By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
Sabah Randhawa’s first academic term as president of Western Washington University is coming to a close.
The school is in the middle of some expansions — this summer it took over a marine science center in Poulsbo, and it will also have a presence in the redeveloped waterfront near downtown Bellingham.
Randhawa took control of the school in August, after former President Bruce Shepard retired at the the end of the 2015-2016 academic year.
Previously, Randhawa was the provost and executive vice president of Oregon State University.
He is originally from Pakistan; he came to Oregon State first to get his master’s degree in engineering.
He went on to complete his doctorate in engineering, then went back to Oregon State as a faculty member.
Last month, the BBJ sat down with Randhawa to talk about how he’s settling in, and his plans for the school.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What do you like to do for fun?
Work. Seriously, I enjoy working, but I like to read.
We have been walking, that’s more thanks to my wife for forcing me out.
But we spent some time walking around Lake Whatcom, Deception Pass, Whidbey Island, and spent some time exploring the community over there. At the boulevard, also.
We have been exploring the community quite a bit.
What drew you into academia?
No I’m serious about that.
I really wasn’t planning on going into academia; I had worked in industry before coming back to graduate school and my thinking was I would go back to industry or a research organization.
And it was only in my doctorate program that my department head asked me — he had asked me to teach a few times, and I just didn’t want to go into academia — and he called me in to teach, and he was going into surgery and I couldn’t say no, and I taught, and I found out I enjoyed it.
And that’s what started my academic career.
What was it about academia that grabbed you once you tried it?
The part that really got me intrigued was two things.
First of all, it made me think of the opportunity I got through education, that this is a way I can provide that opportunity to others and I could have a more significant impact than if I were to go into a research organization or industry, not that they’re not important.
The second thing, that over time I have appreciated about academics, is the new ideas that students bring up and working individually with graduate students and seniors.
They really make you think about things that you haven’t thought about in a long time, and it keeps your research, speaking very broadly, really fresh all the time.
And there’s that energy that you get from working with students that I’ve always found very energizing.
You pursued different positions as head of a few universities. What made you want to seek that role?
The reason I stayed with Oregon State for as long as I did is because I really think it takes time to understand an institution.
And if you’re really going to make any substantial change, it requires a lot of time to work with faculty and with students and with staff as well as the external community.
So the reason I was looking for a change at this time was we had just completed a billion-dollar capital campaign; we had set some other goals regarding faculty diversity, faculty hiring around building the student base, and we really had exceeded those goals.
And I thought, if I’m going to make a change this was the time to do it.
And I had done the job for about 10, 11 years and I also believe after that time it’s good for new perspectives, new ideas in any organization.
The stars lined up, and it was a good opportunity here.
Why did you you pick Western?
There’s a simple answer there. I picked Western because of the focus on students.
As you said I was looking at a couple of other institutions, and two or three things were important.
The location was important, and moving to a place where as a family we just did feel at home.
The culture of the institution was important in terms of where the focus was, in terms of what the strength of the institution was.
The potential going forward was really important; I didn’t want to be at an institution where we aren’t able to advance the institution. And again just thinking about Western from those three criteria, I couldn’t have found a better place.
Where do you hope to take the school now? What is your vision for the future?
Vision is something that needs to be a collective process, so one of the the things that we’ll be doing this year is working, both with the faculty and with the internal community but also with many of our external partners, to sort of imagine that future: what will Western look like, what will we like it to look like 20-30 years out.
Because in education how you make change is a long-term process.
It is a process that we have initiated here in Western, and over the course of the next few months, we’ll be working on it.
Having said that, there are a few things that are important to me.
You can consider them values or you can consider them just my own aspirations.
First of all it’s to do with student success. I think Western, as I said earlier, has done a great job.
Our student success number is at about 72 percent, the national average is about 55-57 — depending on which survey you pick up, and this is the six-year graduation rate of students.
But it also is a wonderful opportunity for Western to be an exemplar in having a success rate that exceeds 80 percent.
That would be phenomenal, and not just because of any ranking or rating, because I think that it’s the right thing to do.
