August 26, 2022

It’s been quite a year — already. We’ve made it to, and through, the first week of classes. We’re learning to live with a global pandemic. We’ve started an academic year full of challenges, no doubt, but also full of promise and momentum.

The improvements we’ve made over the past year are significant. This year, we are welcoming nearly 200 first-year students, an increase of about 20% over last year. The inquiry level of prospective students for 2023 continues to grow. This year’s class will include our first “Westminster Commitment” cohort, in which Utah students who meet a combination of merit and need-based criteria are eligible to receive full-tuition scholarships. Last year, there were about 200 students in residence on our main campus; this year, there will be about 340. Our graduate and professional programs remain robust, with strong enrollment in our doctoral nursing, mental health and MBA programs. Almost all of our athletic rosters are full, and we will celebrate the grand opening of Gillmor Hall next month.

Although some of our staff and faculty have moved on, we've also welcomed new staff and faculty this past year. It's understandable to reminisce about former colleagues because we miss their energy, skills, and workplace friendship. Note that I did not describe them as “gone.” Our relationships often extend beyond employment, and their pursuit of other adventures does nothing to diminish our affection for them. That’s the power of a community where we all learn, grow, and support one another. Let’s focus, too, on the talented people we continue to attract, and who bring new ideas and enthusiasm to our community.

Our newest members are joining a talented, committed, and resilient community of impressive staff and faculty. Thank you to everyone who took extra time and care to welcome our newest students this past week and weekend, and to Jessica Brazell-Brayboy, Oliver Anderson, and Jess Sweitzer for their leadership and innovation. Our campus looks truly stunning thanks to Kenton Gregory and his team. Thank you to Chelsea Dye, who is providing continuity in leadership with a second term as Senate Chair, to both Spencer Bagley and Ronda Lucey for leading the full faculty, and to Lauren Lo Re and David Kimberly for facilitating our newest dean searches. Our Student Affairs colleagues helped ensure a successful transition to full, on-campus commencements, closing out of activity at the Draw, and building a more vibrant, on campus community. Our enrollments grew due to the work of our admissions and financial aid staff along with faculty partners, and with leadership from individuals like Karen Henriquez and Quincey “Q” Otuafi. They’ve been working closely with our marketing, communications, and events staff, who have done major web updates, produced new materials, and elevated our events and social media presence. We launched our evolving student success model with our advising team under the direction of Christie Fox and Ryan Braeger, and there’s been plenty of heavy lifting done by our campus schedulers, Registrar’s Office staff, and Learning Community faculty to get all of our newest and returning students registered and on their way.

Student enrollment and success have also been promoted by our coaches and with the leadership of Shay Wyatt and Shelley Jerrard. We’re successfully opening our first new building in over a decade largely because Lance Newman, Kenton Gregory, and Daniel Lewis spent hours each week monitoring progress and insisting on high quality results. We’ll celebrate the grand opening of Florence J. Gillmor Hall on September 16th. We continue to navigate our way through new and sometimes challenging software, budget, and personnel transitions thanks to people like David Perry, Leslie-Ann Campbell, Winter Morse, Piper Rogers, and Britley Ranstadler. I get my own work done because I have the help and support of Emmalee Szwedko, who makes all kinds of things possible, and the newest member of our office, Becca Manning, who supports both me and the rest of the Cabinet.

All of this impressive work has generated considerable momentum in our Westminster 150 initiatives. Our signature student experience, which we’re calling “WestX,” continues to evolve. WestX captures our supported exploration of diverse, interconnected academic pathways and applied experiences that culminate in career confidence and post-graduation success. There are tangible marks of student decision-making and achievement along the way, from internships, student research, and leadership opportunities to the student showcase that we previewed last year. Students have been presenting their work at local, regional, national, and international conferences, and faculty continued to work with students on research projects over the summer. WestX is our innovative model of student success that builds on our strong liberal arts foundation and connects it, early, explicitly, and intentionally, to our students’ post-graduate goals. We’ve always done this well; we’re now positioning ourselves to do it better than anyone else.

