeed.
In the search for the next president, the university will first need to determine what its priorities are and where it wants to be in upcoming years, Shepard said. Then, based on those decisions, the board of trustees can find a suitable candidate.
Western’s board of trustees will also ensure candidates are compatible with certain existing university values, including open and transparent decision making, sustainability and diversity.
Shepard said he chose now to retire because research shows that about seven to nine years is the ideal length of time for a university president to hold their position. After that, a person becomes vested and may start to get in the way.
“It’s a good time to bring in another president. I really believe it’s good for Western,” he said.
Shepard and his wife Cyndie plan to retire near family in California. He has no specific plans for future work or projects, but Shepard said he is confident he will find opportunities to stay busy.
The Shepards will remain involved in higher education and plan to visit Western for special occasions.
Although he has planned his exit to avoid getting in the way of his successor, Shepard has also offered to lend a hand.
“I’m always available to help the new president in any way,” he said.