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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Sit down with Sabah: A Q&A with President Randhawa

President Sabah Randhawa discusses the RA concerns in an interview with The Western Front on April, 13. // Video by Jonathan Pendleton

The Western Front interviewed President Sabah Randhawa on April 13. Read Randhawa’s thoughts on STEM funding, RA concerns, anti-Semitism and other campus and national issues.

Q: You are about to experience your first full spring in Bellingham. What is something you are excited for?

A: The first thing I’m really excited about is what you were talking about a minute ago, a group of 190 potential students with their families here on campus. It’s great to see the next generation of students interested in higher education and interested in Western.

I am also really excited to have the biggest cohort graduate since I came here, in a few weeks time. So that will be wonderful from that particular perspective.

Then I am really excited to see Carver [Gym] finally coming to a conclusion here, as it is really going to add significant capacity both in terms of academic programs, but also through many of our athletic programs. There is a lot to be really excited about here.

Q: You sent a recent email informing the student body about future budgeting plans to increase funds for STEM classes as one of your main priorities. How is that going?

A: Part of it is STEM, coming in looking at our academic enterprise. But I think it’s more than STEM. There are other areas where we have some significant bottlenecks; for example, psychology and kinesiology.

The other thing is that it’s always difficult to staff in the middle of the year. It’s in many ways sort of patchwork. We try to find the best instructor for the courses we can, and in fact we have invested some money for primarily non-tenured track instructors to come and teach courses in various disciplines.

But now that we have a much better idea of where things are, I think starting next year we will make permanent investments in faculty to start addressing systemic issues in many of these courses.

I think it’s absolutely critical for a number of reasons, and I can spend a lot of time talking about them. But I think it’s critical because it adds on to time for graduation.

Students want to spend time because they want to take courses and explore other things. That’s wonderful. But they shouldn’t be spending time because they are locked out of getting into a chemistry course or a psychology course. We owe it to you folks, that you’re trusting us and spending so much money to make sure…

The other thing is that because of limitations that have evolved over the past several years since the great recession, academic units have been almost forced into caps for majors, so only taking a certain number of students into chemistry or electrical engineering.

I don’t believe in caps. I think if a student is interested in coming to Western to study a particular discipline, we should do whatever we can to provide that opportunity.

The other thing in terms of permanent funding is that hopefully we can start getting away from those caps and provide opportunities to students who want to study those disciplines.

I think, it’s not just public but also legislative, one of the harder things to communicate is that at times the caps in say, computer science or engineering, is not so much in terms of those disciplines, it’s because chemistry doesn’t have enough seats or we don’t have enough labs. Or with mathematics we need more instructors.

So it’s really some of those key foundational courses in the basic sciences, in the biological sciences, and in some cases in humanities and in GURs. It’s trying to make sure that we balance the capacity increase in computer science, or what have you, with the capacity in the foundational courses.

Q: How will this ultimately lead to specific student success in the future?

A: To me there are two things. One, increasing the capacity and trying to eliminate the caps, I think is important. Particularly if you think about the growth that is happening between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C, the economy is in many ways booming. As you know there is so much pressure on all our institutions to produce more graduates just because the society and the economy needs it.

The other piece as I said is the time to graduation. We should do what we can to keep that to four years, or a little above fours years because education is expensive. The more time students spend, it’s not just that they are spending money, but there is also an opportunity lost for not earning money.

Q: In that email you also addressed you intended to “promote diversity, equity and inclusion” all over campus. What are your hopes for the campus community to make this a reality for all students?

A: When I think about promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, there are two or three things that are absolutely critical.

One is outcomes. We need to deliver on outcomes as Western is in higher ed. I talk about outcomes particularly when it relates to students and talking about the access and providing access to a diversified student body at Western.

And once they are here to ensure they are successful, and to ensure that every student, or every group of students who come in have the same opportunity to be successful and that we don’t have gaps among students and student groups.

The other thing that I think is important has a more cultural element to it. So you have the ends, but also the means to the ends. As you know educational institutions are really transient in some ways. You have 3000 students coming in each year, 3000 students leaving. We have faculty and staff, hiring new people all the time, people who retire or leave the institution.

So how do we create a culture where there are strong institutional ethos around diversity, around inclusion, around equity? That we have the support systems. We have had previous incidences in the past, and in the near future, so how do we set up a support structure so that students do feel supported when they are here?

