Funding new facilities, challenges to reaching top 25, undergraduate research, student retention efforts

Q: On your previous slide, you were talking about the buildings that we’re currently building. I understand that we’re trying to make sure that we have funding secured for these big building projects. What are the comments on those, though?

Kirk Schulz: On funding the ones that are actually up there?

Q: Yeah.

KS: I think we’ve pretty well identified dollars to do all of those things. I was at Kansas State for seven years. I did these monthly letters. Nobody in the media cared about any of them. I did my June one at WSU and said ‘Well, we just need to watch our finances,’ and The Seattle Times ran it. I say that not to trivialize it. Dan mentioned that we put some things in place. There was some overreaction to that, but largely it just means at work if you see steel work going up, we should have clearly identified the dollars, and generally it’s going to be a combination of state dollars and private dollars.

I’ve done a lot of fundraising, and it’s very difficult for a building that’s almost complete for us to be going out there saying, ‘Hey, I know you see it almost done, but we need $5 million to kind of finish it off.’ What we need to be doing is, strategically, if we know we’ve got a building that we need, is in our plan, and it’s five years out, we should be talking to donors now about participating. We can stretch our dollars better.

Our compatriots on the other side of the state have done a really nice job at putting some private components to a lot of their fundraising, and we’re going to do more of that. So it’s really just making sure that you say, ‘Kirk, the building’s going up, who’s funding that?’ And we say ‘Hey, we’ve got some generous donors, they’re doing that, the state’s kicked in and we got it all identified.’ So great question.

Q: So all of those have basically been priced? The funding’s been identified for all of those at this point?

KS: We have to. By the time they’re moving down the road this way we have to have funding identified. And so, for example, the Digital Classroom Building, the original numbers were probably $5-$6 million more than the state had provided for us. So Olivia Yang and her team went in, they did some cost cutting, some efficiencies, and basically what they were able to do was take the cost of doing the things that we wanted down to fit the budget that was there so that we’re not going to run a deficit. We’re also talking to some other donors that as we finish that out and they give us dollars—it just means we can enhance some things in the building. So we’ve taken a bunch of creative different ways to get done what we need to get done.

Q: You talked about where our ranking is now in the 40 to 50 range, and the goal is to be top 25. So maybe you could share with everyone here where you see as the biggest challenges to get into that group of 25? And maybe for the students, what are some of the schools that would be in that top 25 that you see us being competitive with as we go towards 2030?

KS: Wow, a lot of good stuff there. So let me start with schools that I think we could be like. When we say this, it’s important that we keep in mind—and Dan will have his own suggestions here as well—just because somebody’s higher ranked doesn’t mean we have to be exactly like them. And that’s clear. It’s not envy that ‘Gee, we have to transform ourselves to look like somebody else,’ as much as keeping our own culture and style and just elevating ourselves.

So the University of California at Davis is a great example of a terrific land-grant school. Dan went there. They’ve got great engineering, agriculture, a lot of things like that. They have a medical school. They’ve got a lot of good stuff going. To me that scene is one of the preeminent land grants in the country. I would also use schools like Michigan State University, Texas A&M. They’re bigger than we are but on the other hand they’re also land grants and they have a different style than the University of Texas, than the University of Michigan, would have. And so they’ve kept that style while they’ve also aggressively kind of raised their stature.

Some of the limitations I think that we have are we need more faculty. Just numbers of faculty are lower, and we need to have our top tier of faculty, if you will, better recognized. And I’m not blaming our faculty. They’re doing a great job. We have members of the national academies and preeminent award winners. We need to take some of our folks that are really outstanding already, and to me this is the role of administration and leadership. How can we make sure that those men and women are recognized more fully for the careers they’ve had and the impact their research, scholarship, and teaching has had? That’s probably the area I would identify right away. Dan, what are your thoughts?

Dan Bernardo: Well, for students in the room, I think another challenge—and one that we really need to think about strategically—is that issue of how do we have a top 25 undergraduate experience first? How do we have a richer experience for the entire student body regardless of what college they’re in, what campus they’re on, etc. So that’s going to be something that we’re going to need to strive for.

We are not focused on student metrics, focused on exclusivity. In some cases these rankings, such as U.S. News and World Report, the lower your acceptance rate, the higher your rank, so if you have 1 percent of the students who apply that get admitted like some universities, like privates, that generates a higher ranking. We’re not really interested in that. We’re interested more in our metrics that define student success, graduation rate, retention rate. What President Schultz said earlier about more students having a research or scholarship experience during their four years. Those are all really important things, and to be honest with you, I think that challenge is to me more formidable than how we get to top 25 in research expenditures. It’s not that we can’t do it, it’s just one that we really have to focus on and strive for.

