April 18, 2024

Last year, Westminster held the president’s fall address on August 24, our first community time event. It was an experiment, a change, and even good changes can be disruptive. Thank you to everyone who figured out how to make this work, from athletic schedule changes to faculty adjustments in teaching to event staff who very quickly had to accommodate a wave of events happening contemporaneously. Given the vibrancy created on campus from these efforts, we’ll keep going, and let community time become an expected part of the campus experience.

We’ve seen plenty of good work this last year amidst a world that continues to challenge us. We’re completing our first academic year as Westminster University. One of the hardest things about becoming Westminster University is remembering to say “university” instead of “college.” If the change didn’t feel dramatic on campus, that was intentional; it was a significant step in clarifying our identity and indicating, through our name, programs, and activities that have been part of this campus for years. It was the right thing to do, and thanks to everyone on campus, it was a good transition. I’ve heard many of our external partners express admiration and respect, as well as alumni speaking with pride that their alma mater has become a university. Next year’s first-year students will be the first ones recruited to Westminster University. 

Several individuals contributed to the journey of becoming a university. I hope our retiring faculty who are leaving us know how much we appreciate them and the ways they’ve helped us become who we are today. Please join me in congratulating Ellen Behrens, Chris Cline, Cid Seidelman, Diane Van Os, and John Watkins. Chris Cline will also be our Faculty Marshal at Commencement.

We also honored several individuals with 20 or more years of service at last night's employee appreciation dinner. With 20 years of service, we recognized Rick Hackford, Helen Hu, Piper Rogers, Mark Rubinfeld, Twila Wycoff, Kim Zarkin, and Mike Zarkin. Paul Presson was recognized for 25 years of service, and Chris Cline for 30 years. At 35 years of service, we recognized Steve Haslam.

These individuals have seen so much over the last 20-plus years, from international conflict following September 11 and talk of the crises in higher education; to the post-recession enrollment boom felt across institutions and the country; to multiple leadership turnovers; to a worldwide pandemic and its aftermath. These are people who have had staying power and gained considerable wisdom. Learn from them while you can.

We also recognized our student employees this week due to the work of our Career Center staff, who were recognized this year with a 2024 Martin Luther King Unsung Hero Award. They have shown incredible leadership and initiative, along with the faculty and staff who have been leading the staff council, faculty senate, and full faculty meetings. Collaborations are growing, as they need to across campus. Westminster’s Alumni Award celebration last week was impressive and exceptionally well executed due to the efforts of Heather Stringfellow, Anna Renzetti, Tiffanie Perotti, and Conor Bentley in partnership with Shay Wyatt and Shelly Jerrard in Athletics. Our search for a new Vice President for Student Affairs and Athletics is being led by Dean Matt Neves, with a committee comprised of Oliver Anderson, Christie Fox, Greg Gagne, Shelly Jerrard, and Tamara Stevenson – who, by the way, was recently elected to the board of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE). Chris LeCluyse and the WCore Committee, led by Eileen Chanza Torres, have started gathering feedback from faculty and staff who support student advising and the co-curriculum to inform discussions regarding curricular revisions. Finally, our efforts at improving student learning will benefit from the teamwork of Kelly Asao, Audrey Claire, and Christie Fox, who was just elected to the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS) Board of Directors. Together, they attended a HEDS workshop designed to provide “focused time, space, and support to reflect on diversity, equity, inclusion, and student success.”

There it is. I said them - words that have been banned elsewhere. Diversity, equity, and inclusion. And we are going to continue saying them and doing whatever else contributes to learning and student success because that’s what we do at Westminster. A liberal arts foundation, our core values and commitments, demand that we have difficult conversations about many potentially divisive topics with openness, respect, and in pursuit of shared humanity.

When I started this position on July 1, 2018, an editorial I wrote appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune. It reads: 

Just as there is value to be gained from understanding and including diverse people and perspectives, there is danger in assuming it’s not necessary. There are opportunity costs for companies that exclude key consumer groups in their workforce. There are labor costs of importing talent rather than training people who are already here. There are productivity costs when women and other underrepresented groups aren’t supported in their pursuit of education. And, perhaps most fundamentally, there are human costs that happen when people lose the ability to respect, empathize, and take the perspective of others who seem different.

I continued:

Given the growing diversity of Utah, figuring out how to derive value from diversity, whether demographic, political, or religious, will be crucial. Institutions like Westminster do more than celebrate diversity: They help students cultivate the skills to navigate increasingly complex communities and workplaces. They are resources for businesses wishing to build stronger, more collaborative teams. They are key partners in solving complex problems and creating opportunities from the assets that diversity brings — as long as we begin by treating others from a place of empathy and respect.

Actively valuing diversity through equity and inclusion has always been challenging. Recently it’s been stifled in some of our public institutions and dismantled entirely in others. Not at Westminster. We will continue our commitments through courses, co-curricular programming, speakers, events, and support of the individual, authentic identities of all students, staff, and faculty. Perspectives, beliefs, and identities do come into conflict at times. I think we’ve done an exemplary job this last year of respectful engagement in difficult dialogues, and I look forward to that as a continuing hallmark of a Westminster education.

