By Rebecca Briesmoore and Brian Wagenaar
In the final student session for presidential candidates this week, Dr. Michelle Rogers sat with students in the Harry Potter room of the Savage Library in the late afternoon on Thursday, March 10. She opted to skip over a formal introduction, choosing instead to briefly explain her interest in Western, before opening the floor to questions. “Feel free to ask me anything that you want, and don’t hold back,” she offered.
Dr. Rogers says she is looking for a more rural, intimate community, and weighing options to potentially leave the Los Angeles area, and “really [get] back to the core of humanity.” So, she decided to give Western a chance, and says she has greatly appreciated the passion on display throughout campus during her busy day of stakeholder input sessions.
Here are the highlights on Dr. Rogers’ background from an article we published March 4:
Dr. Michelle Rogers brings a diverse background in educational administration, research, and management to the search. A first-generation college student, Dr. Rogers studied Public Relations and English Literature at SUNY Oswego (graduating in 1994), before earning a master’s degree in Educational and Academic Administration from the University of Rochester in 2011.
In 2019, Dr. Rogers earned her Doctorate of Education (Ed.D) in Leadership for Educational Justice from the University of Redlands while serving in the university’s administration.
Dr. Rogers’ doctoral thesis examined social class and the college experience, and she wrote a chapter on the topic of social class for the 2021 book “Social class supports: Examples of programs and practices to serve poor and working class students in higher education.”
Dr. Rogers came to the University of Redlands, a private university serving roughly 5,000 students in Redlands, California (about 60 miles east of Los Angeles) in 2013 to serve as Chief of Staff and General Secretary to the President’s office.
In 2020, she was promoted to Vice President for Administration, where she now oversees wide-ranging departments like Facilities Management, Human Resources, Public Safety, Event Services, and Title IX, as well as an operating budget of roughly $30 million.
She heads up the university’s Covid-19 response and is actively working to build a 30-acre, sustainability-developed neighborhood on university property.
The student response
In an interview held immediately after the session’s conclusion, Alli Williamson, a Psychology major with a minor in Business, said she most admired Roger’s personability. “She was very personable, open and vulnerable. That’s something I really admire in someone,” says Williamson. Williamson also thought that Rogers didn’t come across with a big ego. “Coming into a position, a lot of people can have that sort of thing. She didn’t come across that way at all.”
Several questions during the session directly addressed the lack of diversity on campus and Williamson agrees that the next president should diversify Western and increase student understanding of different cultures and groups. “I would love to see a president who brings in a lot of diversity to the school and is able to keep it,” notes Williamson.
Williamson believes that Rogers, who has a daughter in the LGBTQIA+ community, understands that community, “I feel that will bring a lot of diversity and inclusion for people who are part of that community at Western.”
Williamson also indicated her desire for the new president to encourage conversation at Western. “The president needs to be able to ask the right questions to open up people’s opinions. They need to make sure to bring in the right tools to help start that conversation and not be closed off,” she adds. Williamson feels Rogers would successfully navigate these conversations and create a comfortable space for those difficult conversations.
Williamson also wants to see the new president address security on campus and believes that since Rogers is female, she would be more understanding of safety concerns, and more likely to act upon them. Williamson would like to see additional security measures put in place such as better lighting at night and security cameras to feel more comfortable walking around campus.
“I think there are some concerning [security] things on campus that are overlooked or not acted on. If we had a female president she would be able to bring in some safety to campus so there is less worrying about always having to have someone [walk] with you.”
During the session, Rogers turned around the questioning to ask students what they like about Western. Williamson, who also works in the Welcome Center as a student ambassador giving tours to prospective students, told Rogers that she appreciates the small classroom sizes on campus and the ability to have personal relationships with faculty. “I think the faculty really cares about student success,” said Rogers.
Brayden Kammers, a Political Science major minoring in Philosophy, was also impressed by Roger’s responses to questions. “All the answers passed satisfactorily. There were no slip-ups,” relays Kammers. Kammers wants a president who can bridge what he sees as a big division between diverse thought and political issues.
“[I want] someone that will be able to address both sides of the political spectrum. And someone that will be ready to take on possible blowback from people, not just at Western, but the [Gunnison] Valley as well,” says Kammers.