Q: In the Honors College, the students do remarkable undergraduate research. And since this is one of the metrics that you’ve mentioned, one of the things I’m interested in is how do we demonstrate that in some sort of lasting way so that we are a recognized institution? One example was the College of Arts and Sciences in 2013-14. It had an undergraduate research online publication for CAS students, and many honors students entered their thesis in that or class work and team work. And then it sort of fizzled. They said they lost funding, and that was something I promoted for the honors students. They can put it on their resume, their employers and graduate programs can look and see them published. How can we have more of that and support that?

KS: That’s a great point and what I want to see happen. Say, in the next month or so, we go out and say, ’Okay, here is the percentage of undergraduate students in research and it’s going to be one of these key metrics.’ Now let’s figure out what we’re going to do. A couple things, one, the easier, but in some ways challenging, is how do you actually count that? Right? In the Honors College, you all have a very distinct way of doing that. If you go across campus and ask a lot of our colleges, people go, ‘Oh, yeah, I know we’ve got a bunch of people in this person’s lab.’ And you say, ‘Well, how do you demonstrate what that is?’ That’s one part.

The second, for example, is what should that look like holistically across campus? So if I’m showing up with an employer, or I’m looking at going to graduate school, and he says, ‘Well, I see you did this undergraduate research experience. What does that mean?’ There should be some university-level definition that says that you had to communicate your results, and you had to work with a faculty member. I don’t know, maybe three or four things, regardless of discipline. It’d be different in English and stuff. So if Microsoft goes, ‘Well, Kurt got a C. This is one of your metrics on your Drive to 25. Tell me what this means. If I see a student has done this, what does that entail?’

There ought to be a minimum set of things that we say represents universitywide. But the fun thing is going to be the campus-wide conversation this entails. To say, ‘If we want a top 25 experience and we want our undergraduates to be involved in scholarship of some nature.’ What things should be in place to make that happen? And that has to be a faculty-driven discussion. Dan and I will have opinions, but it can’t be from the top down where we say, ‘Well, here’s exactly what it’s got to look like.’ So the bottom line is that’s the kind of thing we need thrown out there to say, “Hey, this was a really good idea. This worked well, this is something that maybe needs to be institutionalized where students have this opportunity.’ That’s what I’d like to make sure we spend lots of time on. I’m less worried about the money. That’s because we haven’t had our budget meeting today. We can raise private dollars for a lot of things, but it’s vision first, money second.

Once we describe what that is, I know we’ll have some people say, ‘I love it. I want to be on board, and here’s a check to help you out with that.’ But we’ve got to have that vision and that experience to describe first. So that’s kind of a philosophical answer, but I see this as a campus-wide dialogue and conversation identifying some key things, and then implementation. That’s why we’re talking about 2030 and not trying to throw something together. So it’s due in four or five years. I just don’t think we can put the infrastructure and have the intellectual discussion we need by trying to do it too fast. I want to do it well. If we get there early, that’s great, but I want that to be because we really thought carefully through the experience that we want rather than we just rush a bunch of statistics. Do you want to add something, Dan? I ramble on so long…

DB: No that was really good. Just to be a little bit more practical, the response scale-up is the issue. So you know what it takes in honors with 900 students, is that what it is?

Q: Around 870.

DB: 870. Well it’s 24,000 total for Pullman. So that’s 24,000 undergraduates. So that is the grand challenge there. You mentioned the research e-publication. I think the real answer there is, I think you make it a priority. So if the program is a priority, then those types of things that you’re talking about have to become a priority as well. I think that publication was probably cut during the budget-cut times. It fell off the table as a result of budget cuts. When that occurs, when you have to reduce budgets, you need to do them based upon priorities. If this is a priority, then it stands a much greater chance of withstanding a reduction from a budget elimination.

Q: One of the slides mentioned involving parents more in retention efforts. I’m curious what that’s going to look like?

DB: Yeah, if you go to the provost website, we have descriptions of the various projects. But that particular project, that actually has caught several people’s attention. Obviously, you have things to deal with, namely FERPA laws about whether you need to do that. But students also can choose to waive that right. So there have been some pilot programs and actually some very successful programs at other institutions, which have involved parents. Not only on a sort of student-by-student basis, but also just in general, putting forward programs that engage the parents. Whenever I do live talks, I always talk to the parents. And I talk to the parents about reading The A Game, right? So that they know when their student calls about the D they got on the chemistry test, they might know some actual responses they can provide their students.

