August 24, 2023

Thank you for coming this afternoon and sharing in the joy and chaos of a new academic year. Welcome, as well, to our first community time event. Community time emerged from conversations a year ago about ways to create more opportunities for connection, shared events, and wellness activities. We talked about it in faculty and staff meetings, canvassed students, asked for ideas in a campus-wide survey, and assessed the opportunities and potential disruptions in scheduling. I’ve heard excitement about possible book clubs, speakers, wellness activities, student-led programming, and the chance to just eat lunch together. Our new experiment starts now, as we gather in shared space and time, to celebrate our successes, and to consider our priorities for the coming year and beyond.

We’re off to a great start. Orientation and Convocation were well planned and executed, with many faculty and staff showing up to events over the weekend. Let’s acknowledge the incredible work, from Jessica Brazell-Brayboy, Oliver Anderson, Elyse Correa, and the entire Events and Student Affairs staff, to the Academic Affairs advising staff, Registrar’s Office, and Learning Community faculty, to our maintenance and grounds crews in getting students and our campus ready for the fall.

This year, we are welcoming about 300 new undergraduates, which is our second year of double-digit percent increases and the largest incoming class since 2019. Please thank our Admissions staff, supported by our Marketing and Communication staff, for achieving something unheard of these days in private higher education. Our residential student numbers also continue to grow, from 200 in Fall 2021, to 340 in Fall 2022, to now nearly 400 for this fall. As we know, ample research suggests that on-campus residency contributes to student success as well as to the vibrancy of our campus. As Bronkema and Bowen write in the Journal of College Student Development (2017), “buildings with all first-year students have higher levels of college satisfaction, college GPA, and intent to persist,” and “living in a traditional hall …[is] also associated more positively with college GPA among sophomores.” In our graduate programs, our Doctor of Nursing Practice - Nurse Anesthesia program launched a second cohort and continues to grow, as does our Counseling and Counselor Education Program, which includes the Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a new academic offering, an Adventure Therapy Certificate program.

Over the summer, in case you missed it, we officially became Westminster University. The visible markers are impressive, from name tags to monument signage. At the same time, much of the work behind this transition has been invisible, from dealing with Utah Department of Transportation signage, accreditation approvals, and trademark registration to changing our website and email addresses. There’s still work to do, but so much has already been done. Please join me in thanking the members of the University Transition Task Force: Leslie-Ann Campbell, Chris LeCluyse, Taylor Blum, Sara Demko, Karen Henriquez, Kathryn Holmes, Aaron Lewis, Sarah Lof, Kevin Randall, Traci Siriprathane, and Emmalee Szwedko. Another visible marker of our momentum is just down 1300 East, with the ongoing construction of the L. S. Skaggs Integrated Wellness Center, which should be open by this time next year.

We are growing both at home and abroad. Earlier this month, thanks to the leadership of Provost Tahmassebi and key campus partners like Sara Demko, Westminster University acquired a non-profit organization called IPSL, originally known as "The International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership,” and now as IPSL Global Engagement at Westminster University. IPSL has existed for over 40 years, offering college credit for short- and long-term study abroad, internships, fieldwork, intensive language and gap year programs, a Master of Arts in International Development and Service, and a Master of Arts in Community Organizing and Social Activism. Their fully accredited graduate and undergraduate programs have served over 4,000 students from more than 400 colleges and universities. The founders of IPSL reached out to us earlier in the year, looking for a partner whose mission, values, and commitment to experiential learning aligned with theirs. In bringing IPSL into Westminster, we will expand our global reach through in-country, online, and hybrid opportunities for students.

This summer was also marked by a Supreme Court ruling regarding race and admissions. We anticipated the court ruling long before it was issued and prepared several possible responses, guided by the expertise of Vice President for Enrollment Erica Johnson and Chief Diversity Officer Tamara Stevenson. The decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina was issued on June 29, stating that Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions programs violated federal non-discrimination law by considering an applicant’s race in admissions decisions to advance institutional diversity interests. Unlike many universities, we had already mapped out an initial strategy, and we are ahead of our peers in considering ways to maintain commitments to our mission and values while being consistent with emergent law. Earlier this month, the Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter with frequently asked questions, and the non-profit group, Education Counsel, provided a synopsis of the ruling and draft guidance for educational institutions. There are several steps we can take to advance our commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion within the parameters established by the court, such as “anti-bias training for all hiring committees, continuing student enrollment goals that address disparities in retention and persistence, developing additional supports to promote belonging and success, [and] establishing fundraising priorities that provide for equitable access to high impact learning opportunities…” (Education Counsel, 2023). These are some of the strategies that should guide our work moving forward.