And if you think about it, at any educational institution — certainly at Western — there are two important elements.
One is our graduates, the education and the value that they have in terms of contributing, being productive members of our civic society.
And the other key outcome really is the ideas, both in terms of new ideas but also in terms of how we translate those ideas to the benefit of our communities.
And it’s with that translation component that I think
Western can really increase it’s impact here in the region but also in the state of Washington and beyond.
What elements of the school do you think were doing really well when you got here, and where do you see room to improve?
To me it’s less of an issue of improvement, though I’ll mention a few areas; I think it’s more of an issue of how, on this journey from good to great, how do you get to the next step.
And the other thing to me that is really important is something really not Western per se, but higher education writ large has struggled with when it comes to success of all groups of students.
And right now the big divide really is around the socioeconomic background of students.
The third thing that I think we can really work on is the diversity of our students and faculty.
The international student body at Western is about one percent or so. And on the Pacific Rim, between two wonderful cities, Seattle and Vancouver, in a really attractive location and university, I think we should be able to do better than that.
And the same thing in terms of domestic diversity to make sure it reflects the diversity in the state of Washington, as we move forward.
I think it’s even more important among faculty, because they are role models for students.
At Oregon State you partnered with an external company to attract more international students. Is that something you are looking into doing here?
That may be the right thing to do, or maybe with a different company, I’m not sure.
I really believe in diversity, well, for a number of different reasons.
First of all, our own students from Washington are going to be working in a global environment.
So understanding different values, understanding different cultures is important.
And at the same time, what’s important is that our resident students have the opportunity to spend time in other cultures.
So to me that is equally important. And the reason we were working with this company at the time was they had a network of international universities and I thought it would create opportunities for our students to go abroad.
In a state with such huge schools like University of Washington and Washington State University, how does Western get its vision out there at the state level?
That’s in many ways the most important question we are wrestling with.
We have some great institutions in the state.
I think in part it is to me a collective voice around higher education.
How do we partner with those institutions to make sure that the value of higher education and how it contributes to the state is valued by the citizens of Washington.
But also, it is trying to do a few things that we are really good at.
It’s not competing on research or other things, to me, our strength really is around students.
It’s around the blend of undergraduate education that is complemented by selected graduate programs.
So how do we ensure that we create programs, undergraduate and masters, that really can provide, an opportunity to students, and then in terms of the outcomes that we really do such an excellent job that we exceed the performance of other institutions.
I don’t mean to seem competitive, but if I’m going to be competitive it is around success numbers.
You talk a lot about diversity. Is it fair to say that’s one of your biggest priorities, and if so, why is that?
I go back to the student success thing. I think our biggest contribution is our graduates, to society.
To me diversity and excellence go hand in hand.
And it’s not just that there is a moral obligation to make sure that everyone is successful, but really the strength of our nation, or our economy really comes from diversity in many ways.
What kind of value do you think the students get when they have a more diverse faculty and staff?
For one, technology has made distances disappear.
Students can look at the world, look at other cultures, I think they increasingly realize that any company they work for is no longer local.
So you can work for any organization of a significant size and and they have folks working in Asia and South America and across the globe, and our students are going to be rubbing shoulders with these people even if they’re located in Seattle or Bellingham.
And you can’t really advance those relationships until you know the other culture and the other values.
I think from that perspective, diversity, both domestic diversity, in terms of people coming from different groups and different values, but also international diversity helps add to that richness.
What role do you see Western playing in the larger Bellingham and Whatcom County community, and how would you like to change or strengthen that role?
I’m still learning in terms of the role that we play in the community.
But I have been locally pleased at the conversation we have been having at the waterfront.
I wasn’t aware of it when I interviewed for the position, but over the past four, five weeks, there have been a number of conversations.
I can’t tell you exactly how Western partners over at the waterfront at the moment — that is a conversation we still need to have.
It’s a great opportunity for Western to work with the community, with the city to expand as well as with the community colleges to see what we can do over in that space.
I think the real opportunity really lies to really think, and that’s part of our strategic planning process over the next few months, to think what type of public/private partnerships, beyond what Western does today, make sense for Western.