Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Looking at Western and its future: Computer nerds who can write?

Okay, take a deep breath—The state of the university, Western Colorado University, is … good but could be better and is in a big transition phase and everyone is underpaid and morale is bad for some and good for others but in order to not just thrive but even survive, Western has to look at new paths and figure out ways to deal with a substantial debt load, rising costs and fierce competition and it should engage in both science and liberal arts but above all … thank goodness for Paul Rady and his generosity.

That was my takeaway from a sometimes contentious but overall civil and robust State of the University message and conversation between WCU president Greg Salsbury and Western’s Faculty Senate on Monday afternoon.

Rady is a 1978 Western alum who is CEO and chairman of the board of Colorado-based Antero Resources and Antero Midstream. He apparently has some cash in his Venmo account and donated $80 million to WCU for the Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering, which includes the new building going up at the entrance to the campus.

Salsbury said Rady has stepped up huge to help with a variety of Western issues on top of his giant contribution. His latest donations range from money to help pay for lights on a future soccer field to funding for marketing endeavors. Salsbury said the total Rady donation is approaching $90 million. Appreciation goes out to Rady.

Honestly, since I’m not a Western grad and I don’t see the impact of that school in the north end of the valley every day, the paper tends to focus on the tourism and politics of the region more than education. But Western is a great gem to have in our valley. And it is facing great challenges. Those challenges have helped fuel some unrest down there on the campus. The most robust part of the Monday discussion centered on Salsbury, his salary and his leadership with future direction of the school. He addressed the concern from some faculty that his accepting a 16 percent raise this year while general faculty compensation was increased a mere 2 percent impacted morale and staff turnover.

Salsbury was unapologetic about his salary and explained his job had become more complex and his bosses, the board of trustees, valued his contribution and direction. Sure, he admitted he wished everyone’s salary could be higher but spent a lot of time delving into the challenges any institution of higher education is facing in the immediate future.

So he outlined an array of potential changes that WCU needed to make in order to stay open and thrive. Basically I heard he wants to bring more science and engineering to the traditionally liberal arts school. That’s where the jobs are. But he said the opportunity is there to include that liberal arts element and graduate computer nerds who can not only code but can also write, speak well and sell things: the perfect hybrid graduate.

The Monday meeting actually seemed a productive discussion between a senate and president. It wasn’t always pleasant but it appeared honest. Salsbury got pushback but also had support from faculty.

One professor who has been there 31 years said that a few years ago he thought about leaving the school and selling his house in town because he feared for the future of the school. He thought it might shut its doors. If the school closed he’d likely lose a lot of retirement value that was in his home. He no longer has those concerns about the school closing. While admitting he doesn’t like everything Salsbury does, he no longer worries that Western might not be open in two or five or ten years. He credits Salsbury with being the first in his position in a long time to take a realistic look at enrollment and how to stabilize and grow the student body.

Salsbury himself said that while it would be easy to ignore the issues facing a rural institution such as Western, he prefers to see reality and address it. I appreciate that. And he said addressing issues in 2019 is a lot different from addressing them in 1990 or 2000 or 2010. Things are a lot different now and the school needs to be nimble enough to realistically take on the challenges in front of it, as opposed to closing its eyes and hoping it all works out in the end.

The last administration took the direction that if you beautified and built the campus it would attract more students. It didn’t—and the school now has a big pile of debt to go with its pretty new buildings.

Salsbury said he wants to move to the future with eyes wide open. Rising costs, more competition, a heavy debt load and the internet all come into play. It is not a good squeeze to be in but he seems to want to take an honest approach in trying to solve those challenges. The old rural higher education model looks fragile. The status quo isn’t working. Salsbury sees a somewhat bleak future and wants to make it brighter. He knows it will take a change and he seems willing to try to make those changes concrete. The ultimate goal for him is to give students good value for their money by asking the question, “Did that graduate go on to a better experience, whatever it might be, as a result of going to Western?” That’s a good guiding question to keep in mind.

With an outsider’s view, it seems to me he is articulating a sensible vision in these changing times. I understand the friction felt by some faculty. Salsbury reaped a big raise and most faculty didn’t. He did pull in an $80 million donation and that seems worth a good raise. But Salsbury could probably be more inclusive of the long-term faculty and the ideas they have to help increase Western’s future enrollment and attractiveness to potential students. He did welcome any of them to have coffee and engage in the discussion, but something more formal might be in order. Keeping the front-line troops happy and engaged is a sometimes-tricky deal, especially at institutions that have huge history with some satisfied with the status quo.

But Salsbury outlined the potential for a bright future. It won’t be easy and it will require at least a shift in traditional direction—but if he can pull everyone together with a united vision, Western has a chance to be an anchor, not only in this valley but in the broader world of higher education.

—Mark Reaman

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