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Saturday, May 8, 2021

Q&A with President Randhawa

Sabah Randhawa became became Western’s new president on Aug. 1. Randhawa spoke to The Western Front about his visions for Western in the future, as well as his knowledge from being the provost and executive vice president at Oregon State University.

President Sabah Randhawa speaks his thoughts about the university in his office, Monday, Oct. 10. // Photo by Caleb Albright.
President Sabah Randhawa speaks his thoughts about the university in his office, Monday, Oct. 10. // Photo by Caleb Albright.

Q: How did you hear about the opening for the position at Western, and why did you decide to apply?

A: I saw the advertisement in The Chronicle, but I was first contacted about the position by the search firm that was assisting the university. They contacted me, and I said, ‘I’ll think about it.’ The only reason I would apply is if I’m really interested in something. So I thought about it long and hard. What intrigued me about the position was the focus on students, not just in the position description, but also as I started digging about the university on the web and information that is published nationally. The fact the success rate of students is higher than the home institution I was at at the time, and we had struggled with [that]. That is a major research university; it’s higher than most of the universities here in Washington. So, I was really impressed with that, and I thought an institution with about 15,000 students that can have this level of success with students, certainly is worth taking a look at. If nothing else, I’ve learned about the models the university is using that can benefit me no matter where I am. So, that is what got me going initially.

Q: In your convocation address you mention “three important reflections” the first being “to appreciate and be proud of Western’s success.” What do you define as the success of Western so far?

A: The first thing to me is around students. Before I came what I looked at was the numbers, and they were quite impressive. But I think once I came here and got to talk with the students and with the community inside the university and outside, what also really impressed me was how much of a caring attitude the community has, not just about students but about the community itself. And really I heard so many stories where you know, people stayed with the university and graduated because someone really cared for them. That cultural part of it, if you would, is hard to tell from websites. It’s hard to tell from written material and even though the presidential profile said that it’s a caring community, you take it on faith and the only way you know is if you have been at the place.

The other thing that surprised me that I was not well aware of before coming here was that outside Bellingham, Western has a number of touch points that really provide education opportunities and pathways for students that may not be possible otherwise.

The Western programs in Anacortes, Everett and other places and again that wasn’t something I was unfamiliar with and so that’s something that I think the institution really needs to be proud of in terms of what they have done.

Lastly, I would say in many ways the most important thing is the quality of education. One can look at numbers and that’s great, we are graduating ‘x’ percent of students and so on, but I am really impressed with the learning environment and the quality of education graduating from the institution and so many are external alumni, employers speak so highly of Western graduates so to me that is something that we really need to be proud of.

Q:What do you envision for the future of Western in the next year?

A: Yeah, good question. Something that of course I’ve been thinking about a lot, and you know some of it, just in terms of the long term direction needs to build on the strength of the university where we are. As I said, there is a lot to be proud of from that particular perspective. At one level I am starting the process to work with the faculty and with the students and the community, just in terms of long term where do we envision ourselves. But over the next year, which is really your question, two or three things are really critical to me, and  I really believe in the need to be apart of the long term too, so they are not separate from it. One is this whole notion of what I call ‘inclusive excellence,’ but I could describe it different ways, and to me there are three elements and really builds on the strength of the institution. How do we increase the graduation rates from where we are? It’s wonderful to be at 72-73 percent, when nationally we are at about 55-57 percent, depending on which metrics you pick up. We are well ahead of the game, but I’d like us to be even better. If you make a commitment for a student to come to Western, I think we should do whatever we can to ensure that they graduate from Western. So how do we move the 73 percent to 80 percent and beyond? And to do it so that we do it for all students. So we eliminate one of the key problems that has plagued higher education in the United States, and that is the achievement gap issue, with students from different backgrounds and different performance gaps, so how do we do that while at the same time really preserving the quality, which is really the brand of Western, if you would, that is so highly regarded at the same time, as we move forward. So that is one key element as we look at the future. The next year, a couple of other things, though I suspect you may have other questions on these issues in any case, just the issue of diversity, both domestic diversity, but also more global diversity, and how do we advance that? And then, one of the key things we have in front of us is the legislative sessions getting started in a few weeks time. Maybe it’s sort of started in some ways because all the legwork is already happening. So we have some priorities that we are advancing for the university, and really a lot of them have to do with student success and I would be glad to share them with you if you haven’t seen it, but how do we make a good case for those priorities knowing that it is going to be a tough legislative session, not just for Western, but for higher education, because of McCleary and a bunch of other things that are on the table.  

Q: Where does Western not meet the exemplar standards among other higher education institutions, and how do you foresee changing that?

A: Well, that’s a good question and you know, in many ways, as I said, everything is relative. If you look at the four-year institution writ large across the united states, again depending on which particular numbers you pick up, in four-year institutions the six-year graduation rate is about anywhere from 53-57 percent and that is you know, one in two. Western is about 72 or so, I think. It has been fairly consistent at that level, so it’s not that it’s a one year phenomena. I believe that it has been 71, 72, 73 percent for a few years, which is really great. So if you compare ourselves with that, it’s great. I come from a research university, and their six-year graduation rate was about 63-64 percent, which I believe is the same at Washington State, and outside the University of Washington I think all the other Washington public universities are anywhere from 54-65 percent. The University of Washington is one which is about 82 or so. But I think the reason why I am mentioning that, and the reason why Western stands out to me, is the universities that have high graduation rates are typically more selective universities. They are taking in a group of students that are selective in terms of their preparation, in terms of the social economic background that they are coming from, and I think what is unique to me about Western is that we are not a selective university in that perspective. Our acceptance rate in terms of applications that came in last year was, I don’t know, 83 percent, or somewhere in there, which is anything but selective in many ways. So, I think the challenge that higher education faces is really being non-selective, and getting students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and then ensuring that their graduation rates are high and it is consistent across student groups. I think we have a wonderful head start from that perspective. ‘Exemplar’ is sort of a relative term, I think to me ‘exemplar’ the idea would be 90 percent, but I know going from 75 to 90, the higher up you go, the more effort it takes, but I think at least matching what we have in some of the more selective universities, given the open enrollment at Western, would be phenomenal. I was actually reading a piece that was written by the University of Michigan, just around this issue of student’s success and the fact that the funding for higher education has been cut across nationally. You all have seen it in Washington even though the last two years have been pretty good in terms of rolling back tuition, but there have been states that have been cut over 50 percent. Washington itself at one time was in the 40 percents, one of the highest with the state funding, and under those circumstances keeping up the profile that Western did in terms of quality and in terms of graduation rate is pretty special.

Q: Where do you see exclusion on campus, and how can students work to create a more inclusive campus?

A: So I may be better able to tell you in six months time, it’s hard for me to tell in two months. We see exclusion because a lot of times, at least in my experience, the exclusion is not so much on purpose. But in terms of how we go about doing our business, a lot of them are subtle, a lot of them are uninformed practices, not just students but really the community at large. So I think over the next few months I hope to meet with a lot of people on campus and, the intent of meeting, is to better understand sort of the culture, and the formal and informal structures, and where is it that we can really work to create a more inclusive environment.

I know that the students and the community over the past couple of years have taken a number of steps that I think really would help in creating a more inclusive environment. Starting work on the Ethnic Student Center, we have been talking about Native American outreach, and we are in the process of funding a tribal liaison position that would help in that particular regard. We have had a number of equity open forums to engage the faculty, students and staff in those forums. So I think we have a number of steps that we are taking.

I’m sure you have heard the term ‘microaggression’ that means that things happen and people don’t even realize what they are saying, but you know, to another community those terms and those languages at time is not the appropriate one to use. Part of it is how do we use this a learning and education opportunity, and I think that needs to be a continuous process because students come and go. Hopefully you all graduate in four or five years, and we have a new wave of students, so there is continuous education that needs to happen.

As for faculty transition, we hired in the past few years I think 90 new faculty. People retired, there was some new positions so there is that continuous piece too. In terms of helping the community understand the values of the institution what we are trying to do in terms of the micro causes is we would like to create that reflects sort of an environment that is inclusive, that values individuals, that is safe for everyone, including women. It is a continuous process from that particular perspective.

Q: How would you describe the racial climate on campus and what do you plan on doing to change it?

A: I know that it has been an issue, as you know, pretty much across higher education, in the United States, not just at Western

It’s hard to say. On the surface, it seems much better than what is has been described over the past two years. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have issues that we need to address in the longer term, efforts that we need to make. But again, the climate is something that is continuously evolving, and a lot of times there are forces outside the university that impact us. The national election, the debate that is going on there, is one example, but not the only one. So it is something that we need to continuously monitor as we go forward in terms of the campus climate and how people emotionally and intellectually perceive it. … But, something that hopefully in my conversations over the next few months, it’s something at the top of my list. I’ve been meeting with a lot of people just to basically ask ‘where do you think the campus climate is? … We are working with Stephanie in the AS board to schedule some student forums to get their take about their experiences at Western, and also about the climate at the institution and how can we help improve it.

Q: Are there any particular departments or programs you would like to see grow?

A: Well, I don’t know well enough but I can tell you a few programs that I have visited that I have been very impressed with, and also a few programs that I have heard from the governor and the legislators that they would like Western to grow, sort of as a lead into your question.