Kammers, who is a member of the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) Committee, also wants to see the new president take on issues of diversity and equity at Western. Kammers envisions a future where faculty and staff at Western are required to take DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) training, so he asked Rogers if she would require it for faculty and staff. In a recent development, Western requires incoming students to complete DEI training, but not faculty and staff. Dr. Rogers responded that she would implement DEI training for all faculty and staff, in addition to students.
While Kammers was unable to attend the student input sessions for Brad Baca and Dr. Maria Klawe, he researched all three candidates and says Rogers was his top choice prior to attending the session. He appreciates Rogers’ background in liberal arts and feels she is more personable than Brad Baca.
“When you talk to [Baca] he’s more shut off. He has to be more administrative [in his role]. Talking to Rogers I didn’t get that stern tone. Kammers sees Roger’s relative lack of more institutional experience as an advantage. “It allows her to be more personable and connected to students,” notes Kammers.
Thursday’s session with Dr. Rogers was Samantha Schaefer’s first of the week. A Communications major with an emphasis in Film Studies and a History minor, Schaefer appreciated Dr. Rogers’ openness to tough questions.
“She didn’t shy away…she actually talked in depth and she clearly has an understanding for racial issues,” says Schaefer, who also values diversity and felt that Dr. Rogers connected well with students. She especially appreciated that the presidential hopeful encouraged students to not hold back with their questions.
Anastasia Davis, a Biology major with an emphasis in Wildlife and Conservation Biology, as well as dual minors in Art and Chemistry, has been to all three sessions, and noted that Dr. Rogers seemed the most comfortable of the three finalists, and that she appreciated Dr. Rogers’ efforts to relate to and validate students who asked questions.
Davis noted that during the Stop Asian Hate March in April 2021, it seemed as though President Salsbury was being forced to attend. Davis wants to see a president who is enthusiastic about attending similar events led by students, and supports students who may not always feel welcomed.
She is quick to add that whatever candidate secures the job, the top priority is to continue healing the campus’ wounds from the turbulent fallout of former President Salsbury’s tenure. “If that [mistrust] persists five years down the line to the same level as now, I don’t think [the future President] did a good job,” says Davis, with Schaefer adding that Western’s community is in a vulnerable state.
Answering student’s questions
Over the session’s span, Dr. Rogers spoke to both her personal values and opinions, and to a broader vision for Western, responding to the first question, “What does student success look like to you?” with the goal that students feel as though Western has delivered on its promises. “Student success to me is when a student picks this institution for reasons that we are actually able to deliver on,” says Rogers.
“For me, a big part of what student success looks like is having been able to provide an environment where students feel free to explore all aspects of their identity, and to do so in a way where it’s okay to have uncomfortable and challenging discourse, but also be respectful.”
She also mentioned supporting students holistically (touching on mental, physical and emotional aspects) and fostering a culture where professors are accessible, and faculty and staff have the support they require to provide students the resources they need to thrive. “Everything that an institution does should be centered around the student experience, both inside and outside of the classroom,” she adds.
Asked about boosting the diversity of Western’s staff, Dr. Rogers noted that it’s critical that Western be intentional and think critically on what communities are not sufficiently present at Western, and make a plan to entice diverse faculty to come to Western.
“We have to make sure that when people get here, they feel welcome [and] safe, and see other people who look like them,” she adds. Dr. Rogers hopes that Western can grow its diverse faculty and staff to the point where tokenization and overburdening diverse individuals is not a pressing concern.
Dr. Rogers also spoke to the many aspects of diversity, including race, class, gender, religion, age, and ability. She brought up an experience at the University of Redlands where she came to realize how difficult it is to travel around a college campus in a wheelchair, a fact she says that is often overlooked, but is deserving of more consideration.
Asked by Schaefer about why the arts are important, Dr. Rogers admitted she has a bit of a bias towards the arts, adding that arts courses she took in college have altered her life in profound ways. She notes that while the arts can oftentimes be the first programs on the chopping block, that she would like to see Western’s arts programs continue, and would take measures to encourage students of various academic focuses to enroll in arts courses.
Dr. Rogers also raised the prospect of loosening academic constraints to allow students the freedom to exercise more control over their academic paths, while noting that doing so would require substantial faculty buy-in, and might not be possible across every academic program.
Prompted for her thoughts on Critical Race Theory (CRT), Schaefer says that purposely withholding educational information, and the discourse and policies around limiting education freedom (with recent incidents involving book bans, restricted curricula, and proposed restrictions on even talking about LGBTQIA+ matters and individuals), have been terrifying to witness, keeping her up at night. Dr. Roger believes that many people have little to no understanding of CRT, and are largely reacting to a national media narrative invoking fear.
