Defining Moments: A Vision for the University of Puget Sound

Ronald R. Thomas, President
February 2005

Defining Moments was created by President Thomas in consultation with University of Puget Sound faculty, staff, students, alumni, and trustees for presentation and discussion at the February 2005 meeting of the Board of Trustees. It builds upon the university’s mission and core values, and provides the foundation for a new strategic plan to be completed in 2006.


Executive Summary

The key for us at Puget Sound at this moment in our history is not to invent a new story about ourselves, but to understand where our story has taken us, how it might further unfold, and what threads unify the tale. Ours cannot just be an account of institutional transformation; it must also be a story of institutional distinction and uniqueness. This is our challenge: to tell that story and make it true, to define our distinctions and the difference they make, to communicate them in a compelling way, and to find the thread that will lead us into the next chapter in a great story.

Our goal is to make Puget Sound one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the nation, a first-choice institution for students that instills pride in its alumni and commands the resources we need to function successfully as the excellent college we have become. The threads for defining Puget Sound’s distinctive tapestry of learning are all here; our task is to weave them together into a single fabric, to make the design visible, to reveal a clear and compelling picture of the Puget Sound experience. We know what it is; we must define it.

Defining Puget Sound

  • Reflected in an intimate and inviting campus, the Puget Sound experience embraces its dynamic Pacific Northwest environment, its independent and pioneering people, and a clear sense of purpose in making a difference in the world.
  • A Puget Sound education is not something you get, it’s something you do and someone you become. It is an investment for a lifetime.
  • With its unique combination of a strong liberal arts curriculum and innovative interdisciplinary programs, complemented by schools of business, music, and education as well as centers for strategic issues and health sciences, Puget Sound is an outstanding liberal arts college with the resources of a great university.
  • Puget Sound offers an extraordinary experience in life and learning, an intimate and inviting campus, a commitment to self-expression and innovation, and inventive interdisciplinary programs. We are committed to being environmentally responsible, civically engaged, and globally concerned.

Next Steps

  • Strengthen our position in our new set of competitor schools, drawing upon our distinctions that blend traditional liberal arts with innovative interdisciplinary majors and programs, and first-rate schools of business and leadership, music, and education.
  • Forge new initiatives from our distinctions by focusing energies, finding synergies and efficiencies among programs, establishing centers of excellence, and building greater institutional visibility.
  • Convey to our alumni our pride in them and inspire their pride in their alma mater by more effectively communicating the achievements of the university in the world.
  • Build demand for the Puget Sound experience so that those who can afford it will be willing to pay full price and financial aid can be shifted to those with need.
  • Work together to realize the vision for Puget Sound and command the considerable resources needed to fulfill our potential.


I. Background

In the summary report of my first year at Puget Sound, I referred to the university’s course of the last 30 years as, at once, one of the best stories in higher education and one of its best kept secrets. It is a good story: Since the trustees made the bold decision in the 1970s—against the trend at the time—that transformed Puget Sound from a comprehensive regional university to a national residential liberal arts college, more in line with the original mission and vision of our founders, we have made a series of choices, charted a plan, kept the faith, and successfully reached the goal.

We have found our place. Now that Puget Sound has become a respected national liberal arts college, we need to more fully appreciate what we are: a liberal arts college strongly committed to teaching and learning, where innovative programs join a strong, traditional core, and where close interaction among faculty and students results in graduates who achieve to their fullest potential. The question for us now is: Where does the story go next, and how do we tell it effectively?

Weaving a Tale of Transformation with a Story of Distinction

Stories are what we think with and live by. We make sense of our lives by stories, drawing inspiration and meaning from them. The key for us at Puget Sound at this moment in our history is not to invent a new story about ourselves, but to understand where our story has taken us, how it will further unfold, and what threads unify the tale. Ours cannot just be an account of institutional transformation; it must also be a story of institutional distinction and uniqueness.

Our distinctive identity will develop from our appreciation and foregrounding of our strengths. We and others will know and articulate our identity because we have told our story well and consistently. This is our challenge: to tell that story and to continue to make it true, to define our distinctions and the difference they make, to communicate them in a compelling way, and to find the thread that will lead us into the next chapter in a great story. That is what we mean when we call these our defining moments at Puget Sound.

