WWU names choice for next president

Sabah Randhawa, who is currently at Oregon State University, has been named the preferred choice to take over the president’s spot at Western Washington University. A final vote would come later.
Sabah Randhawa, who is currently at Oregon State University, has been named the preferred choice to take over the president’s spot at Western Washington University. A final vote would come later. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The preferred choice for Western Washington University’s next president is Oregon State University Provost and Executive Vice President Sabah Randhawa, after a unanimous vote by WWU’s Board of Trustees Wednesday morning, March 30.

“He is a stellar academic, a real scholar and a true teacher,” said Sue Sharpe, the board’s vice chair, adding that Randhawa, in interviews, showed a strong focus on student success.

Randhawa, according to his biography on Oregon State University’s website, serves as second-in-command to the president in his current position. Previously, he was Oregon State’s vice provost for academic affairs and international programs, interim dean for its College of Business, associate dean for operations in the College of Engineering and department head for industrial and manufacturing engineering.

Randhawa, speaking by phone on Wednesday afternoon, said he was “honored and excited” to be the board’s top choice.

“I really have been impressed with the achievement and the profile of the university,” Randhawa said. “I think Western’s focus on education, on student success, on collaboration, is something that really aligns with my own values, my own passion.”

Randhawa declined to speak in-depth about any of the goals he might have for Western moving forward, adding that would need to be a conversation with the university community.

But should he become president, Randhawa said he expected to confront the same challenges that many universities face, particularly with funding allocations from state legislatures. A priority for Western, he said, would be to find a way to sustain innovation.

Current WWU President Bruce Shepard, who was selected by the trustees in 2008, announced his resignation in June 2015, saying then that it was “time for people with different ideas to come in and see things through.” He will leave the position this June to make way for the next president.

Touted by Sharpe as someone who “set the tone” for diversity at Oregon State, Randhawa said he would craft a clear message to the campus about the importance of respect and social justice.

WWU officials canceled a day of classes in November after learning of several social media posts that officials said targeted students of color. University officials’ response to the incident drew criticism from some students who felt university leaders had failed to address safety concerns, despite an independent review that determined officials had responded appropriately.

The episode also prompted the creation of a campus group calling itself the Student Assembly for Liberation and Power. Members handed officials a list of demands to address the concerns, including the creation of a College of Liberation and Power and Office for Social Transformation.

“We need to ensure at our institutions that there is a safe environment where people can have the dialogue ... so we can really talk about values that are so critical in these types of conversations,” Randhawa said Wednesday.

Praise from all trustees

Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, Randhawa earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Engineering and Technology there. He moved to the U.S. in 1978 to attend Oregon State, where he earned a master’s degree in industrial engineering, and later attended Arizona State University to earn his doctorate in the same discipline.

The candidate garnered praise across the board, with trustees speaking to Randhawa’s focus on the university’s long-term future and shared governance. Others pointed to traits like being a good listener and his perseverance through challenges, particularly with funding.

“My sense of it is that — to the extent that you can without ever actually having been on board here — he knows Western Washington University and wants to be here,” said Trustee John Meyer. “Should he be offered the job, he is very much looking forward to working with students.”

Diversity and multiculturalism and inclusion — all of those together — are something we really want our next president to be sensitive to.

Presidential Search Advisory Committee Chairwoman Karen Lee

The Presidential Search Advisory Committee referenced more than 80 candidates throughout the search process, whittling that list down to five names: four finalists and an alternate candidate, said committee Chairwoman Karen Lee. Those candidates came with 99 references that board members reviewed, Lee added.

One candidate, she added, withdrew from consideration.

Lee declined to name the other finalists.

Diversity one of goals

Lee spoke to the diversity of the board’s four finalists at the meeting Wednesday, noting that one candidate was African-American and another of Hispanic descent. Two were born in foreign countries, and the group was evenly split by gender.

“Diversity and multiculturalism and inclusion — all of those together — are something we really want our next president to be sensitive to,” she said after the meeting, adding that all finalists had a strong record in that area.

Wednesday’s announcement of a preferred candidate comes amid tension surrounding the search process’s transparency. In the past, candidates could do public interviews without the risk of losing their current jobs, but those days are gone, Lee said. To get the best candidates nowadays, she added, the review process must be kept private.

“We did not make any decisions in executive session, we did not take any straw polls, and, in fact, we asked our legal counsel to keep us on task,” she said. “What you saw today was a candidate that stood out and that was the discussion that we were having.”

Lee also pointed to the 15-person search committee, made up of students, administration, staff and faculty.

“We thought that it was very inclusive,” Lee said of the search process, “and that the President Search Advisory Committee represented the campus community quite well.”

The board, Lee added, will invite Randhawa back to campus next week to meet with various groups. Exact plans for that visit have not yet been finalized.

A special meeting will be held sometime after that for a final vote on the president position.

Shepard’s current salary is $324,500, said WWU spokesman Paul Cocke. The new president’s salary, Lee said, would be negotiated after a formal decision is made.

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan