New WWU president faces key decisions

$2 million shortfall won’t disrupt plans, Shepard says


Bruce Shepard was appointed in September as the 13th president of Western Washington University. Along with a $2 million budget shortfall this year, Shepard is facing key decisions about what presence the university will have in Bellingham’s waterfront redevelopment project.


Bruce Shepard, the new president of Western Washington University, won’t let on to which team he rooted for last month: the Seattle Seahawks or the Green Bay Packers.

Born and raised in California and just off of a seven-year run as the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Shepard’s sports allegiances may not yet be centered in the Pacific Northwest. But that didn’t stop him from celebrating in true Northwest fashion — with a salmon bake.

Football aside, The Bellingham Business Journal sat down with Shepard to discuss his experiences thus far and look at the key issues he is already tackling.


BBJ: As I was driving in I noticed the new communications and psychology building on south campus. When will that be open?

Shepard: It will for sure be open for business winter quarter. I think it will make a very attractive entrance to campus. We will probably be able to take occupancy somewhat sooner, but the scheduled time is that we will start classes there winter quarter.


BBJ: Speaking of capital projects, you took over the reins at Western right as the university entered into an agreement with the Port of Bellingham to examine the future of a waterfront campus. How do you plan to keep that conversation going and what do you envision for a waterfront campus?

Shepard: I’m very much in the learning mode. I think it’s really important to come in and listen to people first. So you asked what my vision might be and what I want to understand is, what is the community’s vision? What is it that the community wants for the waterfront?

The university can fit its needs into what the community, the city and the port want to do. We’ve got to understand that first and foremost. It can’t be something that the university is dictating at all.

It’s pretty clear that one of the roles of the university will be to help create that vision by listening to the community and helping the port and city work together. As you know, there are areas where they still need to come to agreement and I think that is a role that the university can have and I’m confident we will be successful with that.

I’ve had these conversations with the mayor. I’ve had them with (port executive director) Jim Darling. I think all three of us agree that if the city, the port and the university are not on the same page with supporting the community’s vision by the end of this year, then all three of us have failed to do our jobs.

A little more detail now. The university does need to grow in order to provide more baccalaureate education for the state. However, I don’t think that’s what should drive the waterfront development project.

What we really have to ask as a university then is what enhances the capacity of this university to be a premier university? Certainly we have strength in environmental science and environmental policy, and that’s represented most notably by Huxley College. We also have great strength in business. I think that bringing those two together will create a combination unlike anything any other university has been able to achieve yet.


BBJ: Do you feel the current plans put forth by the port and the city address Western’s needs and desires for a waterfront campus?

Shepard: When I heard mention of a footprint as small as 6 acres, I thought “Why all the hassle for 6 acres?” We need to be thinking larger in terms of how the university can serve the community and be part of the waterfront. I do not know what that means tangibly, but I know it means more than 6 acres. Six acres may be all that’s needed initially.

Just like communities need to think 100 years ahead, universities have to think 100 years ahead. We’re shaped by decisions that were made for this university 100 years ago — some very good and some that limited us — and we have to keep the same sort of thinking as we are stewards of this institution.

And I guess I’ll say this — it may get me in trouble — but that’s the level at which we first have to get agreement. That’s much more important than talking about which way the streets are going to run.


BBJ: How do you plan to tackle the estimated $2 million shortfall in Western’s budget this year?

Shepard: It really is a matter of having clear processes in place where people can see what the decisions are that are being made. That’s really what I’m focusing on. It’s not what will the reductions be, but how are we going to make them?

There are two kinds of reductions that you worry about. [The first] is one-time needs. The budget year we’re in already, we do need to come up with about $2 million. And second, that will then translate into a permanent cut in the base. It’s actually grown now to about $2.7 million. That’s almost 4 percent of our annual state operating budget, so it’s a significant chunk.

The governor directed us to look carefully at travel and contracts and a lot of other things. We very carefully started holding back and saving money. I’m pretty confident that we can meet the original $2 million reduction without great disruption.


BBJ: Will these reductions affect the cost of tuition?

Shepard: That’s a big unknown right now. We’ll have to wait until we get past the election to get a clearer picture. It’s a very disagreeable approach and can limit access. We worry about that a lot.

There are ways in which we can handle tuition increases that do address financial-access issues and provide need-based financial aid. This state is a leader in doing that.


BBJ: What are ways you are working to make Western stand out among other institutions?

Shepard: We have a university that has a winning game and we aren’t going to just go an change directions dramatically. We’re going to build on what has worked for us. And what has worked for us is undergraduate education that involves undergraduates in meaningful experiences with top-notch faculty.

These faculty members are doing research and getting grants and doing projects that you would find at a larger university. But they’re here because they like to work with undergraduates. So that’s what has pushed us to a position of prominence. We’re no longer a regional university — we’re a destination university.


BBJ: Western graduates are part of the next generation of business people. What skills in particular do you see as the most essential for graduates to achieve success after college?

Shepard: We have this challenge of creating an education for careers we do not yet know about and for societal challenges that we have not yet recognized. So if all we provide are skills and knowledge, those are going to get outdated.

We emphasize the core liberal arts as an important part of an education. That gives us the opportunity to look at things from multiple perspectives and be prepared for careers students may not have even thought of as an undergraduate.

I hear again and again from the private sector that they want us to have graduates who can communicate effectively. And they don’t mean simply writing, though that is important. They talk about the abilities to make presentations and the ability to work in groups. Those are some of the more basic skills.


BBJ: A more personal question now. What’s one lesson that you’ve learned over the years that is helping you in your position at Western?

Shepard: Listen, listen, listen. You’ve got to listen to people and you’ve got to hear people. And then as a leader your responsibility is to keep what you’ve heard in front of people.

In order to make sure you’re hearing appropriately, you’ve got to ask questions. But not just any questions — questions that take people out of their comfort zones. Because the world is changing out there and none of us like it.


Bruce Shepard Bio

Age: 61

Family: Wife Cyndie and three sons, one deceased

Alma Mater: University of California, Riverside

What are you reading right now? “The Founding Fish” by John McPhee, on an Amazon Kindle

Favorite place on campus? “I love the view out of the Viking Union. And every coffee shop. When I got to Green Bay they didn’t have any coffee shops and didn’t serve anything I would call coffee.”


Editor’s note: This story has been corrected from the original publication to include the correct spelling of Bruce Shepard’s name. We apologize for the original error.

Related Stories