WWU President Bruce Shepard set to retire in 2016

Western Washington University president, Bruce Shepard, presents Holocaust survivor, Noemi Ban, with an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters during the graduation ceremony for Western's winter 2013 class March 23, 2013, in Bellingham.
Western Washington University president, Bruce Shepard, presents Holocaust survivor, Noemi Ban, with an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters during the graduation ceremony for Western's winter 2013 class March 23, 2013, in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald

Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard announced Thursday, June 11, that he will retire at the end of the 2015-2016 school year.

“I think you want to retire when a university is strong,” Shepard said. “Transitions can stress an institution a bit, but the university is extremely well-positioned.”

Shepard was hired in 2008 to serve as the university’s 13th president. He came to WWU from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he was chancellor.

Serving as president for about seven to nine years is just about the right amount of time, he said, to have the chance to make a real impact.

“Then it’s time for people with different ideas to come in and see things through,” he said.

The university’s Board of Trustees will conduct a national search for his replacement over the next year, board chair Karen Lee said.

“One of the things we’ve committed to is we will have a process that is collaborative, that is in partnership with the campus and the university community,” Lee said.

She commended Shepard for his style of leadership and for helping the campus survive the economic recession.

“The way he works with the campus, he allows the campus’s leadership to shine through,” Lee said. “He is a great leader.”

Shepard’s wife, Cyndie Shepard, is also well-known around campus and started the award-winning Compass 2 Campus program, which pairs Western student mentors with grade school students to increase access to higher education for underrepresented groups. She spearheaded a similar program at the Wisconsin-Green Bay called Phuture Phoenix.

“I call them the dynamic duo,” Lee said of the Shepards. “The way they lead this campus, they almost have too many achievements to mention. The work that Cyndie has done with Compass 2 Campus, affording access to local students who may never have had the means or the desire, and to see the culmination of that in the next year or two is an amazing gift that not all university communities get from their first lady.”

Two years from now, the first group of fifth-graders to go through the program are expected to graduate from high school, Cyndie said.

“I’ll be looking forward to coming back to hand out the first scholarships — we have endowed scholarships and they’re growing every year now,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of really good years behind us. In the future it will transition to a new director with that program to make sure it remains strong and vibrant.”

Challenges and moving forward

Due to the timing of his hire, Shepard saw the university through the recession and was forced to make cuts that weren’t always popular. Notably, he approved cutting the school’s football program, which had been running at a deficit for several years.

“My greatest surprise when I got here is how higher education in the state was seen as part of the problem, rather than the solution,” Shepard said. “It was seen as elitist by some groups, and not central to what the state needed.”

Shepard said that during the 30 years he worked in Oregon — 23 years at Oregon State University teaching political science, then as provost at Eastern Oregon University from 1995 to 2001 — he had always looked north to Washington, thinking, “Wow, your state gets it.”

“But Olympia opened my eyes. ... When we saw our state support over four years be cut in half, I think it is so remarkable we came through that, I believe stronger than ever,” Shepard said. “Today we have both sides of the aisle trying to help higher ed, and that’s a significant turnaround.”

Shepard said he is glad to have seen the university reach out to Bellingham, Whatcom County and other parts of the state. The school has expanded the engineering and computer science programs and created the Western Washington University Center at Olympic College in Poulsbo, as well as the Institute for Energy Studies.

“There’s no false modesty here — I never use the words ‘things I accomplished.’ Universities are very complicated, and a president who has done a good job with leadership, her or his fingerprints never show,” Shepard said. “We are stronger than we were seven years ago, and that’s because of all the great people.”

As for the coming year, Shepard said he plans to continue to work to take the university’s strengths and apply them to the needs of the state.

“I’m not the kind of person who ever takes my foot off the accelerator,” Shepard said. “I want to continue reaching off campus to important areas to reach our mission. ... We have a capital fundraising campaign that’s been highly successful, so successful that we met our target before we announced it, and I expect we’ll smash through our next goal.”

The university’s private funding campaign called Western Stands for Washington has raised $54 million (the first goal was $50 million), with a new goal of $60 million.

One thing Shepard said he has heard over and over again in conversations around the state is that Western is a hidden treasure.

“They say ‘You’re a beautiful gem up there, but you’re hidden. Quit hiding,’” he said. “I look forward to going to Olympia now because all they talk about is what a fabulous institution Western is.”

After retiring next spring, Shepard said he plans to spend more time with Cyndie, family and friends, likely leaving Bellingham to head south to his native state, California.

“I turn 69 next year, we’re in good health and we want to enjoy this time of our lives together,” Shepard said.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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