Sabah Randhawa was named the 14th president of Western Washington University in a unanimous vote of the Board of Trustees Tuesday evening, April 5.
Randhawa had been the trustees’ preferred candidate to replace outgoing President Bruce Shepard and the only one who met students, staff and faculty.
“I really truly am deeply honored for this opportunity to be president,” Randhawa said moments after the vote. “I’m pleased, excited, thrilled to be entrusted with this responsibility.”
Before the vote, trustee Sue Sharpe said Randhawa took the time to thoroughly answer questions during the interview process and in subsequent meetings. His focus on student success, diversity and inclusion, she added, garnered support from every group Randhawa met with.
The university needed a president that would “take it to the next level,” Sharpe said. “I think people saw that capacity with this potential appointment.”
Shepard praised the presidential search committee for its work in finding and vetting Randhawa and the other candidates. Shepard’s last day as president is June 30.
Campus Q and A
Earlier Tuesday, Randhawa spoke about diversity, sustainability and increasing student success rates during a wide-ranging question-and-answer forum on campus.
The forum in Viking Union was the only scheduled public event during Randhawa’s campus visit this week, which began on Monday, university officials said. About 250 people attended the event, said university spokesman Paul Cocke.
I don’t know if it’s been as open as they say it has been. I would’ve really enjoyed seeing a panel of candidates here today.
Nora Selander, WWU junior studying political sciences and history
Randhawa, kicking off the discussion with comments about his visit, said he’s learned in talks with various campus groups that many of his own values align with those of the university, including focuses on student success rates, stewardship of resources and social justice.
Randhawa, who now serves as Oregon State University’s provost and vice president, called on his experiences at OSU, and how he would bring those to the helm at Western.
Diversity, Randhawa said, can be measured in part by student success rates, and making sure those rates were high across all student groups was a priority for him at Oregon State, and would continue to be at WWU.
“There is a significant achievement gap” among some student minority groups, Randhawa said. “And, in fact, we as a higher-education community collectively have failed to address it.”
When asked about student concerns of handling day-to-day bigotry, Randhawa said it would be important for the university to create and maintain a safe space to have conversations about those issues.
One student asked if Randhawa’s commitment to diversity included encouraging students to speak out about grievances with campus administration, and whether Randhawa would work with those student groups about their concerns.
Randhawa said the university was responsible for encouraging those conversations, but in a safe and respectful way.
“Part of the educational process with students and faculty is to have those conversations, is to have that dialogue,” Randhawa said. “Unless you sit down and talk about differences, they never fully get resolved.”
Rosa Rice-Pelepko, a sophomore studying environmental sciences, asked how Randhawa would uphold WWU’s recent commitment to buy more community-based, ecologically sound food.
Randhawa said food systems were one component of a larger discussion on sustainability, adding that he was pleased with WWU’s focus on the issue. Classes that teach students about the environment and more sustainable campus practices, he added, would strengthen that focus.
Rice-Pelepko, after the forum, said she wished Randhawa had addressed issues more at the intersection of food and social justice, such as farm labor.
When a university employee asked for his thoughts on climate change and possible divestment in fossil-fuel companies, Randhawa said universities are responsible for exploring the effects of climate change. He added that the conversations about divestment were important, but changes like those take time.
Criticism over lack of input
Josie Ellison, a senior studying political science, said it was nice to see the process at work but added Randhawa seemed out of touch with certain issues.
“It felt like he still didn’t quite know enough about Western to really have some of those more on-the-ground conversations about what happened in the fall,” Ellison said.
University administrators were criticized for their response to online racial threats that canceled a day of classes in November. The event prompted the creation of a group that calls itself the Student Assembly for Power and Liberation, which issued a list of demands to officials including the creation of a College of Liberation and Power.
A third-party report later determined the university had responded appropriately to the threats.
Other students, like Henry Pollet, a freshman studying political science and manufacturing engineering, said the forum was helpful but only allowed students one snapshot of a single candidate.
“He seemed like a really nice guy, but I think it would’ve been nice to talk to some of the other candidates,” he said. The Board of Trustees voted unanimously last week to nominate Randhawa as its preferred choice for president but did not name the other finalists.
Nora Selander, a junior studying political sciences and history, agreed.
“I don’t know if it’s been as open as they say it has been,” she said. “I would’ve really enjoyed seeing a panel of candidates here today.”
The university is negotiating the terms of Randhawa’s contract, including his salary, said Karen Lee, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees. Shepard’s salary is $324,500.
Karen Lee’s title was corrected April 6, 2016.