I think our students look forward to that as well. They see value in what we do, from our academic programs to our activities and support outside the classroom. We’ve had a positive trajectory in new undergraduate enrollment this year, with new students building on the small, pandemic classes of the past. Undergraduate admissions successfully managed another year with a double-digit increase in applications. These efforts are supported by our enrollment data and systems team and our events, communications, and daily visit teams who do critical, behind-the-scenes work to meet our enrollment goals. Our new application web pages for undergraduate and graduate admissions have been identified by the Education Advisory Board as some of the best they’ve seen, incorporating all of the recommended best practices for meeting the needs of prospective students. The increase in graduate student enrollment this spring will continue into summer and fall with full cohorts in the Doctorate of Nursing Practice-Nurse Anesthesia, Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and Family Nurse Practitioner programs. This is the first time in a decade that graduate enrollments have gone up rather than down. I credit the work of our faculty, academic leadership, and enrollment and marketing professionals in helping to make that happen.

Great things are happening at Westminster, yet again, external forces are creating headwinds. If you’ve been following the FAFSA fiasco (that’s the Free Application for Federal Student Aid), you know that first-time applications are down as much as 40%. The federal Education Department said, “approximately 30 percent of the 7 million FAFSA records that it has transmitted to colleges are affected by processing or data errors.” We are incredibly fortunate to have the expertise of our financial aid professionals, led by our Financial Aid Director Karen Henriquez. Not only have they weathered FAFSA Simplification, but are also working collaboratively with Information Services on substantial innovations in Colleague, and with Advancement and Finance on improving our continuing student scholarship process. Although almost all colleges and universities are affected by these FAFSA delays and errors, we have the best people possible to respond to these disruptions on behalf of our students.

Given the limbo of many students, new and returning, regarding the status of their federal financial aid, it will take much longer than usual to know what next year’s enrollment will be. All of the early indicators for new undergraduates - inquiries, completed applications, admitted students - have been positive going into this spring. Many students and families will need additional time to make their decisions about colleges, and we have adjusted our deadlines accordingly.

Fall enrollment decisions often guide our May budget conversations with the Board of Trustees, with approval of a final budget in September. In the meantime, though, we’ve been asking them to approve allocations for compensation in advance of September. That’s why you’ve been receiving surveys about compensation priorities. We asked them to approve an increase in the overall compensation pool, which includes salary and benefits, of at least 1.5% each year, and the Planning and Priorities Committee and Cabinet will be crafting recommendations regarding how those funds should be allocated for the coming year. If we continue our positive momentum and trajectory, we’ll be able to do more in the future.

Our trajectory includes sharpening the distinctiveness of a Westminster education. We’ll continue to emphasize being small with big opportunities for students and highlighting relationships to and connections with them. At the same time, though, we need to continue to articulate a clear identity grounded in the consolidation of the ideas and initiatives that are relevant to and in demand by students, unique to Westminster, and difficult to replicate. Westminster at 150 and WestX, our signature student experience, has laid the foundation. Now, it’s full steam ahead with outdoor learning, wellness, leadership, and career confidence. When we build out our distinctiveness, it can be expressed in value propositions that I’ve been sharing in various meetings and conversations all year as the following differentiators:

  • All Westminster undergraduates participate in outdoor learning activities so that they understand the importance of the natural world to human health and happiness. 
  • All Westminster undergraduates adopt a personal wellness approach or plan, having developed the knowledge, skills, and commitment to thrive amidst stress, complexity, and ambiguity. 
  • All Westminster graduates apply their learning to leadership in a variety of professional and social contexts, developing self-awareness, empathy, and the ability to empower others and inspire change.
  • All Westminster graduates engage in clinical experience, field studies or travel away, to expand their application of knowledge and create autonomy and confidence.

At Westminster, outdoor learning includes all the ways that we encourage students to engage with the natural environment, to very specific academic programs in outdoor leadership. It includes our mountain sports initiative, with the addition of competitive snowboarding and freeski this year, and mountain biking and climbing next year. We have such a strong collection of programs and activities ranging from the Great Salt Lake Institute and outdoor dance installations, to expedition courses that it makes sense to promote these unique learning opportunities at Westminster. What if we could fund an outdoor experience for all students at orientation? What if we were known for making the outdoors accessible for historically excluded and marginalized populations?

We know that support for wellness has been sought by prospective students, and we planned to add attention and resources to wellness long before the pandemic. We are already incredibly strong academically, with nursing and health sciences drawing the most undergraduate and graduate students. Wellness programming is poised to take off with the opening of the L.S. Skaggs Integrated Wellness Center later this summer. This facility complements existing, robust programming across campus, the infusion of wellness in existing programs and the development of additional health science partnerships and degree offerings. Discussions are ongoing regarding the timing of a new Counselor Education Supervision (CES) PhD program and a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. What if the support and mentoring we provide students was recognized as also helping to cultivate personal wellness for our students? What if every Westminster student graduated with a greater sense of ability and agency in ensuring multiple aspects of their health: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and financial.

