Western Washington University’s Randhawa talks diversity, safety, other priorities

Western Washington University President Sabah Randhawa at the Bellingham campus, Oct. 6, 2016.
Western Washington University President Sabah Randhawa at the Bellingham campus, Oct. 6, 2016. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Sabah Randhawa, Western Washington University’s new president as of about 10 weeks ago, took the helm at an interesting time.

The U.S. Department of Education announced in April 2015 that it had opened an investigation into how WWU administrators handled reports of campus sexual abuse. In November 2015, threats toward students of color on social media prompted a day of canceled classes and a turbulent discussion about campus safety.

The Bellingham Herald sat down with Randhawa on Thursday morning, Oct. 6, for a wide-ranging discussion about his priorities and goals as Western’s 14th president. Here is a reported Q&A from that discussion:

Randhawa has said support is key when it comes to getting rid of the achievement gap between students. What kind of support is he referring to?

This early into his administration, Randhawa said he’s still learning where those gaps might fall at Western. Support, he said, could be reflected in how certain programs are funded, but also in ways the campus community reaches out to students.

“Part of it is, when we bring students, that they really feel at home, and they are not just physically, but also emotionally, psychologically, secure in their new home,” he said.

What are Randhawa’s priorities when it comes to working with state lawmakers who are currently grappling with how to properly fund education?

Randhawa said his focus for relationships in Olympia is on three main items: increasing student access and success; increasing the university’s capacity for students in science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – disciplines; and increasing the capacity for students studying education.

“It’s not so much convincing them,” Randhawa said of state legislators. “I think the folks that I’ve met recognize the value of higher education and recognize the fact that it is absolutely critical for the economic development of the state.”

The federal government has opened two Title IX investigations into how Western handled reports of sexual violence on campus. What are Randhawa’s goals to address that?

Randhawa spoke positively about Western’s education and awareness course centered on campus sexual assault, which is required for all students. He said he, as a new employee, also had to go through similar training, which is a good step toward keeping the issue “in front of people.”

The university has also changed the way it investigates campus sexual assault since the federal investigations began. Until Sept. 6, Assistant Dean of Students Michael Sledge’s office investigated those complaints. WWU’s Equal Opportunity Office now oversees those investigations, and is better suited to do so, Randhawa said.

The university, he added, plans to add more full-time-equivalent staff to that office.

Following threats made last year on social media toward students of color, a group on campus made a list of demands to address issues of safety, inclusion, equity and diversity. What would Randhawa say to students who feel their needs have not been met in those areas?

Certain steps the university has taken – like the planned expansion of its Ethnic Student Center – show the university is taking those concerns seriously, Randhawa said.

The university has also authorized a new position for a liaison to local Native American tribes, something students have urged the administration to do. Advertisements for that position will go out later this fall, he said.

Many of the university’s basic-education courses teach themes like race, privilege, power and discrimination, Randhawa added. A group within WWU’s faculty senate, he said, is researching ways to begin “more intentionally embedding some of these considerations into the curriculum.”

Is there something Randhawa has learned about Western or Bellingham that surprised him?

Western’s focus on its students is “a lot stronger” than Randhawa envisioned, he said. He has enjoyed learning more about Western’s campus extensions in Poulsbo, Anacortes and Everett, and the experiential-learning model used at Fairhaven College, he added.

Bellingham, Randhawa said, has been gracious and welcoming. And the weather here has an edge over that of his previous home in Corvallis, Ore.

“I think the Willamette Valley, or Oregon, is beautiful,” he said. “But this really is – it beats it.”

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan