In the last year, UW-Whitewater has seen enrollment decline again, several top administrators leave and a new campus join the institution.
Dwight Watson, who started this month as the university’s 17th chancellor, addressed issues facing the university in an interview with The Gazette last week.
Enrollment, which Watson said is the biggest problem on his agenda, has dropped the past two school years after eight years of increases. An associate vice chancellor has said he expects enrollment to be down again this year, but a rise could come next year.
Given the administrative departures UW-W has seen, Watson said there’s a perception of instability. He said the university is moving forward now with national searches to find people to permanently fill the roles of vice chancellor for student affairs and vice chancellor for university advancement.
Watson’s predecessor, Beverly Kopper, resigned months after her husband was banned from campus for repeated claims of sexual harassment. But she has plans to return to teaching psychology at the university as a tenured professor.
As the chancellor begins his new role, he spoke to how he wants to take on these issues and more.
The following questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What are you going to do about declining enrollment?
A: One thing we want to do is make sure that we are hitting the pockets of folk who might be interested in college and the university and might not know that Whitewater is an option for them.
And so, with the shifting of demographics where there is fewer white folks that are coming to college and more students of color, we have to diversify our marketing to make sure that we are connecting with those folks who are coming to college … So being in critical places that have a critical mass of diverse folks is something that we’re trying to do.
We also feel like we have a value proposition that we need to push out a little bit more. We are less expensive than most of the four-year institutions. We have a wonderful front door with Rock County. We want to connect that more readily.
So, I think we have to be more externally aggressive, as opposed to just hoping people will discover us.
Q: What are the next steps for the partnership with the Rock County campus?
A: I hope that we move beyond articulation agreements (more typical at two-year institutions) and move to pathways. So that when you get your associate degree, you can seamlessly transfer straight into Whitewater.
Or, if we can move to dual degrees, where you at the beginning you start your degree program at Rock County. So, you’re dual enrolled at Rock County at the same time you’re enrolled at Whitewater. You can get a Bachelor of Applied Science.
Q: How will you regain campus trust after the circumstances of Kopper’s exit, and how will you manage the dynamic of her planning to work at the university?
A: So, when it comes to that situation, it’s situational. It’s not systemic. When I think about the safety of this campus, we’re No. 1 within the state system when it comes to safety … What happened in the past is a private and personal situation. It has been dealt with.
When it comes to the chancellor working here at the institution, she has tenure within the psychology department. It’s a part of her contracted right to teach within her tenured department. And I’m glad she’s on board.
Q: How do you ensure that campus safety includes what doesn’t show up on reports, like sexual assault, which is underreported?
A: You want to make sure people feel comfortable enough that they can address it. They also need to understand that all faculty are mandatory reporters, and when they talk to a faculty member and they share information, if it has to be moved forward then it will be brought forward. But also, we want to make sure they get whatever support they need.
But the education of the student body is important as well. Knowing that we have to move from just saying ‘no’ to having affirmative consent ... We don’t have an affirmative consent policy on our campus, but that’s something that I think we should move towards.
Q: What should the university be doing to increase the cultural competency of its students and ease racial tensions?
A: When I think about any student coming to a campus, and especially students of color, they’re looking for what I call the three A’s. They’re looking for affordability—so can I afford it? They’re looking for accessibility—can I get in? And they’re looking for affirmation—are you affirming my person?
(On the third point,) are we affirming people (so) they feel welcome? And I think with the programming and support we have, most people do. Now, it’s one thing to be affirming in the co-curricular side of your endeavor here. But you also need to be affirmed within the curriculum side. So, do you see things presented through a cultural lens in your classes? Do you see your race or gender represented within the content?
… When I think about the students, we want to enhance their knowledge base. We want to enhance their skill sets, but we also want to enhance their dispositional stances. So, we want them to be able to navigate the wider world. And we’re hoping that Whitewater gives them that microcosmic opportunity.
Q: What has surprised you so far?
A: The commitment to the university. I’ve met so many people who are so happy to have me on board. And they’re speaking from a personal story lens. They want to tell me they graduated here, they went there, how important Whitewater has been to them.
It seems like everyone has a Whitewater story.