As Western Washington University – and higher education in general – face steeper challenges, new WWU President Bruce Shepard says it’s time to ask ourselves the tough questions.
By Paul Cocke | University Communications
Bruce Shepard learned about the transformative power of education from his father.
The Shepards were a family of agricultural workers in California, but Bill Shepard had different ambitions.
“So he went down to a public university,” his son remembers, “paid about $25 per semester in fees and pumped gas to cover his college expenses.”
Shepard’s father, the first in his family to attend college, went on to earn a doctorate and had a successful academic career, serving as Dean of Students at the University of California, Berkeley and later as a dean for the entire University of California system.
“His two sons, my brother and I, have followed his example – learning the value of education,” says Shepard, who succeeded Karen W. Morse Sept. 1 to become Western Washington University’s 13th president. “Education does transform lives and leads to brighter futures for individuals, for their families and for future generations.”
Meanwhile, higher education faces its own period of transformation, Shepard says, as more and more people seek to change their futures the way Bill Shepard’s college degree changed his.
Determining the road ahead will likely require asking a lot of questions, he says. “Not just any questions. They have to be questions that make us uneasy, that make us squirm a bit.”
Those are exactly the kinds of questions Shepard loves to ask.
Growing up, Shepard thrived in the questions of math and science, teaching himself calculus when other kids were becoming acquainted with algebra. He planned to study pre-med in college, hoping to channel these skills into a career that made a difference.
One problem: Analytical chemistry bored him to tears. The more interesting questions, he began to feel, weren’t the ones that he could answer with only the right formula and a calculator.
“Once I arrived at college, like many students, my eyes were opened to other possibilities,” he says. “It was the ’60s, and politics was in the air.”
So began Shepard’s lifelong interest in politics, social sciences and “squishy problems.”
Like his father, Shepard took to life in academia. He earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from the University of California, Riverside. He spent 23 years at Oregon State University, earning tenure as a faculty member in the Department of Political Science before moving into university administration.
From 1995 to 2001, Shepard served as provost at Eastern Oregon University, and then as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay from November 2001 through June 2008.
Shepard’s family includes two sons from his first marriage. One of his sons committed suicide about six years ago while he was working toward his doctorate.
Since then, Shepard says, he often has spoken out about the importance of recognizing and treating depression.
“He was a brilliant guy. He was a social leader of all the grad students,” Shepard told the Western Front. “His brain was so powerful, it would not let him see he was seriously sick. Nobody saw the symptoms.”
Bruce is married to Cyndie Shepard, who founded the award-winning Phuture Phoenix Program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, which encourages students to graduate from high school and move on to higher education.
When approached about becoming president of Western, he was fascinated by hopes that Western could rise from being the top public master’s-granting university in the Pacific Northwest to the best of its type in the nation.
“That’s a very powerful vision and one that attracted me because I found that it’s an aspiration widely shared on campus. It’s where people want to go – recognizing it’s going to take a lot of hard work. I’m very excited about what the future holds for Western.”
Since August, Shepard has been part of a fast-track process to learn all he can about Western from its people. He has visited with hundreds of alumni, donors, incoming students and their families, faculty, staff, newspaper editorial boards, legislators, community leaders and the Governor. On campus, he plans to meet with every separate department and office to better grasp their roles and needs.
He wants to gain the best possible understanding of where Western is and the collective vision of where it can go.
Defining Western’s future will be a collaborative and continuing effort, he says. As president, he doesn’t want to be the man with the answers. He’s the coach, he says, not the referee.
“I believe groups of people together can come up with much better answers than any single individual can,” he says. “If you want to know who I am as president, there is no more fundamental point – I ask the questions, you have answers.”
Shepard arrives as Western faces many changes – from the first academic year operating under a faculty union contract to plans to expand the campus to the Bellingham waterfront. Meanwhile, enrollment continues to climb in the face of dwindling state funding.
As Western changes with the times, however, Shepard believes the university must remain true to its heritage as a liberal arts university.
“The ‘liberal’ in liberal arts has nothing to do with politics. It means ‘liberating,’” he says, echoing the saying that education can liberate us from the tyranny of our own experience. And he’s not just talking about the economic liberty his family experienced when his father earned his university degrees.
“We all have norms, values and assumptions that we have come by through informal means and often without realizing it,” he says. “We cannot operate as human beings without those, but they need to be critically examined.”
Shepard believes that a liberal arts education is also increasingly important to our society and democracy.
“We are preparing our students for careers that have not even yet been invented. We are preparing them to address societal problems that we do not yet know about. If you give people just specialized knowledge, techniques, skills, those can quickly become outmoded.
“So what we have to give people are the habits of looking at problems from a variety of perspectives, and the skills of problem solving and critical thinking. That’s what will allow our students to be successful. And those are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education.”
Higher education is going through a period of significant change as well, with calls for greater relevance, affordability and accountability. The fastest-growing populations of prospective college students will be among people of color.
But times of change in higher education are often harbingers of greater access. He cites two examples: the establishment of land-grant universities by the Morrill Act of 1862 and the GI Bill after World War II.
“The comfortable private colleges didn’t want the land grant act establishing all these public universities, and the public universities after World War II didn’t want all those GIs unsettling their comfortable campuses,” he says, adding that both changes dramatically improved and opened up access to higher education in America.
“The past changes in higher education teach us that we need to step outside our comfortable niches and understand the transformation taking place,” he says. “We are the status quo in a time when change is being demanded.”