Spring is in full bloom in Walla Walla, and commencement is right around the corner. This commencement will be the last annual event I participate in for the first time at Whitman. We are excited to welcome Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary I. Yu, who spoke on campus back in the winter of 2015, as this year’s commencement speaker. It promises to be a wonderful celebration, as we launch the class of 2016 into the next great adventures in their lives.
I have been able to spend a bit more time on campus this semester, and it has paid off in helping me develop my understanding of and appreciation for Whitman's special culture. In February, I attended the fourth annual Power and Privilege Symposium. There were more than 40 student-run sessions on topics ranging from mass incarceration in the United States to what it’s like to be religious on Whitman’s campus to tactics for confronting prejudice when we encounter it. There were no classes that day; students could choose to attend or not, so I didn’t know what to expect in terms of turnout. All four of the sessions that I attended were standing-room-only, and there were throngs of people moving around campus in between sessions. That’s student learning at its best.
Whitman’s athletics programs also have student learning at their core, and I think the men’s basketball team’s experience this year exemplifies that. Their first home game of the season was a lopsided victory over the University of La Verne, giving the first-year players a chance to get some valuable game minutes. Anyone who has seen Coach Eric Bridgeland’s team know that they play an extremely quick, pressing style of basketball. The game went by fast, and the young players were out there, wide-eyed, trying to maintain the pace. With each time out, they came back to the bench looking a bit stunned. The coaches stood back, and instead, the upper-class students whom they had replaced in the lineup stood with them, explaining what was happening and how they should respond. I was witnessing teaching (and student learning) at its best.
It paid off when the team made it into the NCAA Division III National Tournament for the first time in its history. The players learned how teamwork can overcome adversity when they clawed their way back against Whitworth in the second round and pulled out a last-second two-point victory. We had a tough loss in the Sweet Sixteen to the eventual national champions, but our first-year players were on the court for the last five minutes, experiencing the emotion of a third-round NCAA tournament game. They won’t be going to the tournament for the first time ever again; but I’m confident they’ll put this year’s experience to good use in the future—yet another great example of student learning.
Then in April, we had the 18th annual Whitman Undergraduate Conference, filled with presentations of student research and creative activities, organized into panels, performances and poster sessions. More than 150 students shared the results of their work with peers, faculty and staff members, parents and members of the Walla Walla community. I learned about aspects of developmental psychology and cell death and heard a fine performance of the first movement of Mozart’s String Quintet in C minor. I’m confident that everyone who participated, whether as presenter or audience member, learned something new that day.
With the celebration of commencement, I will complete one full academic cycle at Whitman. I think I’ve found my rhythm, and that feels good. Now we can launch a critical strategic planning process that will boldly advance the work of this college. The Strategic Planning Committee, which includes faculty members, staff members, students and members of our governing boards, is tasked with listening to thoughts and ideas as they emerge from the broader Whitman community, generating ideas of its own, testing all of those ideas in an iterative fashion and then developing a set of four to six strategic imperatives that will focus our work in the coming years. I look forward to engaging in that exciting work with all of you.