Our approach to advising and mentoring as fostering cumulative successes in decision making connects academic experiences to wellness. If you’ve been following the literature on adult development, you’ve probably heard experts bemoan the extension of adolescence into the late twenties, culminating, at times, in an existential crisis. It’s now being called a "quarter-life crisis," defined as occurring between ages 16 and 36, and characterized by the inability to forge an independent sense of self or consider what one wants for the long term. Add this to the literature on the mental health challenges of young adults, and the emphasis on integrated wellness seems particularly timely. If we dig into these concepts a bit, their challenges can range from managing the disappointments of experiences lost during the pandemic, to the anxieties created by a new job or difficult coursework, to possible paralysis due to intensifying climate change and environmental degradation.

Westminster 150 advances wellness grounded in a traditional approach to educating the whole person. Many of you are infusing wellness activities and education in and out of classrooms and as part of your work life. Fundraising for a new Integrated Wellness Center is concluding, and designs for the building are underway. Through the third pillar of Westminster 150, Power of Place, faculty and students are expanding the exploration and interconnectedness of communities, landscapes, and ecosystems close to home, across the west, and at international locations such as Thailand, Mexico, and Spain. Finally, academic program development and diversification is robust and promising, from the movement of undergraduate certificates through the curriculum review process this year to planning for new clinical doctoral programs in physical therapy and counselor education and supervision (CES).
There’s so much going on, and so many immediate operational needs to fill as people come and go, that it can be difficult to carve out time to focus on the activities most important in moving us forward. We have to make choices about where to put our attention amongst all the things that compete for it.
These are my own areas of focus for the coming year, the places where I plan to spend most of my time and attention. I’m hopeful that in sharing them, you might consider the ways in which your own work aligns with them. Here are my five foci:

  1. Increase our revenue and reduce our deficit over time. We aren’t yet where we need or want to be with tuition revenue, but we’re headed in the right direction. First time college enrollment is down around most of the country, but here, considerable work in recruiting has resulted in more first-year students joining us than last year. The national drop in community college attendance has shown up here in our new transfer student enrollment, so, like last year, we’ll be looking to mid-year transfers to fill that new cohort. You’ve also become accustomed to hearing about our deficit. We’ve known for some time that, given the impact of the pandemic on new student enrollment, larger classes of the past, and the teach-out of our aviation students, this academic year will be an inflection point with our smallest number of students on campus over the past decade. We’ve known it, planned for it, and are staying within 1% of the budget projection we made a year ago, partly due to increased revenue from our fundraising successes. Think about that for a moment, because it’s remarkable. As we increase both new students and those retained, we will gradually restore budget balance. And, like last year, as we see the results of that restoration, increasing staff and faculty compensation will continue to be our top budget priority.
  2. Improve the student experience. We continue to get better at understanding what prospective students want, and who is most likely to thrive at Westminster. Our work on a new campus master plan will be driven by our understanding of current and future student needs. We’ll launch that process on September 13th, from 2-3:30, with a campus-wide planning session; I hope you can attend. In addition to pulling together the elements of our signature student experience, WestX, we continue to build employment opportunities for students, which contributes to their retention and engagement with campus. Given the number of unfilled positions last year and the smaller size of our student body, we have focused less on preserving the overall number of positions and have restructured and elevated some of them so that we can offer higher wages and more internship opportunities for our students.
    As we address the overall wellness of our students, we also need to be mindful of the ways that changes in federal and state legislation affect them. For instance, Supreme Court decisions over the summer have a direct impact on women’s reproductive rights. Though nothing has changed in the near future for Utahns, for some of our students, such decisions signal a loss of control, autonomy, and respect for their bodies. The care we provide our students must continue to fall within Utah’s legislative restrictions. At the same time, we must also recognize and attend to the real trauma that some of our female, nonbinary and transgender students are experiencing, and continue to provide referrals and reproductive services, such as pregnancy testing and contraception, as we are able. Students show up with many kinds of personal challenges and crises; our responsibility is to continue serving them according to their needs.
  3. Cultivate a culture of inclusive excellence. Attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our policies and practices isn’t just Dr. Stevenson’s job; it’s everyone’s. My work in this area extends from helping to recruit new trustees, to raising critical questions and partnering with business and civic leaders, to listening and learning from difference on campus. Although we’ve done good work, there’s always much more to be done. Consider deepening your own understanding of equity, bias, and systemic discrimination, and work with me to create a community that values diversity across backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences in ways that create opportunities for us all.
  4. Nurture public trust in higher education as a public good. Earlier this week, Christie Fox shared results of a survey of last year’s students and what they were looking for in their future. Students want meaningful work, financial security, meaningful relationships, and work/life balance. Increasingly, we hear that the general public (whoever that is) doesn’t see education as a route to achieving these things. Think about that: meaningful work, meaningful relationships – finding meaning and purpose are core outcomes of a liberal arts education. The role of education in contributing to financial security is also increasingly downplayed. Our focus on integrated wellness helps the pursuit of work/life balance. These are all important, individual outcomes of higher education. We know that the personal growth and development which comes from an education like Westminster’s is priceless, particularly for today’s pandemic-affected, young adults who struggle to make decisions, take prudent risks, connect passions to professions, and, essentially, grow up.
    At the same time as affirming the individual benefits, we face deeper challenges to the public purposes of higher education. If we allow education to be reduced to limited skill acquisition or job preparation, we are failing both our economy and our democracy. We risk losing the immense social good, beyond individual gain or economic prosperity, of cultivating an informed and engaged citizenry that can sift through social media, understand the complexity of democracy, and peel politics away from science. So, an important part of my role is to reaffirm the public value of what we do and the indispensable role of higher education in ensuring a free and open democracy.
  5. Transition from college to university. For at least the past 15 years, Westminster presidents have explored the possibility of changing Westminster’s name from “College” to “University.” During our nearly 150-year history, Westminster has had various names: Salt Lake Collegiate Institute (1875), Sheldon Jackson College (1897), Westminster College (1902-1949, as a “junior college” offering both high school diplomas and an associate of arts degree), and Westminster College as a baccalaureate, arts and sciences institution (1949). We began offering graduate degrees in the 1980s, and since that time have grown to as many as 15 graduate programs, including doctorates in nursing practice. The transition to being called a “university” was contemplated in both 2007 and again nearly a decade later, with considerable support for the change among faculty, staff, and trustees. However, the change was never made.

If you’ve listened carefully over the last two or three years, you know that I consistently describe Westminster as a small, comprehensive university with a strong, liberal arts foundation, because that accurately describes what we offer, how we are structured, and core values that guide us. I’ve asked you to consider this description of our identity during campus conversations, town hall meetings, and informal gatherings. We’ve discussed it in Leadership Council and Staff Council meetings, at Academic Retreats, and with alumni. I’m ready to ask our Board of Trustees to consider a decision this fall to become Westminster University, with the transition complete by July.

At Westminster, we pride ourselves on providing undergraduate students with a liberal arts education, one which offers our students broad areas of inquiry, flexibility, and the integration of academic disciplines. We offer graduate students professional growth and mentoring through academic programs that position them for new job opportunities and accelerated career success in both business and non-profit arenas. Our core values have remained consistent across decades: impassioned teaching and active learning, respect and inclusion, collaboration and teamwork, personal and social responsibility, college-wide excellence, and high ethical standards. Westminster 150 builds on these values and existing programmatic strengths to align our students’ educational experiences with their developing passions and career trajectories. Although we are increasing enrollment, we will continue to function as a small, comprehensive university in the foreseeable future, focused on teaching, committed to a liberal arts foundation and with an emphasis on baccalaureate education.