Success Brings New Challenges

Today, no one doubts that Puget Sound is a national liberal arts college, but few know how good and how distinctive a college we are. The data provides eloquent evidence of how successfully we have reached our transformational objective:

  • We have shifted our market from regional to national in scope, drawing a student body that once originated 80 percent from the state of Washington and now comes 75 percent from every other state in the country.
  • We have raised our academic profile, now with 95 percent full-time four-year students rather than a plurality of part-time commuter or transfer students.
  • We enroll a more diverse and selective student body, with higher SAT scores, 18 percent students of color, and a broader range of liberal arts majors (nearly 70 percent of whom now live on campus).
  • This year’s entering freshman class drew a record 4,500 applicants, and retention numbers are now strong and rising.
  • Our alumni are Rhodes, Watson, and Fulbright scholars; they are leaders in business, government, industry, the arts, education, and the professions.

Despite the quality of the educational experience we offer, the data also shows that we are not highly competitive enrolling students in this new market. We are actually less competitive in our comparison group than we were before we were considered one of this set of colleges, sharing more overlap applications with our new national liberal arts college peers, but losing more to them:

  • We accept a higher percentage of our applicants than they do because of our lower yield rate of accepted students (around 20 percent).
  • We have a student body with a relatively high degree of financial need (more than 60 percent qualify for assistance, and we only meet an average of 85 percent of their need).
  • Because we are not able to meet their full financial need, our students graduate with higher debt compared to students at other colleges, producing a chilling effect on developing early habits of giving back to the university.
  • We have been especially challenged in enrolling qualified candidates of color with high financial need.
  • Our financial aid budget is soaring, and to attract talented students our merit aid awards compete for resources with the increasing call for need based scholarships.
  • We are highly tuition-dependent (more than 80 percent of revenues) due to low alumni giving rates and a smaller endowment relative to the best colleges, making us vulnerable to market fluctuations and aggressive discounting by our competitors.


II. Objectives

Another League, a New Objective

We are playing in a different league now, with outstanding national institutions. We have successfully met that goal, and it has presented us with new challenges. Now our objective must be to be more competitive within that group by making Puget Sound a first-choice college for talented students. Our goals will be:

  • To define, strengthen, and promote the distinctions of the Puget Sound experience.
  • To build demand for a Puget Sound education and the intellectual challenges it offers our students.
  • To promote a sense of pride in the Puget Sound experience among our alumni and a desire to make it possible for others.
  • To command the resources that will enable us to realize our aspirations and potential.

We have become a very good national liberal arts college. The true worth of that transformation will be measured by the success with which our students are prepared to meet the highest tests of democratic citizenship and live thoughtful, productive lives in a global society, and by the degree to which, through them and our faculty, we are able to become an intellectual asset in our region and enhance our national reputation.

Defining the Puget Sound Experience

The story of Puget Sound is the story of the extraordinary educational experience we provide students and the unique experience they create for themselves—the distinctively Puget Sound experience. It is the story that has been played out by different characters over time with common threads weaving the tale together, the story of a certain quality of people who are drawn to live and learn in a remarkable place, and who carry with them a very clear sense of purpose.

A profound sense of place: We are Puget Sound. Our name has always associated us with a geographic place, the great inland sea called the Puget Sound, the body of water that links a spectacular and diverse set of places: a dynamic environment of astonishing natural beauty and majesty, a crossroads of international trade and exchange, a meeting point of diverse cultural interaction and outdoor activity, a center of technological transformation and invention, all informed by an historic strain of personal independence and a pioneering spirit. This is a place of rapid change and development, a perfect environment for an engaged and engaging educational experience. Almost at its center, placed in the shadow of one of the highest peaks in the nation, the Puget Sound campus has thrived in the city of Tacoma, this year named one of the most livable cities in the country for its distinct mixture of rich cultural resources combined with a robust blue-collar economy. The campus perfectly reflects this place, in the stately groves of fir trees that wind through it and in the Tudor Gothic buildings that comprise it. The revival of Gothic architecture in America came in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the same period that witnessed the great westward expansion of our country and the founding of this university at its western edge. Gothic architecture is said to reflect the inner spirit of those who created it: individualism, innovation, and strength. Our founders designed the intimate and inviting Puget Sound campus not only to emulate the great universities of Europe and the East Coast, but also to reflect the distinct character of “the new Northwest” and the aspirations of our mission. It is a style that eloquently represents who we are as a learning community and who we aspire to be.

