The following is a transcript prepared by University of Puget Sound’s Office of Communication of President Isiaah Crawford’s welcome address for faculty and staff members, delivered Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, in Schneebeck Concert Hall. Information proprietary to Puget Sound, including financial projections and compensation, has been redacted.
Welcome to the beginning of the fall semester!
I open our gathering today by acknowledging that Puget Sound is located on the traditional homelands of the Puyallup Tribe. The Puyallup people have lived on and stewarded these lands since the beginning of time, and continue to do so today. We recognize that this land acknowledgement is one small step toward true allyship and we commit to uplifting the voices, experiences, and histories of the Indigenous people of this land and beyond.
My friends, it is good to see you. It is really, really good to see you, and to be together in person at long last. I offer greetings to all of you here in Schneebeck Concert Hall with me, and to those of you joining us via our live-stream. A transcript of my remarks will be made available on the university’s website following my address for those who are not able to be with us today or tune in.
We have worked very, very, very hard as a community to make this return to campus possible, for our students and for ourselves. Our vaccination requirement, social distancing, cleaning, masking, and testing protocols are some of the key mitigations that we have in place to attend to the health and safety of our community. I’d like to thank again the members of our COVID-19 Management Group, and all of our faculty, staff and students for your extraordinary commitment to helping the university navigate the challenges of the pandemic.
For some of you, this might be your first time in a large, indoor gathering, so please give each other a little space, and thank you for keeping your masks on and over both your nose and mouth.
We are now considered a fully vaccinated campus, which is no small feat. I’d like to thank our colleagues in Counseling, Health and Wellness Services (CHWS) and Human Resources for their support of this effort. To date, 97% of faculty and staff are vaccinated with 3% securing medical or religious exemptions. About 96% of students are vaccinated, with 1% securing exemptions. These numbers will change a bit as we get closer to the first day of classes. CHWS is currently following up with a small number of students who have not responded, and who will not be able to attend class or participate on campus until they do. While we aren’t out of the pandemic woods just yet, our very high vaccination rate is a major milestone in our return to what we do best—in-person, highly-engaged, residential, liberal arts education.
And that’s the last time you’re going to hear me say words like “return” or “going back”—because there is no going back. We are always moving forward, with purpose and intention, to become the university of the future, and to firmly establish Puget Sound among the finest institutions in the country. We are taking our highly intentional and relational way of supporting students and discovering new knowledge, and applying it to the realities in which we find ourselves today. Our goal, always, is to create the best possible liberal arts education for our students of today and for those who will follow them.
Our Leadership for a Changing World strategic plan is our blueprint for that future, and is helping us deliver on our mission in new and exciting ways. At the center of the plan—and everything we do—is our commitment to student success. That’s why we’re here. That’s what we do. And it is the greatest privilege of our work lives to see our young people grow and mature into the leaders that our world needs. Every single member of our faculty and staff are integral to making that happen. No matter what your role is, you are here because what you do is essential to helping our students succeed.
It is not easy work—especially in these circumstances and conditions—but when you go home at the end of the day, I hope you carry in your heart the knowledge that the work that you do is important, and that by raising up this new generation of leaders you play a vital role in making the world a more just, humane, and sustainable place for all.
Today I will touch on a couple of topics that I believe are top of mind for us all as we look toward this academic year and all that we will accomplish together.
First, as I said, student success is key. We are actively working on the recommendations that have come forward from the Student Success Task Force to ensure that every student is deeply connected to the resources and support that are critical to their success. The faculty’s commitment to provide experiential learning opportunities for every student—and our institutional commitment to fund that effort—is also absolutely essential to providing a challenging and engaging education that draws students to Puget Sound and prepares them for life after college.
We know that high-impact engagement with internships, research and other creative work, mentorship, study abroad or away, and other hands-on opportunities leads to deep learning and strong educational outcomes.
This summer our Academic and Student Affairs divisions introduced the new “FYI Puget Sound” program, which provides an intensive orientation experience for selected students. FYI is designed to promote a successful introduction to college life and work. I’m happy to report that this first year went extraordinarily well, with 26 talented students completing the program. It was my great pleasure to greet them on campus earlier this month, in a wonderful welcome event put together by Dr. LaToya Brackett. I’d like to thank her for her important leadership of this effort, and all of our faculty, staff and students who worked to develop and implement this program to more deeply engage our incoming students.
Earlier this summer I also welcomed to campus Dr. Lorna Hernandez Jarvis, our new Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity. Dr. Hernandez Jarvis will play a critical role in student success as we build on our efforts to create a strong culture of belonging at Puget Sound.
