What an amazing sight to look out and see so many friends and family, colleagues and supporters, here to share in this wonderful occasion. Celebrating this moment in front of our historic Converse Hall, where thousands of students have passed by for more than a century, makes the moment even more special.
I am truly humbled by all of the recognition and grateful for the many hands that have helped make this day possible. I must admit, I am slightly embarrassed by all of the fanfare, but I recognize that these kinds of occasions are important and symbolic, marking a new chapter in the history of this great institution.
I would like to especially thank our Board chair Jeanne Ambruster and the Westminster Board of Trustees for this opportunity to lead Westminster. I am honored that our dear friend and former board chair Ginger Giovale and former president Michael Bassis are here today to be part of this ceremony. I want to recognize our distinguished faculty and dedicated staff and talented students who are with us, as well as our loyal alumni and generous supporters. Many of our emeritus trustees and former faculty and staff came today, some of whom have traveled long distances to be here. I am honored to have state and city leaders and higher education colleagues from throughout our state with us, and I want to thank Preston Chiaro and the members of the Inauguration Committee for making this day something very memorable. I also want to acknowledge my extended family and friends that have come to support me.
And finally, I want to thank my very dear Sandy, who willingly signed on for this new role of my mine as our new First Lady, and each of my children. Would they stand and be recognized?
I am proud that my wife and three children are all Westminster College graduates, and I have seven grandchildren who are also future Griffins.
I am especially sorry that my parents, Larry and Bobbie, who taught me the values that got me here, are not alive to see this day. My mother would have said, "Steve, a college president? Of course!"
My father, on the other hand, would have said, "Are they sure they know what they're doing?"
Truly, I am honored to serve as the 18th president of Westminster College.
Since my appointment was announced several months ago, some of you may have been asking yourselves, as I have, how did a local kid that grew up just a few blocks from here, who became a cheerleader with his future wife at Highland High School, the son of a local grocery store manager, a return LDS missionary, and a first generation college accounting graduate from the University of Utah, become the president of this college?
Westminster was founded 140 years ago in 1875 as a Presbyterian prep school. Today it is a nationally recognized, comprehensive institution with a distinguished faculty and staff serving more than 2,800 undergraduate and graduate students from throughout the country and around the world.
So how did I end up here? Perhaps the answer is what English Parliamentarian Thomas Buxton once said: "With ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable."
Indeed, I have had thirty-four extraordinary years of on-the-job training, taught by courageous and visionary presidents and trustees, and supported by many wonderful colleagues. I learned by experience and mistakes how to manage, how to lead, and when to get out of the way, and it has been my good fortune to have played a small part in three decades of this wonderful institution's history.
I have also learned what, for me, was perhaps the most difficult lesson of all, one that will hopefully serve me well: Presidents must persistently advocate for change, not just because our world is always changing, but because our human instinct is to protect that which is known and familiar, while the job of higher education is to seek out the unknown and the unfamiliar.
So, as I join the ranks of seventeen former presidents, I am committed to continuing the conversation and journey that is Westminster College, so that we can add to the legacy of those who have served before us and ensure that this college will stand strong for years to come.
In my time at Westminster, I've been involved in the discussion, planning, and execution of most of the major goals and plans that the College has chosen. That experience has given me a unique perspective about what it takes for graduates to be informed, responsible citizens.
One thing I've learned for sure: Being open-minded toward change is the most important asset that a leader can have. In this world of higher education, the landscape changes every day. There are always new problems and challenges to navigate, and while there are solutions to every problem, the solutions from ten years ago, five years ago, or even last year will probably not be the best solutions today. Just as we help our students develop the habits of mind that will enable them to continue to learn, Westminster and its leadership must also continue to commit to be lifelong learners. When we courageously embrace change, we become a strong voice of authenticity, efficiency, and innovation in the ongoing conversation that is Westminster.
I have been through many, many changes at the College.
In the early 1980s, I was here for the bold and dramatic college-wide reorganization that helped saved the college from closure, and I was also here ten years later when our regional accrediting agency praised Westminster as model of higher education learning and assessment in the region.
I was here when we eliminated intercollegiate athletics in the early 80s because of budget pressures, when we reintroduced them in the 90s, and most recently when we were proudly accepted into the NCAA.
I was here when we expanded our institutional mission to include adult and professional students, and as we extended our recruiting reach nationally, so that now we recruit almost half of our undergraduate students nationally and internationally.
In the 80s, I was asked to develop a plan to eliminate all on-campus student housing, and yet since 2000, I've worked on quadrupling on-campus student housing and facilities.
When we added mentoring programs, coaching positions, online learning, and new types of learning assessments, I too, was part of each process.
For years, I was responsible for planning and building facilities within our small, 27-acre campus, but now I am part of the team working to embrace Sugar House, the City of South Salt Lake, the greater Salt Lake area, and even the Wasatch Mountains as our expanded campus.
These and dozens of other milestones, experiences, and decisions have prepared me to lead Westminster. The college will continue to evolve and change in many ways that we choose and also in ways we cannot fully predict, but through every transition—no matter how daunting—what we can always control are our core values and beliefs. These are the keys to our identity, our strength, and our enduring success.