A certain quality of people: This sense of place allows for the special qualities of human interaction that have shaped our destiny at Puget Sound—innovation, civility, friendliness, engagement, and determination. Our founders possessed these qualities as they struggled to build this institution—qualities that live on today in equal measure in the students, faculty, and staff members on our campus, evident in their initiative, their energy, and their determination to succeed. You can see it in our faculty, who are clear-eyed about their commitment as teacher-scholars dedicated to preparing students for leadership in whatever arenas of work or service in which they engage in the years ahead. You can see it in the dazzling array of imaginative theme houses formed by our students on Lawrence Street, and in the creation of ambitious student-initiated programs such as the Repertory Dance Group, Conspiracy of Hope, and Food Salvage.

No college in this country, and no college community, better embodies this innovative and independent spirit. We have never been afraid to try a new path or to make our own way. We have always been pioneers, ready to light out for new territory, to imagine a new future. Like the Northwesterners who explored and settled these territories in the nineteenth century and who transformed the world with technology (and designer coffee) in the twentieth, we have been equally unbowed by the tyranny of tradition or the fashion of popular trends.

A particular sense of purpose and time: At Puget Sound, we are drawn by the future more than we are shaped by the past. We respect our history and draw strength from those who preceded us and who saw the future we now inhabit. Like them, we seek a way that is our own, to be different in order to make a difference, to make the future better.

This ambition is evident everywhere in the Puget Sound experience. You can see it in the distinctive new core that undergirds our rigorous liberal arts curriculum: a sequence of three seminars that seek to provide students first with the power to understand and enter into the disciplines of scholarly and creative inquiry, then to intelligently express their own views and to make coherent arguments, and ultimately to make connections between fields of knowledge and with the world of experience. You can see it in the impressive combinations of academic emphases our students define into their own paths of study and in the intensely innovative interdisciplinary programs with a global perspective that have thrived here—from International Political Economy to the Asian Scholars and Pac Rim programs, and from Environmental Studies to the Science, Technology & Society program. You can see it in our unique and celebrated orientation program—in Prelude, Passages, Urban Plunge, and ideas at work and play. You can see it in the active Puget Sound co-curricular life, which is based upon an entrepreneurial ethos of invention and innovation, in the way that Associated Students of University of Puget Sound clubs are annually organized and funded (more than 100 of them), and in programs such as the Social Justice Residence Program that face head-on difficult issues in the world. The aim through all these endeavors is to produce and develop intelligent and engaged inquirers who will make connections, make their own way, and make a difference.

Not Something You Get, But Something You Create

Our first effort at defining this distinctive sense of purpose at Puget Sound was in the new viewbook we created this year and are now adapting for the new Web site. Wrapping around the viewbook cover is a series of possibilities: “how to participate, how to contribute, how to challenge, how to analyze, how to communicate, how to connect,” and, finally, the concluding possibility when the cover is opened: “how to express yourself.” The Puget Sound experience is about learning how, about invention, about action, about challenging and creating for yourself, about giving of yourself, and ultimately it is about realizing and expressing your own complete uniqueness as a human being and the difference you can make in the world. More than one student has put it this way: “At Puget Sound, if you can dream it, you can do it.” The message is clear that a Puget Sound education is not something you get, it is something you do, a set of personal and intellectual relationships in which you immerse yourself. It is a story of self-creation and self-expression. It is an experience of finding the future and defining your place in it by making things better than they were before.


III. Directions

The Next Chapter

The next chapter of the Puget Sound experience will articulate and communicate these facts in a compelling way to build upon them and to create more opportunities for their realization: to attract the resources we need to be who we have become and to be even better. It will make our distinctions visible to the world and command its attention.