Finally, over the summer we also began some substantial moves forward in our overall approach to and implementation of a new compensation program. Last month, I shared with you all via email our working compensation philosophy, our process of creating a compensation program consistent with our values, our efforts to align our positions with competitive higher education markets, and our increases in benefits eligibility. In addition to holding several summer information sessions with supervisors, Chief Human Resources Officer Johanna Baracco will continue with Let’s Talk Comp sessions to explain details and answer questions, and she will be joined by Provost Tahmassebi for conversations with faculty. 

They can also answer questions about the move of everyone to semi-monthly pay periods. This change, while disruptive, is necessary to bring increased timeliness and accuracy to processes that have been heavily burdened by manual data entry and non-stop attention to payroll administration. As with so many of the changes that we make, we are motivated to make our transactions more sustainable so that we can spend more of our energy on the transformational practices that serve our educational mission. In addition to the considerable work done by Johanna, we appreciate the support of Mina Milicevic, Jessika Caxeta, Piper Rogers, Lauren Stout, David Perry, and Haley Mahler, David Perry, Haley Mahler, and Winter Morse.

Compensation has been top of mind for many of us for a long time, which is reflected in the results of last spring’s “Great Colleges to Work For” survey. The survey results arrived over the summer. I’ve seen the statistics and read all of the employee comments, and I look forward to sharing more about what we’ve learned at next month’s Cabinet Conversations, on Sept. 28. As a preview, I’ll just say that, not surprisingly, concerns about pay, benefits, and retirement contributions dominated the responses, and our work to build new approaches to compensation are consistent with the priorities reflected in the survey results. As I wrote to you last month, a compensation program includes more than wages that are equitable; attracting, retaining, and engaging a committed, talented, and diverse workforce also requires a positive campus environment with career growth opportunities, successful work-life integration, and meaningful recognition of performance.​ This coming year, we will work together on addressing additional components of our compensation program.

The employee comments in the survey included a section on what our staff and faculty appreciate about working at Westminster. ModernThink, the organization producing the Great Colleges survey, summarized the comments this way: “Employees appreciate the culture of collaboration and openness, as well as the strong sense of community and collegial atmosphere. They value the opportunity to mentor and enhance students' learning experiences and the institution's commitment to student-centered education. Employees also highlight the flexibility and autonomy in their roles, which contributes to a positive work-life balance. Diversity, leadership, and class sizes are also mentioned. Additionally, employees value the learning opportunities and support they receive from colleagues, supervisors, and campus leaders to grow and contribute their ideas.”

Our strength in community and collaboration, and our shared commitment to and investment in student success at Westminster, are some of our greatest assets. We know that we are working in pursuit of something greater than ourselves – the greater good, shared humanity, and having a positive impact on our communities. Our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion leads us to affirm individual identity authentically and inclusively. As an educational institution, we cultivate the confidence to pursue knowledge borne of openness, questioning, discernment, and personal passion. Our approach to creating a healthy community means acknowledging and making room for individual differences while building empathy, trust, and connections. Finally, as a learning institution, we support personal and professional growth, not only among our students, but with each other.

These values—pursuing shared humanity, affirming individual identity authentically and inclusively, cultivating knowledge borne of openness, questioning, discernment, and personal passion, creating a healthy community that builds empathy, trust, and connections, supporting personal and professional growth—are values that we share now, and which will describe Westminster University of the future.

These values characterize our graduates as well. We have numerous examples of students who have learned to combine passion and purpose for social, community, and corporate impact, have experienced a range of courses and activities, and who have developed enough career confidence to practice ethical and effective leadership. Our alumni are often recipients of national awards and prized by employers. Our students understand the value of their Westminster education: consider the results of last year’s Graduating Student Survey, administered by our Career Center. Nearly all, 99% of respondents, said their Westminster degree was valuable in helping them achieve their professional goals, and 90% said their programs of study are related to their full-time employment. Another 82% agreed that liberal arts courses broadened and encouraged their personal and professional development.