And if you think about 40 percent of our students being first generation and not necessarily having parental support, or I wouldn’t say parental support, but knowledgeable parental intervention, it’s about trying to work with those parents to help them understand more about what their student is going through and to be able to provide the support they need for their students.

I always say I’m first gen, but I’m not first gen. In other words, my parents didn’t go to college, but there was no choice that I wasn’t going to go to college, and they were very, very supportive. But there are first-gen students, the other half of them or maybe more, whose parents haven’t been to college, don’t know what college is about, and might even discourage their students from going to college or staying in college. So if you address that, this issue, with those students, you have a greater chance of retaining those students, and that’s sort of what it’s about.

KS: So both my sons are clearly not first generation, right? And I had this conversation with both of them at different times in their academic careers where they would say, ‘I failed a test.’ And I talked to them on the phone, talked them off the cliff, ‘Oh, man, life is coming to an end,’ and those kind of things. And I’m not making light of that. But I would say, ‘Did you go talk to the instructor?’

‘Well, I sent him an e-mail note.’

‘Did you physically go during office hours and sit down and talk to the instructor and say, I’m not sure what happened here?’

So when we’re talking about parental involvement and engagement, it’s not mom and dad showing up, talking to the professor, saying you’re screwing my kid over or this or that. And there will be some parents who will want to do that. It’s really how we can make sure that the parents are being supportive of the academic enterprise, encouraging students to seek help.

I look, when I was back at school, when many of your parents were, there wasn’t a lot of this academic help. There wasn’t a lot of tutoring available and stuff. It was just you went to the instructor and if you didn’t get it, they said, ‘Go major in something else.’ We’ve become a better institution of higher ed, but it’s how to make sure that everybody is getting that reinforced feedback, that there’s things there to help.

Q: Are there plans to encourage faculty to work with students individually on research? Are there ways that the University can recognize those that do?

KS: I think we have tremendous positive opportunities to recognize our faculty. And I know Dan has done a lot, and thinks about this a lot, and my office is thinking about this a lot. I think if there’s one thing that we need to continue to do a better job of, it’s this.

We started a deal where each of the deans has a monthly update of their own format and—you all probably see what Grant does—they send it to Dan and myself and Chris Keane. It’s amazing, and then I try and do thank you notes, for example, or recognize their achievement and things like that, not just an automated thing. But otherwise, it’s hard for us to know all the stuff that’s happening here.

We need to continue to find ways to celebrate what our faculty do and suggestions that anybody has, I think, are really, really important. Bring them forward. We don’t have all the answers, but I think sometimes we get hung up on how much we pay people, which is important, but salary’s a piece of feeling good about the environment. It’s also, ‘Am I valued? People recognize what I’m doing? Does the senior leadership acknowledge that what I’m doing is important?’ Those are things that we need to do better on.

Q: I just want to follow up. I work with students who are working on putting together their pieces of their projects. And I’m hearing, anecdotally, from faculty in certain areas that they’re really not encouraged to work with students on undergraduate research. So I’m wondering if there’s some way that the University could make that a bigger part of the mission?

KS: Let me flip that around a little bit, because faculty, in my mind, are a little bit like independent contractors, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. Some are gifted working with certain segments of the academic enterprise and some with others. And so, if a faculty member wants to do it and he’s doing a good job and not getting credit and, in some form or fashion, feels unappreciated, I think that’s one thing. There are some faculty that it’s not in their skillset, and I don’t want to also get to the point where somebody feels forced to do things.

I know you’re not advocating that, but there are some faculty sometimes that would go, ‘You know what? You have an undergraduate student in your laboratory or in your research program. It’s not really a good thing for you to be doing.’ I want to make sure that if somebody wants to do it and it’s part of where they should be doing things, that we acknowledge and provide support to do that.

So again, I think we need suggestions when you hear that. Is it a department head or dean that is through, some particular form or fashion, pushing people that they shouldn’t be doing something? A lot of times, Dan and I will hear that. I’ll go, ‘Well, I don’t know where they’re hearing that because it’s not coming from us,’ and so, it’s not tattling. It’s important for us to be aware if there are signals being sent. We need to know that.

I apologize but we need to stop ’cause you all have important things to do and classes to teach and stuff. So, thank you all for being here, and we’re always interested in feedback through email or any other way and appreciate all you do for Washington State University. Go Cougs.