Our campus master plan—the Tapestry of Learning—is the physical manifestation of our strategic intentions: to unify the past with the future, to make a place where people connect and thrive, to integrate the academic and the cocurricular, to responsibly enhance our natural environment, to reach out to the community, and above all to be a model of excellence as a liberal arts college. It is also a strategic end in itself, aimed at making our campus a fully integrated environment for living and learning.

Our strategic plan will identify the programs and personnel needed to provide for the future and tell our story by calling attention to the ways Puget Sound offers a singular educational environment and an intellectual asset to the region. Our comprehensive capital campaign will focus us on acquiring the funds needed to accomplish these objectives.

Strengthening Our Distinctions

First, we must identify and fortify our points of distinction. We are an outstanding liberal arts college, with an excellent faculty and a curriculum that balances an ambitious liberal arts core, strong major programs, and rigorous interdisciplinarity. The strength and size of our faculty enables students to study in depth in the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Puget Sound is committed to the sustained relationship between students and faculty that enables students to discover their passions and to pursue them.

  • Most liberal arts colleges do not have the breadth and depth of faculty expertise to offer interdisciplinary major programs such as International Political Economy or Science, Technology & Society. Puget Sound does, and so our students explore new knowledge at the intersections of disciplines and engage the interconnectedness of a global-technological world.
  • Most liberal arts colleges do not have a school of business and leadership. Puget Sound does, and it provides innumerable advantages in internship and mentoring relationships in the greater Puget Sound business community.
  • Most liberal arts colleges do not have a first-rate school of music. We do, and it enables us to take advantage of the great artistic resources of Tacoma and Seattle, and the performing and visual art assets in our own university.
  • Most liberal arts colleges do not have a school of education, where you can earn a master’s degree in one year after graduation while engaging constructively the educational policies and practices of the nation. We do, and ours offers opportunities to connect with the public education system and influence its course for generations to come.

Integrated within our liberal arts mission, these programs, in partnership with our strong arts and sciences departments, provide us with distinct opportunities to make a difference in key areas of our community: in cross-cultural and technological issues, in the economy and business, in the arts and culture, and in education policy and practice. By weaving these threads together and making their value more visible, Puget Sound can extend its national reputation by being an intellectual asset to a dynamic, developing region, just as that region is an asset to us.

Focusing Energies and Forging New Initiatives

Next, we must see new opportunities integral to our identity as they emerge if we are to realize our ambitions of being a more visible and fully recognized intellectual asset to our community and of enhancing our national reputation. The perception in our community has been that in our national vision we have turned our back on our own region. It is not true; but our considerable investments—intellectual, cultural, clinical, and service—have largely been invisible and unheralded in part because they have been independent from one another and dispersed, rather than concentrated as a demonstrated commitment of the university. We need to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts by focusing energies, finding synergies and efficiencies, and providing institutional visibility through our extraordinary peaks of distinction in the sciences and the arts. For example:

Health Sciences: Informed by the results of our master planning efforts and sparked by the revitalization of our occupational and physical therapy programs, faculty have recommended adding a Health Sciences Center to synergize and leverage our unique programs in a critical, rapidly growing field. We propose to combine our strong undergraduate programs in psychology and exercise science, our graduate programs in physical and occupational therapy, and the health professions advising program, possibly adding a new neuroscience concentration to the curriculum. Integrated with related undergraduate programs, OT and PT join in creating a new point of strength and distinction in health and behavioral sciences that combines research and clinical expertise in these critically important fields.

Center for Strategic Issues: Leaders in the faculty recommend establishing a Center for Strategic Issues (CSI) to consolidate and leverage the extensive research and teaching by (and of) our students and faculty in areas that have strategic importance for the Puget Sound region and for the nation: in the areas of culture, public policy, the environment, and the economy. We know, for example, that the University of Puget Sound is situated in a region that is home to some of the nation’s most far-reaching environmental policy debates. Our students and faculty are involved already in data collection, site monitoring activities, and other research in the region on water quality, salmon populations, volcanic activity, transportation, and land use issues. Under the purview of the Center for Strategic Issues, they might convene a program around the theme of land use planning or water policy in the Puget Sound region as a first effort, to bring together faculty research, student projects, and the work of a variety of community organizations and to establish Puget Sound as an intellectual resource. The Business Leadership Program has other projects in place as part of its curriculum and would participate in new initiatives. Education and African American Studies would build upon the program held last year on education and the impacts of the No Child Left Behind law to continue to meet with local educators and community leaders to strengthen public education in our region.