These survey results are from undergraduate students who graduated last year. We have continued work ahead to bring awareness of and confidence in Westminster to new students and audiences, and to ensure student success once they arrive. Some of that work is captured by Westminster 150 and the priorities that guide us toward our sesquicentennial.

The first pillar of Westminster 150, our signature student experience—WestX—is well underway, beginning with New Griffin Enrollment and orientation. During New Griffin Enrollment, incoming students work with a staff advisor to select a Pathway and Learning Community and are then assigned a faculty advisor. The Westminster approach to student support includes staff and faculty from Honors, Financial Aid, and Career Services, and next year will introduce a new sophomore-centered program in collaboration with the Career Center. The comments from some of the parents at Orientation affirmed the impressive work done to bring WestX into existence. I heard comments like, “these pathways are innovative and incredible.” “Finally, there’s an institution that’s prioritizing social-emotional learning rather than treating education as a transaction.” And finally, “I love the support that my student is already getting. I didn’t see that anywhere else.”

Yes, we are innovative in our approach to supporting students as they create a distinctive academic journey. All students have the opportunity to develop academic plans that go beyond the boundaries of majors, apply multiple disciplinary perspectives and methods to complex problems, and design a comprehensive academic program which supports their experiences and passions. The great work being done in this area now includes the ability to combine academic majors with undergraduate certificates in areas like Arts and Social Justice; Diversity Equity and Inclusion; Coding; and Media Literacy. I look forward to further development of certificates that explicitly connect curriculum with workforce competencies that students and employers seek.

Our students are also expanding their academic studies through our Acadeum partnership, which enables them to supplement on-campus classes with online coursework, and by designing new templates for customized majors. Our internship offerings are growing, and our student showcase is attracting the attention of community members and prospective employers. The work of the Gore Center for Innovative Leadership, often in collaboration with the Dumke, Environmental, and Student Diversity and Inclusion Centers, stands out in supporting distinctive leadership development consistent with Westminster’s values. By graduation, all Westminster students should be able to apply their learning to leadership in diverse groups and contexts, developing self-awareness, empathy, and the ability to empower others and inspire change. In WestX, we are truly exemplifying the support, relevance, and impact of the Westminster student experience.

Westminster 150 also focuses our attention on integrated wellness and the power of our unique place in the Intermountain West. In addition to our partnerships in health sciences, we’re infusing wellness throughout our curriculum and student programming. We’re on the way to ensuring that all students will graduate with a personal wellness approach or plan, having developed the knowledge, skills, and commitment to thrive amidst stress, complexity, and ambiguity.

Last week, our newest families affirmed their excitement about our integrated wellness focus and the opportunities students have to experience outdoor programming and field trips. Westminster faculty and staff are outstanding in their ability to connect outdoor programs, field study, and clinical practice to academic coursework, professional preparation, and environmental sustainability. The experiences of these students should be a defining feature of a Westminster education, with all students participating in outdoor learning activities so that they understand the importance of the natural world to human health and happiness.

I heard someone say earlier this week, somewhat reluctantly, that it almost feels like the “good old days” with students returning to campus. There are always parts of our legacy that need to be pulled through as threads to the future, like our shared values, commitment to students, and investment in the purpose of higher education. There are also new opportunities that build on our strengths while responding to the challenges of our times. Sometimes things can feel hard, and we criticize the work of others when we should know better. It’s easy to forget that we do really good work with great people who have both the will and the skill to make Westminster thrive. Use community time to meet new colleagues, say hello to a student, or take a walk. Know that you are appreciated and valued for the role you play in building connections with students and in helping them find personal and professional success here and beyond graduation.

As one of our transfer students said to me after orientation, “Things are really, really, well run here. It’s so much better than … [my prior institution down the street].” We deserve to be proud of what we do, and what our students achieve. Thank you for your commitment to Westminster University. I look forward to our work together in the year ahead.