Westminster’s legacy as a college reflects a proud history and describes an undergraduate student experience. At the same time, over the years Westminster has evolved to include a more comprehensive range of programs, students, and services than might be captured in its name as a college. Universities often include academic programs consistent with an undergraduate, liberal arts experience, but they are also commonly understood to offer advanced degrees in at least three academic fields that are administered separately from undergraduate programs. Research projects and partnerships with students also characterize universities. We currently offer graduate programs ranging from the Masters of Business Administration and a Master of Arts in Teaching, to the Masters of Science in Mental Health Counseling and to Doctorates of Nursing Practice and Nurse Anesthesia. Nearly one-quarter to one-third of our students have been and continue to be enrolled in graduate and professional programs. We are defined in the Carnegie classification system as a Master’s level institution, and we are ranked by US News & World Report as a regional university of the West.

Colleges which offer graduate degrees are increasingly changing their names, including those which lack the governance structure of a university and are smaller than Westminster. In fact, “….between 2001 and 2016, 122 four-year institutions – nearly 24% of those that began the (21st) century as ‘colleges’ – changed their names to forego the word college and include the word university instead.” This past year, the trend seems to be accelerating, with changes happening at the state level in New York and Pennsylvania. Community colleges are both increasingly dropping "community" from their names and offering four-year, baccalaureate degrees, further obscuring the distinction between two and four-year colleges. In Westminster’s case, moving to university not only better reflects both existing and planned academic programs and structures, but also distinguishes Westminster from two other Westminster Colleges, clearly demarcates us from community colleges, and provides clarity for international students.

Since the last time we entertained the idea of a name change, significant research has emerged regarding the potential impact of such a move. All but the most elite, national liberal arts colleges gain a boost in reputation and prominence from the shift to university. Students with limited knowledge of an institution rely on its status as a university “as a signal of its quality and educational offerings.” Furthermore, students enrolled in a college that converts to a university experience higher earnings in the labor market, suggesting that employers also interpret a ‘university’ as providing a higher quality education than a ‘college’.”

I understand that this proposed move may cause concern for some people. Will we lose our undergraduate liberal arts foundation? Will we be confused with large state or research universities? What about our sense of community? Won’t this be expensive? Why now?

Remember, the “university” designation reflects what we already do and who we already are. The liberal arts foundation of Westminster will continue to be reflected in our values and course offerings, and we will retain our small class sizes and supportive, collaborative learning environment. We will seek even greater opportunities to showcase the strength of our faculty as they pursue research that benefits and is in partnership with students. We will continue to develop graduate programs that feature applied research, as in clinical doctorates, and community impact. Much of the expense associated with this change can be absorbed in routine re-ordering of printed materials, supplies, uniforms, and signage. The transition will not require additional personnel, and we will continue to prioritize staff and faculty compensation increases as we bring greater stability to our resources and budgets. Most importantly, this transition will not diminish what makes Westminster great. Rather, it will amplify and draw attention to our strengths and distinctiveness.

The time has come to ask our trustees for a transition from Westminster College to Westminster University. Over the course of this coming academic year, we will refine implementation steps and costs towards its execution. The transition will provide clarity of mission and identity by aligning our name with our existing programs and activities, a lens by which to consider our campus master planning, a showcase of our investments in academic and institutional excellence, increased visibility and reputation, and greater post-graduation success and opportunities for students. It will form the basis of a comprehensive sesquicentennial campaign in 2025.

For the past few years, while we’ve been responding to a perfect storm of challenges, we’ve been crafting and enacting a vision for the future. We know that our new and prospective students are stressed, but they’re also problem solvers. They seek opportunities, immediate experiences, and positive impact; they desire flexibility; and they need to grow personally and professionally, at every degree level. Their needs drive our priorities. This is Westminster as we move forward: an education that combines challenge and support, innovation and enduring value, and personal passion with career confidence. It’s an education that continues to bring students and faculty together, in real time, to unpack, learn about, and respond to the crises of our times.
One day early in the summer, I got a call from one of my deans at a prior institution who just wanted to talk. He said, “I’m concerned about the future of private higher education, and I know you think about these things a lot. Do you think students will keep coming to college?”

I think they will. If this past week is any indication, they’ll be coming to Westminster, and they’ll be graduating ready to change the world.