She is off to a strong start: working with Human Resources to schedule professional development training for faculty and staff; evaluating the role of the Bias Hate Emergency Response Team in how the university processes the reporting of bias incidents; and reaching out to and meeting with several faculty and staff members as well as students and student groups, including members of the Multi-Identity Based Student Union, ASUPS, and the JSU.
It was my great pleasure to introduce her to Chairman Sterud of the Puyallup Tribe shortly after her arrival last month, and I know plans are already underway to hold campus sessions on our most recent campus climate survey, which will include recommended action steps to address the findings. I hope you can join us for a reception to meet Dr. Hernandez Jarvis on Monday, Sept. 20th—my office will get out an invitation to you soon.
I’d also like express my gratitude to Sarah Comstock for so ably taking on the role of interim Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students. She will be at the helm of Student Affairs while we undertake a national search for a successor to Dr. Uchenna Baker, who left us this summer to return to the East Coast and be closer to family.
And I want to acknowledge a significant change in the leadership of the Race and Pedagogy Institute (RPI) with Dr. Dexter Gordon’s recent departure for a new role at The Evergreen State College. RPI is a signature program of the university and we remain firmly committed to its ongoing success. I call upon us all to support this work which provides an unparalleled opportunity for our campus and our community to work, learn and act together to eliminate racism.
I’ve just spent some time talking about some major leadership changes, and it may well feel right now like the only thing that is constant at Puget Sound is change. Along with other employers across the United States we are seeing higher than usual turnover rates and challenges in hiring new staff members. I know that this is a source of stress across our campus as we work to fill our open positions as quickly as we can.
As you may be aware, we are searching now for a new Associate Vice President for Human Resources, following Cindy Matern’s retirement next week. We are grateful to her for her many years of service to Puget Sound, and also to our colleague Erin Ruff who will serve as interim associate vice president until our new colleague is on board. With the hiring of our new associate vice president, we will look to build on the training and employee support programs offered by this office that does so much to care for the needs of our faculty and staff, and which is dealing with staffing shortages itself as HR helps us fill our open positions.
As we say farewell to valued colleagues and welcome new talent to Puget Sound, I remain confident in our ability to extend grace to one another as we navigate change and move this incredible institution forward.
Of note, in addition to the important work taking place to foster student success, our Leadership for a Changing World strategic plan calls us to build upon our outstanding academic reputation. We are doing that in a number of ways, and I’d like to talk about two areas in particular.
First, we are building our reputation as an outstanding college for the study of the sciences and health sciences, in both highly visible and financially sustainable ways.
Our new Master in Public Health program received a generous $460,000 grant from The Murdock Trust and is now fully enrolled under the leadership of Dr. Cara Frankenfeld, who joined us earlier this year. The mission of this new program is to prepare culturally responsive graduates who promote health equity and community wellness, serving diverse populations at the local, national and global level.
The new M.P.H. program is a strong complement to our already robust offerings and strong enrollments in the sciences and health sciences across our undergraduate and graduate programs. This is an important area of distinction for Puget Sound, especially in an era in which so many of the world’s biggest challenges—from climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic—require solutions based in sound scientific reasoning and discovery.
Our highly sought-after graduate programs in education, occupational therapy and physical therapy also draw students to campus and provide important connections and service to the broader community, which in turn generates more visibility and support for our undergraduate programs.
Community partnerships are essential to this work, and we are very pleased to have entered into an agreement with MultiCare last spring to host a respiratory clinic here on campus as just one example of an effective university-community partnership.
In the coming year we will also pursue a recommendation that has come forward to develop a Center for Pacific Rim Studies. Such a center will build on the expertise of our faculty and scholarship related to Asia and Latin America, and leverage our location and relationships here on the shores of Puget Sound. I’ve asked Provost Behling to work with faculty to develop a proposal to bring this project to fruition over the course of the year.
The biggest questions before us in the coming year are determining how we can best deliver on our mission in sustainable ways as we embrace new opportunities like these, and also face new challenges – not just the challenges imposed on us by the pandemic, but the changing landscape of higher education and threats to our business model.
Last month I appointed an Academic, Administrative, and Auxiliary Program Review Steering Committee, working closely with our trustees and faculty and staff leadership to appoint about 30 members from across our community. This is a very large group, but it is absolutely essential that we have many voices and perspectives around the table as we take a good, hard look at our strengths, our challenges and our needs, and align our resources to support our goals.
The ultimate purpose of the program review is to look at the institution as whole and identify areas where we need to make investments and areas where we need to become more efficient and effective in what we do.
This is a faculty and staff that works extremely hard, with very full and busy days. We have an obligation to be clear about our priorities, and to support you in the delivery of our mission. By becoming more focused and more attentive to sustainability—of our programs and services, but also of our people—I am confident that we will emerge from this year-long process with good insights and an actionable plan that will make Puget Sound a better place to live, learn, and work.