Dr. Rogers says that she wants to minimize the impact of that fear, addressing sensitive racial matters in less threatening manners with students, and encouraging CRT education and the open debate of ideas on campus. “Our role as an institution is to create citizens that are coming here to expand their mind and their knowledge,” says Dr. Rogers, who believes that CRT should be utilized to inform decisions made on campus.
Moving beyond CRT, another student asked Dr. Rogers how she would respond to racialized incidents of hate. Dr. Rogers says that it’s okay to be uncomfortable, and that having these uncomfortable interactions is necessary for growth, a key facet of the collegiate experience.
She emphasizes that in her experience working on equity issues, many offenders are unaware of the harm brought on by their actions and speech. At the University of Redlands, Dr. Rogers helped oversee the creation of a Conflict Resolution Center, with more than 30 members of the campus community receiving restorative justice training and meeting monthly.
Dr. Rogers says that the conversations that have come out of the initiative in response to incidents on campus have been life-changing for some of the students, far surpassing the benefits of any lecture. “It’s been amazing to watch,” she says.
Circling back to matters of inclusivity, Dr. Rogers says that she is committed to knocking down barriers to educational diversity and welcoming a diverse community to Western, noting that many working class and first-generation college students do not have anyone advocating for them in their collegiate studies, and that she has picked up a number of such students as mentees at her time at Redlands. The issue of access is a primary focus for Dr. Rogers, who hails from a working class background herself, and spent years of her graduate studies dedicated to the topic.
Dr. Rogers cites standardized admissions testing (she raised the idea of making Western admission test-optional) and various other university policies and factors, including the remoteness of Western’s location (posing transportation and physical access issues), as likely barriers to attracting diverse students.
Dr. Rogers was quick to note that improved recruiting is only half the battle, and stated that she wants to tackle the school’s retention issues. Doing so, she believes, starts with exploring why students are leaving, and building new programs or expanding existing ones to retain students. Specifically, Dr. Rogers cites peer support groups as indispensable. Western is right around the national average in retention rate, per College Factual, with 70 percent of students coming back as sophomores.
Regarding her personal accessibility should she become President, Dr. Rogers emphasized the type of presence she has at the University of Redlands currently, hanging out in common spaces and asking students if she can sit with them over lunch. She says she will carry this attitude over to Western, ensuring student voices are heard. She believes that a President cannot be successful without regular student interaction with an emphasis on understanding student voices and experiences.
“The way that I operate, though, is if I were to be President you would see me in the places that you’re eating, and you would see me at your games and your tournaments, your plays and your music recitals, your capstone presentations, and any of the things that you’re participating in,” she articulates.
Asked about her opinion of the role of the President versus that of the Board of Trustees (BoT), and the ideal relationship between the two entities, Dr. Rogers relayed that the Board of Trustees can differ between public and private institutions, but that the board predominantly acts as the university’s “fiduciaries”, taking charge of the school’s financial picture and major budgetary decisions, as well as policy and planning.
Dr. Rogers says that the President and the BoT must understand each other and work collaboratively to craft the university’s direction and vision, but also that the President must be willing to push back if there are conflicts between visions, and stand firm in doing what they believe is best for the university. Dr. Rogers describes the role of President as analogous to an air traffic controller, keeping all the planes safe in the skies, directing traffic, and ensuring that everything on campus stays on schedule to keep the various stakeholders happy.
Addressing questions about the previous President’s perceived shortcomings and misjudgements, Dr. Rogers assured the gathered students that she would not be going on Fox News, but that she believes that university leadership needs to be bipartisan in nature. She emphasizes that earning campus trust would be top priority at the beginning of her tenure.
“Trust is earned, and I would earn it through my own actions, and making sure that I live to the values that I say I would live by,” says Dr. Rogers, stressing that relationship-building would be her foremost priority if she were selected.
Western’s Director of Business Services Sherry Ford reminded students to provide anonymous feedback on Dr. Rogers, along with the other candidates, on the school’s search website. Dr. Rogers’ survey will close at midnight on Sunday, with feedback from the survey presented to the Board of Trustees at their March 24 meeting on campus, when the Board is expected to announce a presidential decision.