Students come here from all sorts of communities. They come from small communities, where, coming to Bellingham is like coming to Los Angeles. They come from first generation groups, they come from identity groups that feel uncomfortable being in a different place.

So there is no one yardstick in terms of trying to address all those issues, but trying to look at each student as they come in and what structure we set in place is absolutely critical.

I was with a group of alumni yesterday, and these are also members of the foundation board. One of the things that we were talking about which I think is really exciting is that how do we connect alumni from the day we admit a student? Both in terms of role models, like, ‘Look, we have graduated from here, we are successful, this is the type of work we are doing, this is our journey.’ But also in terms of providing the support structure.

Coming to a four-year [university] is pretty overwhelming, and if it can get students to get through the first year or two I think it builds confidence. Part of it is also, in thinking about it with them, is how do we use some of our external resources to help students be more comfortable as they are transitioning into Western.

Q: Do you find that there is lack of retention rate for students of different ethnicities? Is that an issue that needs to be solved?

A: I think the first year retention rate across different ethnic groups, there isn’t that much disparity. It’s pretty close, I think if I recall correctly it’s between 76 and 83 percent. There are gaps, but not as much.

Interestingly, the gaps are a lot more pronounced in the graduation rates. The overall graduation rate from the university is about 70 percent. But I think the variation is somewhere between 56 to 75 percent.

It’s an interesting issue because that’s one of the things that the University is trying to look at, is that typically if you look at history, the way it goes is that students who drop out, if the retention is say 80 percent, most of the students essentially drop out in the first year.

Then beyond that there is some attrition within the sophomore year. The first year retention is pretty good overall. So something is happening between the first year and beyond that. We need to unpack that a little bit. What is it that is causing more attrition in the upper-division? What is it that’s causing people to not complete their education?

Q: What will you be doing to address anti-Semitism on campus specifically? When can we expect to see the recommendations from the task force? What are they recommending?

A: The task force, two to three weeks ago submitted their final report. They started working on it almost about nine months to a year ago. I was commenting with the chair of the taskforce, and I think overall they did a tremendous job of looking at history and making recommendations.

So the first thing is that we will get the recommendations out to campus very shortly. Part of the reason I have been waiting is that I wanted to meet with the task force just to thank them and just to make sure that I fully understand what the recommendations are, but we intend to get them out.

It’s a big report. The two or three things they really talked about that I think just really resonated with me… one was having really clear institutional policies and values that are continuously articulated from top down across the board.

The second thing that resonated with me was being really transparent about any incidents that happen and the protocol to deal with those incidents.

The third thing was the need for focused and continuous education and training. This goes back to the issue that students come and go, and faculty and staff come and go. How do we make sure that we are continuously doing that?

The fourth thing was making sure that it’s not just an administrative thing, that it’s a continuous community engagement if you would. A community dialogue and discourse in terms of talking about anti-Semitism, talking about it’s history and talking about the impact on human beings.

I think that they have some excellent recommendations to deal with the anti-Semitism issue, but also really to think in terms of how to use the same approach as we talk about other forms of discrimination and bias and hatred on campus.

The other thing I really liked about the task force was they finished by saying that we recommend that here are the two offices who will be put in charge of facilitating the implementation. A lot of times a task force will come back with the recommendation and then, now what? Who’s going to do it? Where it falls off is that there is no one point person or point office to move it forward. And I think they recommended the EEO Office and Academic Affairs, and I think an office like the Dean of Students office in Student Affairs really do work together to advance the recommendation.

Q: Last week some of the RAs from University Residences sent out a letter addressing many issues that they are facing as employees of the university. What steps are university officials taking to address these issues? Specifically: compensation and mishandled harassment cases.

A: First of all I really feel bad that things have festered for that long. I think that some of the concerns, and again I’m not close to it, but certainly listening to some members of our Associated Students leadership, they should have been handled sometime back. I don’t think they are that complex of issues. Some will take longer to implement when it comes to culture and changes in the physical space, just because of the expenses and time involved.

But I think some of the other issues around compensation and job duties and how do we handle safety and just diversity protocol and education. I think we should be able to do that in short order.

One of the things that you may have noticed and what Leonard [Jones] shared with the RAs is to make sure that we have some definitive deadlines.

The people who are close to it are the ones who need to take the leadership to move this forward. I believe my role is to hold them accountable, and to make sure that we meet those deadlines and that we have progress on these issues.