Our core values and beliefs are fundamental to everything we do here at Westminster, from whom we hire, to how we spend our money, to the vision we hope for our students. Above all, at every level of operation, we prioritize students and their learning first. We value mentoring, teamwork, and impassioned teaching. We strive to understand and respect differences, to engage with the wider community and to hold ourselves to high academic and ethical standards.
When we view the changes at Westminster over the years through the lens of these values and beliefs, we find that Westminster has not changed much at all. Perhaps that is why so many people on and off campus, from many generations and backgrounds, care so deeply about this College's wellbeing. As one of our most beloved former trustees, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and former Secretary of Education Sterling McMurrin, once said: "If Westminster College did not exist, someone should have invented it."
I begin my presidency aware of my own limitations but thankful for the gifted, talented, and dedicated individuals on this campus with whom I have the pleasure to work. The people at Westminster are truly special, and I mean that with all my heart.
I am also so thankful for the many donors and supporters in our community, many of whom are here today. We are grateful that you have shared your resources of time and treasure to help this college achieve excellence.
Since my appointment was announced, I have received hundreds of expressions of support from people I kno, and many I don't, much advice, and more than a few special requests. Throughout much of it, there is one recurring sentiment, and that is:
"We feel safe with you at the helm."
This gives me confidence, and I am happy to hear that, and I hope all of you here today feel that way as well. But, as president, I must tell you that feeling safe is not a plan for the future. Feeling comfortable is not enough to guarantee Westminster's success. Together, we have more to do.
Some of you may not be aware of this, but this college has been through many difficult seasons, and when I came to Westminster in 1981, it was in the middle of perhaps the worst season of all. In fact, it was in real jeopardy of failing, and the future was uncertain.
But then, as I spent time as a young business manager working with the staff, faculty, and trustees, I was overwhelmed by their dedication, their willingness to roll up their sleeves and look for solutions—their sheer, unyielding stubbornness in believing that Westminster was worth saving. Times were tough, but instead of walking away and letting the college fail, this amazing community of Westminster stepped forward and committed themselves to saving this college. There were people in my office every day, pitching ideas and proposing bold plans, some solid and some over-the-moon crazy, but the passion and resolve were incredibly inspiring. The experiences of these early years still run deep within me and provide me strength to get through any difficulties that may unfold in our future.
Today, there are new challenges and decisions ahead of us, but I am here to tell you that we are ready.
We are a strong community, we are doing amazing things on this campus every day, we are learning, and as long as we remember who we are, we are prepared to face the future together. This is a school with an unbreakable spirit. Together, we have much to do, but I firmly believe that, right here today, we have everything we need—the vision, the skills, the dedication, and the heart—to help Westminster achieve its full potential.
I would like to share with you now some of the specific challenges that I feel deserve our attention as a campus community. Several Westminster presidents began their terms of office with agendas of their own, others inherited a strategic plan already approved by the college community, and all of them had to respond to several immediate needs.
The agenda before us now is made of all three.
First, we need to continue the work of strengthening our college with additional financial resources. I am pleased that our retention and graduation rates are improving, but we need to do more to create stronger enrollment demand, which is necessary for long-term sustainability. I also commit that Westminster's extraordinary record of balanced budgets for over three decades will continue during my presidency. Equally important, though, is that the planning and decisions around institutional priorities will be participatory and transparent.
A second immediate need is that we must reaffirm and recommit to Westminster's unique campus culture. We are a community where students, staff, administrators, faculty and trustees need to be involved—predictably, appropriately and efficiently—in the important decisions we make.
There is no legislature or governor to ask or to blame, no funding agency to tell us what to do. As a college we look to no higher authority for direction or inspiration. We decide the issues—whether it is determining which undergraduate and graduate programs to offer, or describing our place in a technology-driven world, or defining the relationship between liberal arts and professional education.
As we look for solutions to these critically important issues, we need inclusive but efficient ways to have these and other conversations. Each small bit of shared understanding will point us in the best direction for helping students achieve their educational goals, while continuing conversations about Westminster and its relevance in the higher education landscape.
To help develop this kind of campus culture, we need to declutter the daily schedule for many of our faculty so they can devote more of their time and energy to student learning and to their own professional development. Our academic reputation depends on this as much as it depends on the accomplishments of our graduates. We also need to invest more in the development of our dedicated staff because their work and their relationships with students are also critically important to our success.
And, for our community to work well, we must expect our students to pay close attention to their own education. A caring, personalized learning environment does not mean that students are relieved of their responsibilities to complete assignments, to know their own progress toward graduation, to prepare for life after Westminster and for the personal choices they make. To be an engaged community, we all need to be respected, responsible individual members of that community.
The final immediate need is that we must strengthen our instructional and co-curricular efforts to enhance learning outcomes and student retention, increase graduation rates, accelerate the time to graduation, and find new high-impact learning experiences. This, I believe, is best accomplished through actively supporting our faculty and staff, filling resource gaps, and making both the academic calendar and the campus more efficient and productive.
