By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
There’s a new boss in town. On Aug. 1, Western Washington University welcomed Sabah Randhawa as its new president.
“The campus is very excited about his arrival and his wife Uzma’s arrival in Bellingham,” Western trustee Sue Sharpe said.
Randhawa becomes the 14th president of the college, which has around 15,000 students. He will also be the head of the second largest employer in Whatcom County. His base salary is $365,000 per year.
Prior to getting hired on at Western, Randhawa had served for more than a decade as the second-highest ranking administrator at Oregon State University, a school of around 30,000 students in Corvallis, Oregon. He was the provost and executive vice president at the school and reported directly to the school’s president.
The position is similar to chief operating officer in the corporate world — he oversaw the day-to-day operations of the school. He also oversaw the academic side — the deans of all the colleges reported directly to him.
That includes Scott Ashford, dean of OSU’s College of Engineering.
“He is really passionate about student success,” Ashford said. “And particularly equalizing success and access particularly for students who are traditionally underrepresented.”
He’s also helped increase dramatically the number of international students at OSU. Since 2000, those numbers at OSU increased from 6.9 percent of the student body to 11.3 percent 2015.
The school also worked with the private company Into University Partnerships to help recruit foreign students and set up a transitional program to help international students adjust to classes and life at OSU.
The partnership launched in 2008, and since the 2007-08 school year, the number of international students has more than doubled at OSU.
Randhawa also overhauled the way the school does its hiring, Ashford said.
“He’s really led the way to change — really, disrupt — how we hire faculty at Oregon State with an eye on equity and inclusion,” he said. “Ultimately resulting in a much more diverse faculty.”
He also helped launch the process of creating a new budget model at OSU.
“His leadership team was able to reach consensus on a new budget,” Ashford said. “That was no small feat.”
The success of that process was largely due to Randhawa’s leadership skills, Ashford said.
“He’s very thoughtful,” he said. “He’s an industrial engineer by training and so he feels strongly about using the right process.”
He also seeks broad input, and allows everybody to voice their input, Ashford said.
“Everybody feels that they are a part of the process,” he said.
Randhawa started in academia as an undergraduate in his home country of Pakistan, where he earned a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Engineering and Technology. He was a first generation student.
After graduating, he got a job as a chemical company engineer at a salt mine. According to a 2011 profile in the OSU alumni magazine, he came to the U.S. looking for more education and opportunities.
He earned his master’s degree in industrial engineering from OSU in 1981, then went to Arizona State University for his doctorate.
The department head there tried to convince him to to teach, but he had avoided it because of his fear of public speaking, he told the OSU alumni magazine the Oregon Stater.
Then, the department head had emergency surgery and Randhawa had to take over teaching his classes. He worked to overcome his fear by practicing in empty classrooms at night.
He moved into administration in 1993 when a job opened up as a department head in the College of Engineering at his old alma mater OSU. He led the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering for six years, then moved to associate dean for operations of the college, then interim dean of the College of Business, then vice provost for academic affairs and international programs. In 2005, he took his place as provost and executive vice president.
“He has made a huge impact here at OSU,” Ashford said. He has worked with Randhawa for nine years.
“I’m sorry that he’s gone.”
In recent years, Randhawa had attracted the attention of many schools looking for a top administrator.
In 2012, he was on the shortlist at the University of Vermont and University of Nevada, Reno, but withdrew his name.
Last year he was the preferred candidate for chancellor at Southern Illinois University, but, also withdrew his name, according to The Southern Illinoisan. In February, he visited the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as one of its chancellor finalists.
At a town hall forum at Western in April, Randhawa spoke about why he was interested in the job at Western specifically. He spoke about an “alignment of values,” specifically mentioning student success and engagement as a top priority, as well as diversity and inclusion and stewardship of resources.
Western started looking for a new president after former president Bruce Shepard announced he would retire after the 2015-2016 school year. Shepard led the school for six years.
By the time classes started in the fall of last year, the school started putting together the Presidential Search Advisory Committee, a 15-person committee which included trustees, students and faculty, plus community members and the president of Whatcom Community College.
“That perspective on what Western means to Whatcom County and the region and state is a really important perspective,” Trustee Sue Sharpe said. She also served as the chair of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee.
“We all shared a sense of significant responsibility for the campus and for the community and for, really, the next phase of Western’s growth and development,” she said.
The committee heard from students, faculty and community members on what qualities to look for in a new president. The committee also sent out an online poll, which garnered more than 600 responses.
The committee was looking for someone who was committed to student success, ensuring access to affordable higher education and inclusion and diversity, Sharpe said, among a number of other priorities.
The nationwide search resulted in 75 applications. Of those, 18 people were brought in for interviews. Around eight or nine of those had their references checked. Of those, the committee unanimously agreed on five finalists to present to the Board of Trustees. The names of the other final four candidates has not been disclosed.
In March, in a closed-door session, the Board of Trustees unanimously chose Randhawa as their preferred candidate.
“His credentials were exceptional,” Sharpe said.
In April, he paid a visit to campus, toured the school and met with faculty, staff and students. He also participated in an open forum where he answered questions from the audience.
“His commitment to student’s success,” Sharpe said. “It was the first thing he talked about.”
At OSU, he had a record of success, Sharpe said, that included expanding the university, adding new programs and promoting extended education for people to get degrees from off-campus. Sharpe said Western is looking to expand its extended education, as well as its international program.
“He also has quite a bit of experience with partnerships that can create diversified funding opportunities,” Sharpe said.
After getting feedback from faculty, staff, students and community members, Randhawa was officially chosen by the board as the new president.
“We just look forward to supporting him as he starts this new opportunity,” Sharpe said. “We just have a lot of enthusiasm about where he’s going to take Western.”