Westminster College president to retire after bringing high-tech to “high-touch” campus
After a decade of guiding Westminster College through a changing higher education landscape, the president of the private Salt Lake City liberal arts school will retire at the end of this academic year. Under Michael Bassis’ watch, Westminster has become a national destination that shifted the school’s focus from teaching to learning by using new technology, trustees say.
Bassis broke the news Thursday, his 67th birthday, to Westminster trustees meeting in Park City.
"This opportunity at Westminister has been the culmination of my [41-year] career, where all the pieces fit together at the right time," he said in an interview. "I’m enormously pleased with the college and grateful for all the help from the trustees, faculty and staff. We have finished implementing this 10-year plan and we’ll have to develop a new one and that should be left to the next president. The place is in great shape and I think the college will attract a first-rate president."
Bassis, a sociology professor, graduated from Brown University and earned his doctorate in the sociology of education at the University of Chicago. Before arriving at Westminster as president in 2002, he had served as dean of the University of South Florida and New College in Sarasota. Earlier, he was president of Olivet College in Michigan.
"When we hired Michael, we asked him to take the institution to the next level, but we weren’t sure exactly what that looked like, or how to get there. Now, nearly a decade later, the quality, vitality and reputation of the college has skyrocketed," said Robert Frankenberg, a venture capital executive who chairs Westminster’s board of trustees.
One observer credited Bassis for turning Westminster into a beacon of innovation to which other schools look. To free a liberal arts school, where personalized instruction is a core strength, from the traditional mold took a "brave leader," according to Henry J. Eyring, vice president for advancement at Brigham Young University Idaho, co-author of the new Innovative University with Harvard business scholar Clayton Christensen.
Among Bassis’ noteworthy innovations are real-world instruction models and electronic portfolios that go far beyond a degree to show employers, families and students what they have accomplished in college.
"He recognized that cutting edge is competency-based learning and online education," Eyring said. "The times are changing. He showed we can provide the best of what we do person-to-person and we could do it better. I just marvel at that. He has gotten great results there and emboldened others in higher education elsewhere."
Trustee Judith Billings hailed Bassis as "a true visionary" who helped improve Westminster’s educational experience, without increasing the costs to students. The school’s tuition is far lower than the $40,000 to $50,000 typically charged by peer institutions on the coasts.
"He transferred the focus from teaching, which is all about faculty, to learning, which is all about students. That is our most important accomplishment," said Billings, a retired Court of Appeals judge. "We aren’t 100 percent there yet. So we will have to look for someone who can complete the job."
Bassis’ value to the school is reflected in his pay, which puts him among the state’s highest paid higher-education executives outside the University of Utah. His total compensation package was worth more than $500,000 last year, according to federal tax filings.
Under Bassis’ leadership, Westminster enrollment grew by 44 percent and the student body became far more diverse. Nine graduate and 19 undergraduate programs have been added, along with eight athletic teams, and seven new academic centers, such as the Great Salt Lake Institute, were established. This fall, 56 percent of the freshman class is from outside Utah, up from 18 percent when Bassis arrived, and there are far more international students and students of color on campus.
"Who you go to school with is as important as the professors you take classes with," Billings said. "Diversity has made Westminster a wonderful place to go to college."
Trustee Peter Meldrum praised Bassis for bringing an experiential dimension to education and taking cost containment seriously, while branching into online delivery and management of learning.
"We call it high-tech, high-touch. We still have low student-faculty ratios, but we combined that with new technologies and Internet learning tools that help reduce costs," said Meldrum, a major college benefactor and biotech executive. "He focused on learning science by doing science. You can’t learn science by listening to a lecture and reading a textbook. You have to roll up your sleeves and do science."