We will engage the entire campus community in the program review process, which is being chaired by Provost Behling. The plan is to have a final report from the Steering Committee next summer, which I will take to the board next fall. The Steering Committee will offer its first town hall for the campus community shortly to report on its work to date.
In the meantime, we have plenty of work to do as we begin to implement the Strategic Enrollment Plan that Dr. Matt Boyce, our vice president for enrollment, has taken the lead in developing over the past year. The plan will be reviewed with trustees and shared with the campus community this fall, with a focus on doing more to promote the strengths of our distinctive academic program. The plan also outlines strategies for stabilizing enrollment, lowering our admit rate, increasing yield, moderating our discount rate, increasing student retention, and involving more of the campus in the student recruitment effort.
Some of the new initiatives underway include more emphasis on enrolling students from Washington state. Unlike other areas of the country, we still have fairly high numbers of high-school age young people who are planning on attending college. The enrollment team is also hosting a video crew on campus next week to capture footage for a show featuring the university that will air on Amazon Prime. The College Tour will premiere later this fall, and it will be terrific to have this additional exposure to tell the Puget Sound story to an ever-broader audience.
Meanwhile, I know that information about the Class of 2025 has been on everyone’s minds, and I am pleased to report that they are extraordinary by nearly any measure:
- They have impressive academic accomplishments, with average grade point averages of 3.55 and average SAT scores of 1247.
- They come to us from just across town and halfway around the globe. In addition to the U.S., they attended high school in Austria, Azerbaijan, China, Singapore, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates. They speak nearly two dozen languages.
- Fifteen percent are the first in their families to attend college, while another 11% have a family member who is a Logger alum.
- Thirty-three percent are students of color, including 21% who identify as underrepresented minorities.
- The youngest is 17, and the oldest is 33.
- Thirty percent plan to participate in Puget Sound athletics, demonstrating once again how important it is to students that we offer a fully rounded experience.
The members of this class have had every manner of academic preparation—private school, public school, home school and gap years—and we are excited to welcome our sixth cohort of Posse students, who are always especially well prepared for their first-year college experience.
Given that these young people are beginning their college education against the backdrop of a pandemic—they have already demonstrated the resilience and adaptability that are necessary for success at Puget Sound. I have no doubt that they will do amazing things over the next four years. Their top five career interests at this time—and we know that these shift a lot, particularly after their first year on campus—are physical, occupational or speech therapist, scientific researcher, business executive, physician and, my personal favorite, clinical psychologist. We will be able to support all of these ambitions and more.
The only thing we could wish about this class is that there were more of them. While the incoming class is outstanding, our undergraduate enrollment for academic year 21–22 continues to remain below our goals. Our incoming first-year class currently numbers 414, including 56 students who deferred their enrollment from fall 2020.
I spoke with a number of them and their parents over the weekend, and they indicated that the way in which we prioritized the health of our community and communicated throughout the pandemic further solidified their commitment to attend Puget Sound.
This seems to hold true for our continuing undergraduate students as well. Retention looks strong. We expect to have the highest retention rate for first-to-second-year students in the last six years. And we’ve put greater emphasis on transfer students, and are seeing that population increasing compared to recent years.
Our strategic plan anticipates a decline in undergraduate students and calls for us to increase our graduate program enrollment, and that is working well. Our graduate programs collectively have an enrollment of 308 students, bringing our total enrollment to a projected 2,200 students for fall. We are projected to exceed our enrollment goals in the M.A.T. program, occupational therapy and physical therapy. Of course, over-enrollment brings its own challenges that we must work through, but our overall strategy to add graduate enrollment in key areas is promising, and will help us attract undergraduate students as well.
So. The next question that I’m sure is on your minds is: where does this leave us financially?
First and foremost, our current and long-term financial health is strong, even while our net tuition revenue has declined and costs related to the pandemic have increased. Our endowment provides distributions that help fund student financial aid and campus operations, and is a clear marker of our overall financial stability.
Evaluations from ratings agencies are another sign of strength. During the past year Moody’s and S&P both affirmed Puget Sound’s ratings, which has not been the case for many, many other colleges. This is a very important expression of confidence in our ability to navigate our way through our current challenges in financially sustainable ways.
We’ve been successful in securing funding through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act; the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act; and the American Recovery Plan. And we are pursuing one-time funding from FEMA, insurance policies, and other sources.
We also have some temporary savings from open positions as we compete for talent in a very competitive job market. The priority is to fill those positions that are most critical to our success in our current environment, and to do so as quickly as possible.
