Students prioritize sustainability and diversity efforts, accountability, and diverse backgrounds in the search for a new President.

Editor’s note: This article is an effort to capture student sentiment around the selection of Western’s new president, and uses interviews conducted in the Fall of 2021 in conjunction with more recent information to paint a picture of the Western community’s presidential preferences. Look out for future coverage this week, including interviews with students that attend the upcoming candidate sessions scheduled Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

This week, Western’s final three Presidential Search candidates will be on campus, beginning with longtime Western administrator and current Executive Vice President Brad Baca on Tuesday, March 8. On Wednesday, March 9, Dr. Maria Klawe, the President of Harvey Mudd College will come to campus, and on Thursday, March 10, candidate visits will conclude with Dr. Michelle Rogers, the Vice President for Administration at the University of Redlands. The schedules for those meetings, in addition to more information about each candidate, can be found in our previous article.

Back in the mid-fall, representatives from AGB Search were on campus Wednesday, Oct. 13 and Thursday, Oct. 14 to meet with a variety of students, faculty, staff, community, donors, and alumni groups in different settings. Their schedule included a series of listening sessions over the course of two days, with specific sessions designed for the different stakeholder groups.

AGB Search has assisted the Western Presidential Search Committee throughout the search process, identifying and screening candidates, and narrowing the field of more than 80 applicants to the three that were just publicly announced. The firm will receive about $73,000 in total for their services, which will include a year of presidential transition guidance. 

For individuals who could not make the input sessions back in October, an online survey posing the four main questions guiding the search process was posted. Those four questions concerned: challenges for the incoming president, opportunities at Western, desired characteristics and background for candidates, and measures of success for the decision. 

Western’s unique position in higher education

Back in October, input session participants spoke to a variety of concerns and preferences, none louder than the need to understand and appreciate the unique nature of Western and the Gunnison Valley community. Western is an exceptional case in the American collegiate landscape, a small public liberal arts school nestled in a remote location, surrounded by public lands. 

Junior Environment and Sustainability (ENVS) student Matt Harris prefers someone with experience in educational administration at a smaller, similar university, a feeling echoed by others. “Even someone who has just lived in a small community, and understands that kind of dynamic [would be ideal]”, notes Harris. 

Western has many strengths on offer, including these surrounding beautiful public lands that offer amazing educational opportunities, passionate, dedicated professors across many disciplines, and a tight-knit community environment appreciated. However, our school’s remote location, hours away from Denver and the front range, makes maintaining solid relationships with the state capitol and far-off alumni donors critical to maintaining financial solvency as state spending on education has declined. 

Western also suffers from a small alumni base as a function of its size, and thus a limited pool of potential donors. Western has struggled in recent years to adapt financially to a changing higher education landscape, undertaking a Strategic Resources Allocation (SRA) process that took roughly two years, and was completed with the input of students and faculty in the spring of 2021 (link to the full 67-page report).

The SRA was intended to bolster the strengths of the institution and look for ways to maintain cost efficiency by boosting the university’s high-achieving programs (largely using enrollment and financial metrics as a benchmark) and cutting losses on programs with less impressive metrics. 

Proposed budgeting and staff cuts to the Music, Art, English and Sociology programs were unpopular amongst many students and faculty, and music’s downgrade from major to minor was overturned after an online campaign amassed more than 2500 signatures. The Music Department was given a temporary reprieve to prove it can boost enrollment. 

The SRA also placed critical departments like campus security in the lowest tier, set for funding cuts. This came after years of student complaints about gaps and lapses in campus security, from insufficient lighting and a dire lack of security cameras to a minimal on-campus presence from security staff. 

Increasing campus diversity and inclusivity

Western’s isolated location on the western slope fuels a problem that participants brought up continuously during the October listening sessions. Western struggles to attract and retain diverse faculty, staff, and students. This problem extends to the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as Black, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Native students, staff, and faculty. 

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the City of Gunnison is estimated to be roughly 94 percent White, and many nearby towns are largely White, discouraging diverse populations from attending Western. 75 percent of Western’s students come from in-state, and Colorado as a whole is whiter than the national average. 

There is little doubt that Gunnison’s location shapes Western, and the nature of our community, a sentiment echoed across listening sessions. “Gunnison is a wholly unique place…I think we need someone who embraces our quirky little town,” said Camryn Uetz, a junior studying Wildlife Biology and Conservation.

Uetz adds that action around diversity is critical to a prosperous future for Western.. “Sustainability and DEI [(Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion)] are crucial for recruitment and retention. These issues highly affect a student’s decisions of which university to attend.”

Seeking sustainability on campus

Uetz is a member of Western’s LEAD Sustainability, a campus group focused on environmental education and outreach, and is eager to see more administrative support for sustainability and environmental initiatives on campus. Both Uetz and ENVS student Matt Harris noted that Western has a lot of great student-led sustainability initiatives. “We have a really good system of student involvement here, and a lot of good programs to get funding and to get support for projects, and I feel like that’s really well done on the student level,” said Harris.

However, both Harris and Uetz, two of just a handful of students to attend the student stakeholder session in October, agreed that further progress will likely need to involve more administrative involvement and funding moving forward. In general, students would love to see more leadership on major issues, including addressing climate change and advancing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusivity (JEDI) practices on campus. Back in 2007, then-President Jay Helman signed the President’s Climate Pledge, but since President Helman left in 2013, Western’s leadership has not made similar leadership commitments. 

Harris feels that sustainability measures have been overlooked among the upper echelons of the university, whereas the new Rady School, the Business Department, and other select departments and organizations have received the lion share of attention and resources in recent times. He would love to see a President who delves into the various niches of campus, expressing a genuine interest in campus life.

Uetz notes that there is still plenty of room to strengthen institutionalized sustainability education and practices, especially around waste reduction. On Western’s campus, our effective recycling rate (known as “diversion rate”) sits at about 10 to 12 percent, depending on the week. Harris, the Vice President of the Western Solar Society, would also like to see university leadership focused on expanding renewable energy production and usage across campus.

“A lot of students choose to go to certain schools because of the sustainability efforts and the opportunities they have. That’s why I chose to go to Western. Sometimes it’s really hard without a Sustainability Director [position] to make institutionalized changes, not just surface level,” said Uetz. Currently, ENVS alumna Ashley Woolman, the school’s Sustainability Specialist in the Facilities Department, is the sole employee focused on sustainability at Western. 

“Campus sustainability and DEI are inextricably linked and are important to our campus. We want and deserve a president that is fluent in speaking to these issues and developing solutions,” says Uetz.  

Rebuilding community trust 

Several participants noted that the previous president, Dr. Gregory Salsbury, came in with a clear agenda to transform Western, acting as though it were “broken” and heavily emphasizing programs in engineering, computer science, and business, with the aid of a $80 million donation from Paul Rady, the CEO, President, and Chairman of Antero Resources, an oil and natural gas company based in Denver, that built the school’s new Rady Building. 

That donation also launched the Rady M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering, a collaboration with the University of Colorado-Boulder where students spend two years enrolled at Western, then transfer to CU and receive a CU degree while completing their final studies on Western’s campus. 

Members of the Western community noted that they would like to see a president who is adept at skillfully interfacing with and managing big donors. Relatedly, some community members raised concerns about the fact that Western’s website heavily emphasizes the computer science and engineering programs that Rady helped found at the cost of the liberal arts core that Western has on offer. Faculty members emphasized that a focus on interdisciplinary education is critical, and that becoming siloed by departments stunts colleges and hampers student’s intellectual progress. 

Amongst students, past behavior by the previous President, Dr. Greg Salsbury, and his administration possibly contributed to a low turnout. Just four students attended the midday session intended for students held on Oct. 14. “A lot of people are still used to the way the school was run when [Dr.] Greg [Salsbury] was the president, so they probably just don’t think that their voices matter,” noted Uetz, who added “it was honestly very sad just seeing four people [at the session]”.