And I think, as I said, with most of these issues, I think we can get them resolved before we have the new intake in Fall of ‘17. Before we start the new academic year we have the summer to work through it. I think we have the spring term to really engage with the RAs and have a dialogue with them so it’s not something that we are doing on our own.

The other thing to me, the bigger issue frankly, beyond the specific complaints or issues that have been identified, is that I want us to get to a better place around communication. At the end of the day the issue is a breakdown of communication.

If RAs feel so frustrated that they are coming to me or they are going to the AS leadership, there is some breakdown of communication between the RAs and the immediate supervisors and the leadership at University Residences.

So I think this is a great opportunity to re-establish that. I truly believe that effective relationship and communication can be established if you’re jointly working on a project rather than me lecturing you, or you lecturing me. So that is all good and well but it is really working together on something and making some progress.

Q: Any comments on the proposed state legislative budgets and their impact on higher education?

A: Based on what we know, the good news is that I’m hopeful that higher ed will not take a cut in the current environment lawmakers are struggling with K-12 and McCleary, and depending on who you talk with, $2 billion to $3 billion of shortfall.

I think that would be great. Having said that, and again they’re trying to reconcile their budgets and so on so it is a little early to say where we end up, but I would like to see some of the gaps that exist be bridged in this budget reconciliation process.

There are some major gaps that exist regarding our request for student support. All of this really was around student success at STEM capacity that we were talking about. There are some gaps around compensation for faculty and staff in order to retain them. And there are some real gaps in our request for capital budget in order to improve the facilities and so on.

And part of it is also money to help the design process for a new building. And so I am hoping that we will be able to make some progress on some of them. I know that we won’t get all of what we asked for, but no one is going to get that. But I think any progress that we make can really help.

Q: What accomplishments do you feel were made in Olympia this year?

A: The verdict is still out. Ask me the next time we meet and I can tell you exactly if we make any progress or not.

Q: What will you continue to focus on when meeting with representatives on behalf of Western in the future?

A: It’s interesting because I was talking with Steve Swan, who is the vice president for university relations and community development, and also with Becca Kenna-Schenk who is the director for government relations.

I came when the session immediately started and so I’ve spent quite a bit of time visiting with the lawmakers in their offices, but these are short meetings and you can hardly establish relationships in short meetings.

So one thing I would like to do when this session is over is to spend some time visiting them in their districts. Over the course of the next year we will not be in session, so this is a really good time to get to know them as a person, to acknowledge the work that they do, and understand the limits that they work under.

But at the same time I really think that we need to be more aggressively making a case for Western. We really have a strong case for Western and I think we are underfunded based on the quality of education that we provide and on the number of students that we educate.

We need to articulate that more consistently.

I hope that I can take the show on the road next year when they are not in Olympia and visit across the state with these individuals and try to develop some personal relationship with each one of them. There’s nothing better than to break bread with someone at a house and get to know them individually.

Q: According to data from The New York Times, around 51 percent of Western students come from households in the top 20 percent income bracket, while only around 3 percent come from the bottom 20 percent. What is Western doing to give students from families with low incomes opportunities to come to Western? What is Western doing to ensure retention and services for these students? What more can be done, especially considering Washington’s performance narrowing the gap between low and high income students, as you mentioned in your Seattle Times op ed?

A: Part of it is trying to understand where the needs are. Certainly finances are part of the equation, but I don’t think it’s all financial. I think part of it is preparation, part of it is community.

A number of students coming to our campus, because of their life circumstances, come in with mental health issues, for lack of another term. So it is a multidimensional, multi-pronged approach in terms of how do we reach out to students.

I think one of the key things that we need to beef up over the next few months is this whole area, this may not be a very good descriptor so excuse me for it, but academic analytics. It’s really trying to understand what are the barriers for each student as an individual, not as a collective. Circumstances are so different for each individual.

Our key to both attracting and retaining a diverse student body is trying to make sure that we clearly articulate, and follow through with, what are the programs we have to support students who come to Western, and how are we going to enable the success.

So both as I said earlier, focusing on outcomes with some definite goals in mind.

I would like to see over the next few years our first year retention rate for everyone to be at least 90 percent. I would like to see our graduation rate to move from 70 to at least 75 percent.

These are typical six-year graduation rates. Our four year graduation rate is about 40 percent, and I would like to see it at least 50 percent in the next few years.

