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A college president uses the ‘W’ word

It’s provoked a talk show spasm – this comment from last September’s convocation speech by the President of Western Washington University Bruce Shepard.

“I have said before and I’ll say it again, that we as a faculty and staff and student body, if we 10 years from now are as white as we are today, we will have failed as a university to meet the critical needs of our state,” he said.

Shepard has made similar statements for several years, but this one got picked up by conservative websites like RedState, which ran the headline, “Why Can’t Western Washington University Get Rid of Pesky White People?”

And I even heard some criticism on The Dori Monson Show, after Dori tried to get Shepard to comment. “The president of Western Washington University, who considers himself this social crusader but he’s a coward, he will only do interviews with people who agree with him.”

By which Dori meant me. Which is true, although I didn’t realize I agreed with him until after I talked to him. Like Dori, I too thought it was a weird thing for a college president to say, publicly anyway, that he wanted his college to look less white.

Dori Monson: WWU president’s proclamation to make school less white is a slap in the face to current students Read: Dori’s reaction

“Isn’t the message to all of your white students that you are contributing to us being a failure of a university because of your presence here?” asked Dori.

So when I asked Bruce Shepard to explain himself, he said he wasn’t blaming white people for anything.

“I have never said we had too many white people,” said Shepard. “What I have said in the blog, and I hope folks will read that, is that the groups we have traditionally depended upon, which include largely whites, are not going to be out there in the high school graduating classes in the numbers they have been. So it is not a question of our discriminating. It really boils down to, in a simple choice, either we just continue to serve the traditional white populations in which case, as we get smaller and we don’t respond to the state’s needs for baccalaureate graduation, or we become more diverse.”

He said something similar in his 2012 convocation, which no one apparently noticed.

But as he explained it to me, he’s trying to deal with a crisis facing a lot of colleges: Declining demand among their usual customers, that being white people. So he said he needs to do what every other business does and find ways to appeal to customers who might not be considering, or be able to afford, a college education.

He explained that in the part of the speech that nobody seems to be interested in playing.

“If we continue to draw largely upon the traditional sources for students, it means we will face the same sort of demographic collapse I saw in Asia. Our selectivity, already somewhat declining, will disappear. We will struggle to find students. Students whose tuition has become so very a large part of our budget. Fewer students will mean fewer of us. So there is question one: how can we most effectively respond, university-wide, to the changing demography of Washington high school graduates and transfer students?”

That sounds reasonable to me. Shepard is trying to market his university to communities that, unlike whites and Asians, may need some persuasion that a 4-year degree is worth the money. It sounds like Marketing 101.

As for the conservative website RedState that ran the headline “Why Can’t Western Washington University Get Rid of Pesky White People?” Great headline, the only problem being that’s not what Bruce Shepard said.

And the tweets that said things like “Given your own mediocre whiteness, will you resign and allow a minority to serve as WWU’s new president?”

“This is a sideshow stirred up by people who make nice paychecks by throwing red meat to hate groups,” he said. “I won’t engage in that.”

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