August 20, 2021

Thank you for joining me this afternoon, carving time out of a busy week, and pausing to think about our year ahead. For some of you, this will be the fourth fall address you’ve heard from me, and each of those years has started differently. The format remains the same, though; as has become custom, I’ll start with prepared remarks and will gladly entertain questions afterward.

This academic year really launched for me with the Griffin Kick-Off event at the beginning of the month. Prospective undergraduate students and their families listened to a panel convened by Provost Tahmasebbi that included 3 students paired with our faculty. The students and faculty were all magnificent in conveying the value of a Westminster education and our campus experience. The students talked about switching and combining majors, from music, to public health, neuroscience, and finance. They talked about summer research, projects in the community, working collaboratively with other students, and participating in campus events. The faculty talked about their commitments to students and their learning and the integration of disciplines and experiences, and about why they chose and remain committed to Westminster College.

The Westminster commitment to facilitating student learning, success, and personal growth reflects who we are and what we do. Throughout this past week, at move-in, orientation, receptions, and events, students and parents shared their thoughts and perceptions with me, and it was truly inspiring. Some parents said they’d never been to campus and were nervous about leaving their students, but once they went through orientation, they were thrilled. They have come and found us as we are: a small, comprehensive university that combines the richness of personal mentoring, engaged classrooms, and diverse experiences often found at a residential student campus with a range of opportunities for exploration and application that rivals the best of institutions across the country.

Other parents remarked about the consistency and clarity of our communications throughout the admissions process and into the summer. Some congratulated us on our vaccine requirement. Some contrasted what we do with local public institutions. Others said they traveled for the opportunity to be at a place that emphasized opportunities to learn and grow in an environment where their students would become known and valued members of an academic community.

If you read The Forum this past week, you heard similar themes from new students. They talked about the excitement of meeting roommates, developing in-depth relationships with peer mentors and faculty, being challenged and having deep discussions, and, as one student put it, going “somewhere where there’s people coming from multiple places with varying ideas. I’m excited to have those discussions.”

Students are here for the fall term now. They will need to be tested and encouraged when they struggle, and they will need to find connections with others while developing their individual understandings of identity. They will need to be seen, and they will need to see you.

And they need to see us, as a campus, model the values that we espouse. 

One set of values involves creating a community of scholars who challenge and support each other. Most of our work at Westminster is best done when we are physically present and together. The pandemic continues to make this difficult as illness and the anxiety surrounding it persists. The delta variant has put us back in masks indoors and has us determined to mitigate its potential damage. Our K–12 educational system continues to be disrupted, magnifying and complicating risks for families. We will continue to be in pandemic-mitigation mode for the foreseeable future, which requires continued diligence and flexibility to ensure that we offer the educational experience that we promise.

Perhaps our best defenses against COVID-19, consistent with our educational promises, are vaccinations and masking. Our deadline for compliance with our vaccination mandate is October 15, but we’ve asked everyone to complete attestation forms as soon as possible and no later than next week. As of yesterday, 69% of our employees have already responded, with a 98% vaccination rate. Among students, 45% have responded so far, with a 95% vaccination rate. Combined, thus far, half of our total community remembers have completed our attestation forms, with a 96% rate of vaccination. This is great progress and should give us some measure of confidence as we continue with in-person activities and events.

Of course, vaccine hesitancy continues, and some people have good reasons for remaining unvaccinated. The attestation surveys provide directions for people seeking medical exemptions, disability accommodations, and religious accommodations, and there should be no judgment of individuals who pursue those options. People who remain unvaccinated, without seeking or receiving an exemption or accommodation, should expect to be contacted by the appropriate college office or supervisor regarding the next steps.

Members of the cabinet continue to receive daily COVID-19 updates about global, national, regional, and local trends; infection, exposure, and active case rates in our community; and immediate concerns and policy questions that need to be addressed. Our COVID-19 Work Group continues to meet weekly, providing an excellent place to gather additional information, engage in robust discussion, and recommend timely decisions. We will continue to provide regular community updates via email, social media, and our website. As long as Salt Lake County remains in high transmission, we will require masks in shared indoor spaces and support individual choices to wear them in other contexts.