Like the Health Sciences Center, the CSI would realize in new form the driving principles of the Puget Sound experience: crossing boundaries, forging connections, making a difference. Both would also make visible and more effective the extensive activity already taking place at Puget Sound that helps to make the university such an asset in the region on issues of national importance.

Science and Natural History: Undergraduate science education excels in the environment of Puget Sound, where independent research and inquiry-based labs are available to all students, not just to upperclassmen or science majors. The excellence of our curricular program, which has kept pace with the best trends in undergraduate science teaching, joined with the new science center that accommodates the growing integration of the sciences, means that Puget Sound will continue to be a leader in science education. The experience students gain with state-of-the-art equipment, comparable to that available in educational research and commercial laboratories, makes them competitive in the country’s strongest graduate programs (including Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Chicago, and Washington University in recent years) and qualifies them for acceptance into medical school at a rate 50 percent higher than the national average.

One of the benefits of our new science center is the potential for the enhancement, exposure, and accessibility of a Puget Sound prize possession that remains a secret to most of the world, and to our own community: the Slater Museum of Natural History. The Slater holds the second largest natural history collection in the Pacific Northwest. Although 75,000 specimens from around the world are housed in the Slater Museum, the collections are especially rich in representing regional biodiversity. A comparative survey of natural history museums associated with small colleges, conducted last fall, demonstrated that the Slater Museum is truly a distinctive asset for the University of Puget Sound based on the scope of its collections, its research mission, and its potential for educational outreach. None of the museums canvassed have as strong a research component as the Slater Museum, especially given that the collections are also open to the public. The Slater is but one feature in an outstanding science program that could become a defining feature, along with our new science building, and reinforce our goal of making environmental responsibility central to the Puget Sound experience.

The Arts, Culture, and Community: We are currently investigating formal educational partnerships with the Museum of Glass, the Washington State History Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, and the African American Museum to enhance our teaching of the liberal arts by expanding our relationship with other arts and cultural organizations in the city (like the Northwest Sinfonietta). The aim is to enrich our students’ encounters with the arts in the world and to leverage Puget Sound’s major cultural presence in the region, thanks in large part to the nine performing ensembles of our outstanding School of Music and the network of affiliations that exist between our faculty and students in the performing and visual arts throughout the region. Enhanced by the strength in the liberal arts disciplines and an emphasis in arts management in the School of Music and the School of Business and Leadership, the potential here is immense, especially in a city whose renaissance has depended heavily on the development of arts and culture.


IV. Next Steps

A Liberal Arts College with the Assets of a Great University

No other liberal arts college possesses this combination of resources or can offer this range of assets to impact its region and to attract the attention of the nation. By strengthening our distinctive programs and pursuing these new initiatives, Puget Sound will be, singularly, a university that functions like the finest liberal arts colleges and a college that has the assets of a great university. With our strategically packaged ensemble of centers and programs joined to and emerging out of a strong liberal arts core and curriculum, we will be recognized as the intellectual asset we are, making a difference in the lives of our students and in the life of our region and the nation.

Instilling Pride

One of our greatest sources of pride is the alumni of this university, who distinguish themselves at such a high level throughout the world and throughout the range of human experience. They embody the spirit of leadership and innovation we have identified above and form a remarkable group of individuals in their communities.

While we have produced more Peace Corps volunteers than almost any university our size, our alumni are also CEOs of large companies, officers in international corporations, heads of non-profit organizations working for international understanding and environmental policy, successful performing and visual artists, financial analysts and investors, entrepreneurs and developers, physicians and educators, and elected officials.

We must more effectively convey to our alumni our pride in them through our programs, our publications, our Web site, and our personal encounters with them. And by more effectively communicating the achievements of the university to the world, we will also inspire their pride in their alma mater. We must also attend to the distinctions of the Puget Sound experience in attracting alumni back to campus and engaging them with the university. We should not focus entirely on looking back in nostalgia (as many alumni organizations do), but on looking forward to the future as we provide programs that make a difference to our graduates and to the university.