Engagement with the environment can have obvious health benefits, so there are ample synergies among these value propositions. The Westminster approach to leadership is also closely connected to health and wellness, sometimes explicitly in programs like outdoor education and leadership. We have additional opportunities for distinction in the Westminster approach to leadership, which demands an understanding of diversity and skills of inclusion. Our students learn and practice leadership in classroom discussions, group projects, research activities, performances, athletic competitions, clinical practice, civic engagement, and internships. We have a new undergraduate leadership certificate approved by our curriculum committee, and a new debate program starting this fall led by Christy Seifert. What if all of our centers, not just the Gore Giovale Center for Innovative Leadership, were also known for their great work in developing student leaders? What if Westminster students, staff, and faculty were sought after as compassionate leaders who also know how to follow, and who are problem solvers who can build bridges?

Finally, the power of a Westminster education lies in its relevance of learning for post-graduate life. Regardless of the certainty students may have now about their career path in the future, our role is to prepare them for flexibility, adaptability, and the ability to translate their knowledge and skills through the various career changes that are likely throughout their lives. We call this career confidence. It’s different than career readiness, which is usually preparation for the first job after graduation. It’s the autonomy, self-confidence, and ability to apply knowledge that so many of our students have come to possess, and which is demonstrated so well in places like the upcoming Student Showcase.

The opportunities we provide for our students continue to grow. This summer, we will have at least 18 students with faculty members across over a dozen academic disciplines pursuing undergraduate research projects. Our travel and study away programs are expanding in partnership with IPSL Global Engagement, and some of our academic programs are adding travel as an integral part of the student experience. What if every Westminster student could participate in a travel program, field research, or a paid internship?

These questions are not merely rhetorical. They are the outgrowth of great work already being done and point to the direction of the future. They are informing and guiding capital projects and planning for our 150th anniversary, our sesquicentennial next year.

The biggest of our capital projects is the L.S. Skaggs Integrated Wellness Center, which should be complete this summer. In the coming months, we’ll need to plan for occupancy in the garden level of Shaw as Student Health Services and the Counseling Center are relocated. As you’ve probably noticed, Shaw itself has been undergoing renovation, with the first stage, the Winged Scholars coffee shop, completed and open. That means, of course, that we need to figure out how to make better use of Bassis, or Nightingale Hall. No decisions have been made regarding those spaces, but we’ll have to start bringing more people together soon to explore options.

Further into the future, we will need to address our aging first-year residence halls, Hogle and Carlson. Thus far, we have a basic concept derived from a 6-month process of research and design that contemplates one residence hall at the current site of Hogle and Walker. Based on the available footprint, current needs, and our thinking about future students, we could build a three or four-story residence hall with about 400 beds for first and second-year students. The facility could include programming such as a residence life office; flexible activity, study, and lounge spaces; a kitchen; and potentially other programming that complements our distinctiveness. Yes, this is an expensive proposition, with project costs that currently approximate $60 million, and would likely require a combination of fundraising and partnership with private developers. We’ll be proceeding carefully with attention to the long-term financial consequences of such a facility while noting that providing sufficient student housing is top of mind. Should we accomplish this, a subsequent building could be a new facility to house our School of Nursing and Health Sciences programs and provide for new program growth at the current site of Carlson Hall.

In the more immediate future and as we move forward with other projects emerging from campus planning, we will need additional campus involvement. Ideally, we will create more synergy between various student service and support programs across campus, refurbish classrooms, and examine options for specific units such as the Honors College and community clinic. However, until we bring architects together with committees of current and future occupants, explore renovation needs, and let those committees make recommendations to campus leadership, no decisions about major renovations or movement of programs will be made.  Of course, we need to raise money for much of this.

As we think forward to our sesquicentennial year, we will embark on the initial stages of a comprehensive fundraising campaign. This last year has been one of the strongest in Westminster’s fundraising history; One Westminster Day, led by Hilary Amoss and Graham Kennedy, and supported by the Institutional Advancement Department and the entire campus community, generated more than $230K from more than 1,500 donations. We have already raised more than $13M this year, including a significant amount of unrestricted giving thereby alleviating some of the pressures on our endowment to cover our deficit. If we can keep our momentum on student enrollment and persistence, Westminster at 150 initiatives and value propositions, and build on our fundraising successes, in a few more years we will have turned the corner and be well-positioned for our next 150 years.

I know I’ll be gathering inspiration for our next chapter from our students, both at the showcase next week and when we congratulate them as they cross the commencement stage. This year’s class is particularly special. They have been exceptionally talented, willing to take the risk of coming to Westminster in the midst of an international crisis, and able to persevere. We will congratulate 321 graduates in total this year, ranging in age from 20-53 and representing 18 countries, from Australia to Taiwan.

They have experienced much of the magic that makes Westminster unique. It happens because of you, because of your passion, professionalism, and commitment to your students and colleagues. Thank you, and I hope you enjoy this celebratory time of life. 

Beth Dobkin