The nature of work has changed, which is thrilling for some and terrifying for others. The pandemic has caused some of our staff and faculty to reassess their core values, priorities, and opportunities. We know that nationally, employee turnover is at an all-time high. It’s definitely affected Westminster, as people retire a little sooner than they thought they would, or re-evaluate their appetite for travel, or look for major changes in lifestyle or location. As some people leave, they take with them institutional knowledge and personal connections, leaving gaps of knowledge and experience. At the same time, other people continue to join our community, bringing energy, ideas, and talent. Please be generous with your patience, mentoring, and flexibility during these transitions. Several new employees started when many people were working remotely over the past year or taking a break during the summer. Think about introducing yourself and inviting someone new for a cup of coffee or stroll around campus. They need to see and be seen, too.

They are here, along with all of us, at a time of rebuilding. What we’ve managed to achieve already is incredible. We’ve been looking to the future while navigating a difficult present.

Our present is marked, of course, not only by the pandemic but also by questions about our budget and financial health. We made some pretty dramatic changes to reduce expenses and benefited from both federal relief funding and strong endowment earnings. Even so, we ended the last fiscal year with a deficit of over $3 million. Our board of trustees was nonetheless willing to support a small increase in our retirement benefit, and they have stood with us in maintaining our operations and educational purpose as we work toward a more sustainable future.

This year, we are meeting targets for graduate student enrollment and have an entering undergraduate class size similar to last year. Still, we will have fewer students overall due to graduating larger classes of the past. We aren’t likely to receive more stimulus funding or a Payroll Protection Loan (by the way, that loan has already been forgiven). We’ll carry a deficit that’s larger than last year, and it will take longer to resolve.

On the plus side, the students we’re attracting are willing to invest more in the Westminster experience, our endowment has done very well at nearly $100 million, fundraising is strong, and we have very little debt. We have a beautiful campus, and we should be creative in generating revenue by expanding the use of our facilities beyond our core academic programs.

A sustainable future will require significant improvements not only in student retention and enrollment, but also in new revenue and operational efficiencies. These are the aims of Westminster 150, with initiatives in areas such as new student advising already in motion. Our retention is improving, not just of students who were with us last year, but ones who left before the pandemic and are coming back. Our student pipeline is building, with the numbers of prospective students and inquiries already doubling for next year. We are well on the way to securing funding for an Integrated Wellness Center, having raised $6 million toward a $7.6 million goal. We are launching new programs and partnerships, and in the coming year, we will initiate a marketing campaign to expand our reach and highlight those Westminster qualities that research tells us are likely to be compelling to prospective students.

We’ve learned much in the past 18 months about flexibility, using technology to enhance education and productivity, and the benefits of moving some activities online. We were reminded that course-based instruction is not enough to fulfill the promise of a Westminster education; a collection of classes does not equal a degree. That’s why Westminster 150 is so important; it has the potential to drive revenue and bring us together around shared priorities. Over 65 faculty and staff have already been directly engaged in planning and implementation efforts, and from 50 to over 100 community members participated in a series of town halls in the spring and early summer showcasing the progress of working groups: Assemble Your Team, Ideas Into Action/Learn to Lead, Design Your Program, Integrated Wellness, and Power of Place. I know that the facilitators of Westminster 150; Debbie Tahmassebi, provost; Glenn Smith, vice president of student affairs; and Erica Johnson, vice president of enrollment; look forward to sharing more about these initiatives and ways you can be involved in the coming weeks.

We have an incredible community here, with big hearts, sharp minds, and wide-ranging talents. We have a noble purpose that brings joy to students and which we have the privilege of sharing. Our smaller size gives us, at the moment, opportunities for greater connections with our students and rethinking which activities and traditions matter most to them. We can be creative and nimble as we build the future of Westminster. That includes continuously re-thinking how and why we do things and finding ever-better ways to live our values and provide an exceptional student experience.

I leave you with 2 final reflections as we embark on this new semester. First, how does my work at the college contribute to student success? Think about the interactions you have, the resources you deploy, and the investments you make in learning about who our students are and the connections or support they might need. Second, how might I create campus partnerships and collaborations that better serve more students? We’ve already paused many things we used to do, and we probably don’t need to resurrect all of the activities of the past. Think about bringing students together with co-sponsored events and activities. Find partners, create connections, and turn that event, lecture, or activity into a collaboration that draws 50 people instead of 15.

If you’ve been through the Salt Lake City airport recently, you’ve probably seen images of campus and the phrase, “opportunity awaits.” Our students are feeling it; I hope you do, too.

Take care, and I hope to see you, early and often, this semester.