Supporting Diversity

We want to be a community that respects and thrives on difference, one that provides a place where diverse viewpoints, ethnicities, traditions, and orientations can be explored and appreciated. As well, in order that we prepare effectively citizen-leaders for a pluralistic world, we must continue the work to transform curriculum and increase the diversity of our campus community. Since 1987, we have grown our student population from 7 percent students of color to 17 percent. In the next decade, we are committed to seeing another dramatic increase in that number. Since 1995, the university has also worked in partnership with Tacoma Public Schools through the Access to College Initiative (now called Access Programs) to support local students from grade seven through high school in order to increase the number of students from underrepresented populations who go on to college. Eighty-nine percent of the students who have completed the Access program have gone on to college; nine of 49 have enrolled at Puget Sound. We will explore ways to increase this successful program. We also recognize that diversity is not about numbers alone but about a quality of life and a commitment to values. In addition to vigorously recruiting talented students, faculty, and staff of color, therefore, we will make diversity a strategic objective. We are committed to expanding our race and pedagogy discussions to a high-profile, regularly convened national conference on Race and Pedagogy to be held on our campus, the first of which is now scheduled for fall 2006. We will foster collaborations between the School of Education and the African American Studies program (and others), through the auspices of the Center for Strategic Issues, to continue the dialogue begun last year with the education and local communities on topics like the No Child Left Behind Act. We will explore the establishment of an associate dean dedicated to the inclusion of diversity objectives in all we do in our academic and co-curricular programs.

Building Demand

A Puget Sound education as we have defined it is expensive. In the increasingly competitive marketplace in which we find ourselves, we must convey its value to prospective students and their families in a way that will build demand for that experience: those who can afford it will be willing to pay for it so that financial aid can be shifted to those who can not. In addition to the programmatic enhancements noted above, we have appointed a new director of communications, a graphic designer, and a Web manager to design and implement a complete communications plan, renewing all print materials, redesigning and reengineering our Web site, refining and focusing our messaging, strengthening our institutional identity, and attracting local and national media coverage. We have also engaged consultants to assist us in more effectively defining and reaching our market, identifying specific strategies to build demand for the Puget Sound experience, and positioning us strongly in the marketplace of leading liberal arts colleges.

Commanding Resources in a Campaign

Our story, well-told, will enable us to command the resources needed to realize our vision. We must be able to afford to operate the institution that we have become. That will demand an ambitious and compelling comprehensive capital campaign. In preparation, we have completed an audit of our Office of University Relations (OUR). Its recommendations for a more integrated, goal-oriented operation will be implemented with new leadership to enable us to prepare the ground for that campaign. We will invest in the OUR and engage a firm to assist us in planning a successful campaign for Puget Sound and command the considerable resources necessary to build our campus, increase our endowment, and fund our efforts.

Working Together

Among the qualities of the Puget Sound experience is a collaborative spirit, a sense of cooperation and optimism about the future joined with a conviction that we are capable of doing what needs to be done to realize our collective vision. With that spirit, we will gather the creative energies of our students and faculty, the dedication of our staff and administrative team, the experience and perspective of our alumni, the wisdom and commitment of our trustees, and the interest of our friends to work together to more effectively tell—and to be—one of the best stories in higher education.

To this end, the University of Puget Sound will:

  • Be nationally known as a great liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest with the resources of a great university.
  • Build a campus that is an inspiring, fully integrated living and learning environment that takes full advantage of the vibrant resources of our singular urban and natural setting.
  • Provide the most successful integration anywhere of a traditional liberal arts curriculum with innovative interdisciplinary programs, research and learning centers, and co-curricular activities.
  • Make membership in the Puget Sound family an enriching life-long investment that instills intense pride and an ongoing, growing relationship with the university.
  • Develop the resources necessary to meet the full educational needs of our increasingly diverse and talented student body.


We will realize Puget Sound’s vision and mission by being the very best version of ourselves, and we will stand with distinction among the most highly regarded colleges in the nation.