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Western expects budget shortfalls, hopes to increase enrollment, retention

President discusses COVID impacts, future in State of the University address

President Sabah Randhawa speaks to students
President Sabah Randhawa speaks to students (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Hailey Hoffman Visual Journalist

In a Wednesday address to Western Washington University, president Sabah Randhawa reflected on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, discussed the university’s strategic plan and looked to the future and its impending budget shortfalls. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown how we can adapt and come together in new and innovative ways to advance the mission of the university and public education at a time when it is needed more than ever,” he said.

Randhawa reported that students of color represent 29% of the entire university this year and that first-year enrollment stands at its highest yet with 3,237 students. First-year enrollment peaked in fall 2018 at 3,147 students and dipped as low as 2,494 in fall 2020, according to the Office of Institutional Effectiveness.

Randhawa said that the university is optimistic about high levels of future enrollment, but the reduction in tuition revenue in 2020 and 2021 will impact the university’s operating budget over the next several years.

“This means that we need to manage resources more effectively, and with an eye to align any new expenses with institutional priorities,” he said. “Fortunately, the strategic budgeting process introduced through the last academic year will help us in this effort, and we will continue to enhance it.”

For the last several years, retention rates at the university have been stagnant at 80%. The university has  struggled to scale first-year programs to meet the needs of large cohorts and provide students with more individual advising, the president said.

“We intend to revise and strengthen the lower division advising structure, while ensuring effective coordination with discipline-based, programmatic advising,” Randhawa said.

Last year, Randhawa noted, the university focused on returning to in-person learning and teaching to improve retention. He commended the university’s first-year academic programs and the work of new director Shurla Thibou.

“This position provides the appropriate faculty oversight of the first-year curriculum and a more sustainable structure to the first-year programs,” Randhawa said.

The university will pursue expanding its offerings at satellite campuses on the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas in Poulsbo, Bremerton and Port Angeles.

“The legislative interest is consistent with our commitment in the strategic plan to engage students and communities who lack access to quality higher education,” Randhawa said. “The intent is to offer full four-year programs on the peninsula for students who want to remain local and attend a four-year college.”

The Board of Trustees endorsed the idea at its August meeting, and the university developed a legislative request to expand.

Randhawa also highlighted the university’s intention to develop a long-term capital plan. It will work with internal stakeholders to determine needs for new facilities and renovations.

Through his speech, Randhawa also recognized efforts to act on Western’s strategic plan. The university created the Office of Equity, headed by Jacqueline Hughes, and the Sustainability Council to refresh the 2017 Sustainability Action Plan. It consolidated the Multicultural Student Services, the Disability Access Center and LGBTQ+ Western together into the Access, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion unit headed by Litav Langley and joined the Okanagan Charter to improve the community’s health and wellbeing.

The speech was kicked off with a land acknowledgment from Laural Ballew, the executive director of American Indian/Alaska Native and First Nations Relations and tribal liaison to the President, and an introduction from Board of Trustees chairman John Meyer. 

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