So, in my conversation with the governor and the legislators, the two areas that continuously come up are STEM related, and education, just in terms of building the pipeline K-12. Western has always been a leader in teacher education so that is something that always comes up. As I said, our STEM education in the state and certainly at Western comes up.

Another area that comes up quite a bit is our Institute for Energy Studies. It is again something in terms of energy policy, as well as just in energy technology something that has been brought up, the potential of, and it is a multidisciplinary sort of activity that includes a number of different colleges and again we would be happy to provide you with more information because I am still learning myself. I know Fairhaven is involved, science and engineering is involved, business and economics is involved. I visited last week and met with the faculty at Fairhaven College and I was really impressed with the interdisciplinary focus of that college. To me I think, if I were to step back from everything and look at it, if you look at all the problems we are facing today and you can pick any of them, health, climate change, energy, these are all problems that require interdisciplinary approaches. I think you do need discipline specific strengths but at the same time you need people who can bring those strengths together to try and solve problems. I think to answer your question in a long way, what I am excited about is the collaborated culture that exists at Western, and how can we use that fully to address the long term global and societal problems in a much more integrated way. I was so impressed visiting Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes, and again it was that interdisciplinary approach to some of the marine issues that we are facing, marine life. So to me, even if discipline specific things that connections that a strong liberal arts education builds becomes so critical once you are off for a few years working at an industry.

Q:Have you considered reinstating the football team?

A: Not for too long, but I’ll tell you the answer of it. I don’t think we are going to go there. Just to put everyone’s mind to rest, there are a lot of other really, both challenging and exciting opportunities ahead of us, and I would rather put our focus and energy, in terms of moving us forward, from student success, to interdisciplinary programs, so the impact we are having. And we have some great teams already, so let’s make sure they continue to be successful.

Q:  After being the provost at Oregon State University, what will you bring to Western from that experience? What will you be doing differently from your time at Oregon State?

A: One thing I have reflected on, and I have shared with other people is that certainly being the provost for almost a dozen years, I learned a lot. But I also believe that what you learn at one institutional place you can’t just take it and put it in another place and hope that it works because cultures are different, context is different, history is different. What I think is important is the lessons learned from those experiences and so to me, my own focus, passion, however you would like to call it, is around student success and around elimination of achievement gaps, and you know something that really evolved for a number of years having observed that at another major institution. Oregon State is a very different institution; it is a research institution. The intent is by no means to make Western that, because I’ve seen too many institutions that try and play someone else’s game and lose their own uniqueness in that process. I do think that what research teaches you is that innovation that comes with that. I think being nimble, being innovative, being open to looking at new emerging opportunities for the institution within the areas that we are successful have a lot to do with it. That is something I took away from my experience over there. The other thing I took away from my experience at OSU was that it was a land grant, and you may already know this, but land grants were created in ‘68, and really the intention was to make education accessible to people who didn’t have access to education at the time. The second reason they were created was because at that time our economy was primarily agriculture, it was for universities to understand the issues the economy was facing and then help solve it. So it puts that impact on the community. That again is a take away, as I said earlier, taking a look at the Western work in different locations. I was so excited about it, because that outreach work is so critical. So there are two or three things that we impact. One is to our graduates, and that is the biggest contribution that we make to society. The other way we interact is by understanding what the problems of our communities are, and using faculty’s creative minds and creative work to help solve them. So that is something that I am really excited about. The last thing I would say is how do we increase our partnerships? Even if we wanted to do everything we just don’t have the resources to do it. So how do we increase our partnership with community colleges, with other four-year universities to advance the university.

Q: How has being a first-generation student shaped you, and what do you plan on doing to ensure graduation for first-generation students?

A: You know, we will have to get a cup of coffee for me to tell you. I would say that the one thing, just observing my own parents and their struggles, as you can well imagine, taught me a lot, that if I am going to create a different future, education has to be apart of it. I was really blessed that even though my parents, one of them didn’t finish high school and the other just finished high school, that at least they were supportive of my education because I know a lot of situations where families don’t realize the value of education. At least they recognized from their own struggles the value of education. So as I said, in other settings before, I really owe my career to education. It would not have happened otherwise, and I have been really blessed from that particular perspective. And to me, I didn’t even want to get into education as a career, and I’ll tell you about that sometime, but one of the reasons that has really excited me about the education career is the opportunity to help create those opportunities for others, that were created for me by others. So again, in our earlier conversation around students and student success and eliminating achievement gaps. There are some cases where it is in the best interest of a student that maybe they would be better off going to a community college for a year or two before they come to Western. I think it is important that we provide that direction, but by and large once we get a student here that we do what we can to ensure that they are successful.



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