Campus Conversations recap

In February, the Western community came together for the first in a series of Campus Conversations focusing on inclusiveness, diversity and sustainability.

About 75 students, faculty, staff and cabinet members joined in the University Center Ballroom to start a dialogue fostering constructive feedback and possible paths forward.

In attendance were President Greg Salsbury, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Brad Baca, Vice President for Academic Affairs Bill Niemi, Vice President of Marketing & Institutional Advancement John Kawauchi, Vice President of Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer Julie Feier and Vice President for Student Affairs Gary Pierson.

Board of Trustees Member Noel Hagen moderated the roundtable discussion, which was broken into two major topics: Salsbury’s relationship with students, and diversity and inclusion.

Prior to the event, community members submitted questions via email. Those inquires directed the conversation.

The first two questions, “Why does it seem like you [Salsbury] never attend or are involved in campus student initiatives?” and “What are you [Salsbury] doing to better connect with the student population at Western?” kicked off the discussion.

Salsbury acknowledged that some students feel they know Pierson better than their president and committed to doing more outreach among the student body. Next semester Salsbury will teach another class in conjunction with Pete Sherman, dean of the Borick School of Business. Students can also set up one-on-one meetings with Salsbury or invite him to student-group meetings via president@western.edu

“One of the things coming out, one of the pieces of feedback I am hearing from students is that ‘we don’t know you very well.’ I am trying to change that,” Salsbury said.

Salsbury also said that he must be cautious about implicitly or explicitly providing the Western endorsement on movements and events.

“I am in huge support of free speech and academic freedom and open interaction. I very much encourage the dialogue and the format for the dialogue, but I have to be somewhat careful on positioning,” Salsbury said.

The conversation then moved on to diversity and inclusion, focusing on what the university is doing to attract more minority community members, specifically faculty and students.

Niemi addressed the first question, why the faculty minority levels do not mirror Western’s 18 percent student minority level. 

It’s an important issue, Niemi said, because having a faculty mentor with a similar background can improve student retention and success rates.

A main roadblock Western runs into is that only about 5 percent of the 50,000 Ph.D.’s awarded in the last five years were earned by African-Americans and only 6 percent were earned by Hispanics, Niemi said. Many higher education institutions are trying to increase their faculty diversity as well, which means Western competes over these scholars with many other universities. Research institutions often have more funds than Western does, enabling them to better attract those candidates as professors.

Already, Western employment search committees are charged with looking for diverse candidates, and the university advertises open positions in professional journals and national publications with minority audiences.

To improve diversity outreach, Western must better leverage current faculty members’ networks and learn more about national best practices, Niemi said.

During the discussion, one student suggested creating a diversity committee—a “good idea” Niemi said he would look into.

Niemi also noted that Western’s faculty gender diversity has improved in recent years, jumping to 46 percent women—which matches the output of new Ph.Ds.

Additionally, in the last handful of years, student diversity has increased from 11% to 18%. Some of that has come from increased recruiting efforts in the Front Range and Denver metro area. Applications from women and minority students are up, but Western still has work to do on convincing those accepted to enroll, Kawauchi said.

One Master of Environmental Management student suggested promoting Western’s excellent professors as a means of recruitment—along with asking students to reach out to their home networks.

“We have made phenomenal progress on diversity. Our staff is a little bit more diverse than our faculty but not quite as diverse as our students. But we have made improvements there as well over the last four years,” Salsbury said. “And we’ve made huge improvements with the student body…. We hope to for the next strategic plan … find some strategy that will help us approach those results with the faculty.”  

“We are about to begin the process of crafting our new strategic plan,” Salsbury said. “We are going to need a lot of input on that in regard to diversity. We are looking for input from a lot of different stakeholders on what we can do there.” 

Other points in the two-hour-long conversation focused on the importance of providing an inclusive community on campus.  Salsbury said he would not tolerate hate or discrimination. Recently, he signed two statements in support of diversity and minorities in higher education.  

One was a diversity and inclusivity statement generated by faculty, meant to reflect supportiveness of a diverse culture at Western. The second was a letter originally distributed by the University of Pomona in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Pierson suggested students who have concerns or comments related to campus diversity voice them at Student Government Association meetings—which are held weekly on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. in the University Center Ballroom. They can also meet with someone at the Office of Student Affairs.  

“We need to hear from you, what your concerns or your issues are,” Pierson said. “We can’t be everywhere 24/7. You don’t want us to be everywhere 24/7, but you know we want to keep you posted about what is going on.”

The next Campus Conversation will take place on March 28 at noon in the University Center South Ballroom. Community members can submit questions or topic ideas at western.edu/campusconversation.