So to your question, part of it is really unbundling the whole thing and not treating retention and graduation as a bundled problem, because I think if you unbundled it based on different student groups, and even based on individual students, the approach we take needs to be more personalized going forward.

In today’s world of technology I think we could do it in many ways. And I think we should also seek to see how we use technology a little bit more effectively in communicating with students. I understand that you can’t reach every student. It’s a big university and no matter how many resources we throw into it, we still can’t have enough advisors to reach every individual. But I think there are approaches looking at it more holistically, and how you use technology and visual touch in this whole process.

Q: What’s going on with waterfront development? Are you aware of the safety concerns staff in the geology department expressed to President Shepard? (In regards to liquefaction and safety in the case of natural hazards.)

A: To your first question, yes in terms of waterfront development, it’s sort of in an infancy in some ways in terms of the development process itself. But I am pleased to see it’s more a matter of timing than anything else.

Coming here and seeing that the site itself has been cleared, and all of issues regarding pollution and so on, and the Port of Bellingham has done a pretty good job taking care of it. We are just starting the conversation with the board and with the city in terms of ‘What does Western’s presence at the waterfront look like?’

Part of it is just going back to a conversation about economic development in the region. That’s why I want to really partner with the city and the county in terms of development opportunities in the area, and how Western at the waterfront plays a particular role.

I think over the next couple of years we will engage the relevant academic colleges in that particular process.

I am vaguely aware of the concerns that were raised many years ago by some of our faculty and students. Before coming here, we went through a very similar process at my previous institution in Newport.

So we were again on the coast with the fear of tsunamis, particularly if there is an earthquake. Like our facility in Anacortes, we had a facility over there and we were going to build a building, and so is it in the tsunami zone and so on.

But I think the key to the whole thing is that engineering I believe has developed to a stage that can ensure, as best as we can, safe structures. I think the engineering is out there.

A lot also depends on what we want to do. Do we want to move a bunch of students there? That’s one thing because then you have the safety of students. Or do you just want to keep the student enterprise here, and focus on some targeted programs over there? I am aware of the risks that were expressed, and were we to do something there we will make sure to use the right engineering approaches.

Q: Although there are issues present on campus which are important to discuss, there are also many positive things happening (specifically the AS campaign etc.). What are some examples that you have noticed or been involved in?

A: Certainly the campaigns for the new positions and the new constitution they have been working on. Towards the end of last term I was in a number of dinners for students receiving scholarships, and it was fabulous to sit with and meet with students from all different backgrounds and all different disciplines. It made me feel good being here, because at the end of the day, the job of our institution is to educate.

There are some great things regarding our student athletes, you know, the soccer, the men’s and women’s basketball, the rugby teams.

There are some great things in terms of what the faculty is doing. A couple of achievements just over the past week or two; I know Joseph Trimble, who is a professor in Psychology, was recognized by the American Psychological Association with the Lifetime Award for his work on really psychological and sociological research and promotion with indigenous populations which was just tremendous.

Our faculty in marine sciences, I think Suzanne Strom is the lead investigator, was part of a team that received a NSF award for almost $6 million to work on the impact of climate change on ecological systems in the gulf of Alaska. Some great things going on all around.

But I think your question really made me think a little but that we are, as an institution, a microcosm of the bigger society that we live in. There is no way that what’s happening outside doesn’t impact us, whether it’s political or socioeconomic or what have you. The key thing for me is, you certainly need to handle the issues as they arise, but in that process how do you keep your eyes on the long term? That long term really is around students and student success and student access, and how to make our programs more relevant to our communities and to our society.

I wish at times the process was linear and sequential, but the way it works is it is more iterative, more learning. You take two steps forward and a step back. I think one of the more interesting parts of that process is many times you have to unbundle what you are doing and bundle it back but in a different way. That’s a creative process, but it’s also a disruptive process, particularly if institutions or organizations have to move forward. I think those processes are really needed.

What I am trying to say is, certain issues arise because we are a part of the broader society, but at the same time how do we keep focus on the long term and how do we move our processes and systems in that regard?

There’s lots to unbundle, but that’s where the creative activity of faculty and students and staff really come in.

One of the things about educational institutions that is so great is that you have so much creative energy in one place. Where can you find 20,000 creative individuals under one roof?

Q: Is there one specific thing you could pinpoint as your favorite part of being President?

A: Absolutely. It’s sitting here and talking with students like yourself and getting to know you and see your passion and your energy.



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