Within this context, it is imperative that we provide the best compensation that we can afford. It will take us some time to get back to a fully balanced budget, but our faculty and staff need and deserve compensation increases now. I am very aware that, aside from promotions, there has not been a general increase in salaries since July 2019. We promised to get back to you about the contingent 1% salary pool increases recommended by the Budget Task Force once we had a better idea of what our enrollment numbers looked like this fall. Enrollment data are important information for us to have in updating our long-range financial plan, but I want to be clear that our lower enrollment does not mean that compensation increases are off the table.
There are many components that make up our budget, and the choices that we make must be grounded in our strategic priority of supporting and inspiring our faculty and staff who deliver our Puget Sound education. I am working with Cabinet colleagues on a proposal to bring to the board that would allow us to provide increases before the end of the calendar year, and I expect to have more information for you about this following the October board meeting.
Benefits are another important aspect of compensation. One of our unknown costs for 2022 (and every year) is the cost of our medical plan. We will have more information about that as we get closer to open enrollment in the fall. Meanwhile, retirement contributions will continue at 6% without requiring a match by employees.
We will also add two paid holidays. The first is for staff and will occur on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. The second is Juneteenth. Our faculty need some time to work through the appropriate process to adjust the summer academic calendar such that we can make this happen next year and in all subsequent years for our entire campus community.
As a residential liberal arts college, we put a very high priority on interpersonal, in-person engagement but also appreciate that the world of work is changing. While the vast majority of us will be back on campus full-time to support students and each other in person, a smaller percentage will experiment with part-time telework this fall. The telework policy was updated this summer, and may be applied differently in each area depending on the nature of our roles and departmental and institutional needs.
As we roll this out, we are mindful of how important it is to participate fully in campus life. We are off to a successful start of the year with the many in-person events for our incoming students, new and returning faculty, and other gatherings. We also are looking forward to a stellar offering of lectures and other events this year, including this fall’s Susan Resneck Pierce Lecture in Public Affairs and the Arts and Dolliver lecture which will take place right here in Schneebeck Concert Hall and feature Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen.
There is a lot to look forward to this fall! You may be feeling elation, unease, relief, or any number and combination of emotions as you resume your work on campus. Please know that our students are struggling with these same emotions. Mental health concerns were already rising before the pandemic. Give yourself and others time, space, and grace as we navigate this semester, focus on our priorities, and deliver on our goals.
This will be a year of moving forward. We cannot and will not sit still. I will take to the road again this fall to meet with alumni and friends of the university, and we are in conversation with the board about launching a comprehensive campaign to support key objectives of the Leadership for a Changing World strategic plan next year.
Of course, this depends in large part on what direction the pandemic takes, but we have proven together over the past 18 months that there is nothing that we can’t handle.
University of Puget Sound has known hardship before—this isn’t our first pandemic, and it won’t be the last thing that throws us a proverbial curve ball. Our strength comes from the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of those who have stewarded this campus before us. We are carrying forward a legacy of continual improvement in our quest to be the absolute best college and community that we can be.
We will continue our focus on curricular and programmatic innovation.
We will continue to advance those aspects of what we do that are truly distinctive to Puget Sound.
And even as we emphasize our strengths in specific, distinctive programs, we will do so knowing that these are examples of the Puget Sound liberal arts experience as a whole. What is truly special about Puget Sound is the ways in which our students experience the best of the sciences, the arts, the social sciences and the humanities, infusing their educations with a broad and deep perspective, hands-on learning, and a commitment to cultural competency that prepares them to make this a better world.
The decisions we make today will affect the Puget Sound of tomorrow and for generations to come. Our predecessors brought forward the best of themselves so that we could be here today. We have the privilege and the responsibility to steer this institution through the challenges of the present day, to make hard choices when they need to be made, and to keep our students at the center of everything we do. We need leadership at all levels of the institution to be successful.
We need you.
The Greek motto on our seal—“Pros ta akra”—has long been translated as “to the heights.” Our colleagues in Classics would give us a more nuanced interpretation of this translation, but I think we can agree that it is an aspiration best expressed not only by a sense of moving upward but outward. Puget Sound offers a broad and rich landscape of opportunities like no other university. This is who we are. This is who we have always been. So in closing I say with pride: Pros ta akra! To the heights!
I remain thankful and humbled as always to play even a small role in this trajectory of this great college with all of you.
I usually favor shorter remarks but there is so much news to share as we begin what I am sure will be a very memorable fall semester. We will keep you informed throughout the year in all the usual ways, and also continue our new tradition of regular town hall meetings. But for now, let’s adjourn for food and conversation!
I hope those of you here in Schneebeck can join me for our reception outdoors, and that those of you joining us virtually can begin to make your way over to Karlen Quad. Thank you for coming, and here’s to another amazing year at the college we love.