At Westminster, our strategic plan helps guide the future of our school. We have three ambitious goals: 1) building a community of learners, 2) innovating to support student success, and 3) assuring affordability and sustainability.
I could go on at great length about each of these goals—how they affect the practical decisions we make every day and how we use them to plan for the future of Westminster in the grandest sense. I could tell you about how each of these goals evolved from past accomplishments that have led us into entirely new kinds of discussions and challenges. I could give you data about enrollment, tuition, and program development; however, I really don't want to fill up our time today with the many important details of our plan.
If you want those things, you are all invited to attend the next All College Meeting.
Instead, I want to take this unique opportunity to remind you of the real, human reasons we spend so much time planning and thinking about these important issues—why these goals of ours really matter.
Our goals matter because they directly affect the lives and the learning of our students.
We set financial goals so that the student studying for a big exam at 3 in the morning can focus on what they're studying, rather than worrying about how to pay this semester's tuition. We set goals about our campus culture so that students coming from all over the world, from all backgrounds and beliefs, ethnicities, sexualities, and ages feel safe, supported, respected, and heard.
We set goals about incorporating technology and authentic forms of online learning into our classrooms so that our students who are also working parents, exhausted graduate students, and undergraduate students working to support themselves, have greater flexibility while still benefitting from a true Westminster education.
We set curricular and professional development goals so that our staff and faculty are best prepared to help students make smart choices about their future.
We pride ourselves on accomplishing our strategic goals because in doing so, we empower our students to achieve their own goals. That, above all else, is what Westminster College is about, and everything about our mission, our vision, and our plans for the future come down to what we believe will be best for our students.
With that being said, let me briefly highlight several areas that I will focus on as president and that offer a glimpse of where we, as a college and as a community, are headed.
We need to increase the college's financial resources, especially in the area of growing our endowment for scholarships and program support. This will help keep Westminster affordable, while we simultaneously work on managing costs. When I came to the college in 1980, the endowment was under 1 million dollars. Today it is approximately 73 million. As a critical part of our upcoming comprehensive campaign, my goal is to have the endowment reach 100 million. An adequate endowment is what makes an institution sustainable, regardless of what happens in the economy or marketplace.
Second, I believe that Westminster has a bigger role to play in the higher education conversation in the state of Utah. Westminster has worked hard to become a nationally recognized leader among small, comprehensive colleges, especially through our participation in the Association of New American Colleges, but there are many opportunities for growth in our city and state.
In consultation with higher education, civic, and government leaders, I will be exploring how Westminster can better serve some of the state's most deserving potential students—including women, students from diverse backgrounds, and many adult learners who want to complete their degrees—who are currently underserved. We already make an important impact in the state—for example, while 50% of our 2,200 undergraduates come from outside of Utah, 85% of them remain in Utah after graduation. Moreover, more than 90% of our graduate students are from Utah.
I am so pleased to have government and higher education leaders with us today, and I invite you to explore with us new ways of collaborating.
To also extend Westminster's reach and impact in our community, I am also committed to creating additional high-profile partnerships with small businesses and larger corporations, as well as various cultural, social service, and civic organizations. This will expand the opportunities we can make available to our students.
Going to a small college that has adopted a vibrant, growing city as its campus is, literally, the best of both worlds, and we want to make the most of the opportunities that surround us, not only in the city but throughout the state, taking advantage of the amazing outdoor opportunities that are just a few hours away.
Third, we need to prioritize the needs, ideas, and development of our faculty and staff. Our professors and administrators work hard to unlock the talent and potential in our students, and as president, I want to play that same role for the faculty and staff. I want to help energize their talents so that they can be free to innovate and accomplish the things they see as possible.
This presidency will not be about me.
I've been here long enough to know that the best legacies are left by those who spend their time empowering others to be the best they can be, and I look forward to many years of celebrating the achievements of our many talented people.
On a final personal note, I want to talk about what I've learned from something I love to do—and that's running. This may come as a surprise to many of you who are looking at me and thinking, He doesn't look like much of an athlete, but I have actually completed twenty-six marathons, with another one coming up in a few weeks, if I can get the last practice run in. Completing the first one taught me that I could learn and accomplish that which was previously unfamiliar to me. Completing twenty-six taught me...well, it taught me that I kind of like pain. So perhaps, this is the perfect job for me after all.
Marathons taught me that I love the process of preparation almost as much as I enjoy the end results; that I am competitive and thrive on challenges; and, most importantly, that I don't give up.
Westminster is not a marathon, but it is a relay—a relay that has been going on for 140 years. Students, faculty, staff, and trustees who came before us have handed the baton to us for this leg of the race. I can promise you my full determination and effort as Westminster's 18th president, and with your expertise, good will, and support, we will set Westminster's path to confront and conquer the challenges we already know and respond thoughtfully to those that arise unexpectedly.
Today, I am asking you, whether you are new to our community or have been here for a while, to join me in this race, to commit yourselves energetically to Westminster College's present and future, and to hold our core educational values and beliefs close to your hearts. With pride in the knowledge that we have upheld and built upon the important legacies of this College, we too will be able to pass the baton to those who will succeed us.