Christopher Gibson, a nontraditional student studying Art with an emphasis in K-12 Education, brought up the university’s handling of the SRA forum. “They wanted everyone’s opinion, then when everyone gave their opinion they blew them off,” he added. 

Uetz expressed a similar sentiment around Dr. Salsbury’s tenure. “We all felt that we weren’t wanted, in a sense, because [Dr. Salsbury] didn’t show any interest in anything we had except sports,” added Uetz. Broadly, it appears that many students have become disillusioned with the way that school administrators respond to their input. Uetz noted that she sent an email to more than 30 people imploring them to come and share their vision of future leadership, but hardly any answered the call. 

Harris said he expected others he knows that are highly involved on campus, including club presidents and SGA members, to turn up to the sessions in greater numbers. He believes the poor showing can be partially attributed to student’s busy schedules, but Harris wants to know how a new president will conduct themselves once they are on campus in the role. “Are they going to go and make themselves known [in the community] or are they going to sit away at their desk?” wonders Harris.

Several students praised current interim president Nancy Chishom, highlighting her personability and her efforts to get involved in the Western community. “If we could get a president who is like our interim president, I would be very happy. There would be actual community outreach instead of just lip service,” notes Gibson. 

So, what is presidential material?

Several questions for candidates came up during different stakeholder sessions in October, including: “What is an example of when you had to inspire colleagues on a difficult topic?” and another, related question: “When you have made a tough decision and were able to keep others with different viewpoints from feeling demoralized, and even approve of your decision?” Both questions, it would seem, come from a desire to reunite campus and to improve intra-campus communications around difficult subjects and decision-making.

With regards to whether Western should seek an internal or external hire, opinions were split back in the fall, with some preferring an entirely fresh perspective and others arguing that a person who is familiar with Western from day one would be preferable. Some, including Gibson, wanted to ensure that Western did not hire anyone involved in Salsbury’s administration, which would include finalist Brad Baca, who has worked in Western’s upper administration since 2002.

Others noted that it is important that the new president can look beyond dollars and cents, and recognize the intangible benefits of education, not just the hard business facts. “University should not be run like a business, it should be run like a place for growth and education,” remarked Uetz.

Regarding ideal presidential characteristics, many cited the need for a collaborative leader; a proactive listener who will get involved with the student body, weighing in on student initiatives and making connections with different clubs and organizations. There is also a desire for the new president to seek input from faculty and staff, with the acknowledgement that Salsbury’s tenure left many scared for their jobs, demoralized, and in a prolonged “fight-or-flight” mode. 

“I think this person should be diverse in their knowledge base and their experiences,” said Harris, noting that this was not the case with the previous president. Participants also discussed addressing low staff and faculty morale. In Gunnison, Western may be the only realistic source of employment for many, creating tension about job security and frustration for those with stagnant wages and little chance of upward mobility without uprooting and moving elsewhere, especially for those with families. 

High turnover has been an issue in recent years, and it costs Western massively in lost knowledge and “institutional memory” as well as money and resources dedicated to replacing lost personnel. 

Getting back to a first name basis

Some attendees at the October sessions noted that before Salsbury, Jay Helman and other previous university leaders were on a first-name basis with students, staff, and faculty, and that it felt “natural.” That sense of community and shared goals was sorely missed for the better part of the last decade, and leaves a wake of fear, skepticism, and wariness that the next president will have to contend with. 

Critical to restoring trust in leadership is the ability to own up to failures, session attendees repeated, not just claim successes. Participants in the listening sessions also noted that it was important that the new president not only embrace Gunnison, but be committed to staying rather than using the opportunity as a steppingstone to a bigger gig. They seek a heartfelt connection to this place in the president. 

Several individuals also noted a preference for a highly skilled communicator. President Salsbury, despite a terminal degree in Communications, found himself in hot water in the winter and spring of 2020-21 after an email he sent to faculty and students appeared to conflate the attempted insurrection Jan. 6 with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement (leading to a vote of no confidence in the Faculty Senate), in addition to a history of communications gaffes. 

The immediate aftermath of the email controversy was quickly followed by a series of behind-the-scenes communications leaked to the Gunnison Country Times, and eventually Salsbury’s Fox News appearance in April. Salsbury officially stepped down in early May with a severance payout of more than $300,000, and Nancy Chisholm, a 1990 graduate of Western and an international business leader, was called in to serve in the interim role that she continues to hold. 

Given this recent history, the handling of sensitive university matters, including mental health and differing social norms between generations, matters to the Western community, with some noting that the previous administration’s efforts have proved off-putting and even offensive at times.

Weighing in on the candidates

Ashley Weinmeister is a sophomore at Western and a Wildlife Biology and Theater Major. Weinmeister vividly remembers the Strategic Resources Allocation (SRA) process that concluded during the 2020-2021 academic year and experienced its impacts as a member of the school’s choir, adjacent to the Music Department. Weinmeister sees cuts to the arts as a steep, dangerous slope. “Once you hit one of the arts [programs], it’s only a matter of time before the other arts start getting hit,” she says. 

Weinmeister saw the recent emails about the presidential candidates and was happy to see two female candidates on the list of finalists. Weinmeister wasn’t as thrilled with the candidate’s geography, both coming from Californian schools in the greater Los Angeles Metropolitan area. Weinmeister, originally from the Durango area, is concerned about the cultural differences between rural Colorado and southern California, and how those differences may manifest themselves with a new President.

Weinmeister envisions a future for Western where artistic pursuits may be pushed aside in favor of the Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering, and other more technical emphases. Regarding this concern, Weinmeister’s foremost worry is with Dr. Maria Klawe, “She’s so heavily focused on STEM, that it brings up a concern about [whether] she understands the arts at all, and if she doesn’t, would she think twice about trying to cut them?” 

Weinmeister prefers a diverse candidate, someone with a background in both science and arts, like herself as a student. She’s also looking for someone to empathize with students and clearly communicate their intentions. She identified Dr. Rogers’ broad and varied background, which includes examinations of sociological class in higher education, as ideal. Weinmeister encourages her fellow students to get more involved in the selection process this week.

“We’re the ones that are paying everyone to be here, we’re the ones who are basically putting our lives on hold to do all of this and put a bunch of money into it… if we don’t like [administration’s] choices, we can leave. We have that power and [administration does] not seem to understand that, because they keep excluding us in basically every choice they make,” she adds. 

Seeking the impossible?

On the opportunistic front, session attendees in October noted lost opportunities to connect Western to the large Gunnison community, and the importance of programs like art and music in doing so. Participants hoped for expanded and newly forged collaborations with Gunnison on future concerts, gallery showings, and a combined Western-community choir. With Master’s of Environmental Management (MEM) graduate Diego Plata holding Gunnison’s mayorship, circumstances may be just right to institute closer collaboration between the town and the university. 

Some listening session attendees admitted that they felt they were looking for an almost “impossible person,” recognizing the magnitude of the task given to AGB Search and Western’s Presidential Search Committee to replace a broadly unpopular president with one who can navigate financial viability issues, the donor and Colorado Capitol landscape, take on matters of pressing student concern like climate change and DEI, and build a relationship with a community that is reeling from the predecessor’s tenure. 

Another needle the new President will have to thread is shifting student preferences and cultural factors that could cut into Western’s enrollment over time, altering the school’s financial outlook. “A lot of schools are a lot more progressive than us, and we don’t have that diversity that other campuses have. And since we don’t have that diversity, I think we need to work a lot harder to make up for it,” says Uetz. 

As far as how Western can measure the success of its selected candidate, students, staff, and faculty had various opinions. “Happy faculty would be a good determining factor (of success)” adds Uetz, with others also highlighting the importance of selecting a President that connects with the school’s professors.

Stay tuned for additional coverage of Western’s Presidential Search this week, including interviews with students present at the candidate sessions.