Q&A: Charles Wight reflects on tenure at Weber State, future

Monday , April 30, 2018 - 5:15 AM

Weber State University president Charles Wight says he’s satisfied with what he’s accomplished at the university over the last five years.

Wight said he is moving to Maryland the first week of May to settle down before assuming his role as president of Salisbury University. When asked what he will miss most about Weber State, Wight said it was the friendships he and his wife Victoria Rasmussen have made.

The Standard-Examiner sat with Wight one last time to discuss his tenure, accomplishments, controversies and his future.

This Q&A has been edited for the sake of clarity. 

STANDARD-EXAMINER: You described Weber State once as being a magical place. What’s magical of Weber State and why did you describe it that way?

CHARLES WIGHT: You know, the magic really happens between students, especially our third- and fourth-year students, and the faculty. They are in small classes, the faculty gets to know them personally, make a connection.

I meet with lots of alumni all around the western U.S. and every single one of them tells me a story about when they were at Weber State and made a special connection with a faculty member, and sometimes a staff member or sometimes a coach. The story goes, “You know, when I was at Weber State a long time ago this person took a special interest in me, and took me aside and taught me something about myself that I didn’t know before and helped me launch me in a new direction that helped me become very successful.”

And the details of that story are different every time but the one thread is just the same. When I started hearing those stories, I realized that this really is a special place and our faculty and our staff really care about students and take a special interest in them. It goes way beyond textbooks and exams and, classrooms even, and so it is magical.

S-E: You’ve been at Weber State for five years. What’s your favorite memory at Weber State?

CW: Wow! There are lots of them. But I think I have to say that Victoria and I took kind of a special interest in the spirit squad and it was in 2014 when they invited us to come out to Daytona Beach for their national championships. We’ve done that several times now and just being with them, seeing how they represent the institution so well, seeing how exciting it is when they win national championships — and they won three this year— it’s very, very special and it’s been one of the great times that we’ve had with the students here at Weber State.

S-E: And they won the past championships as well.

RELATED: Weber State cheer, dance, mascot win national titles

CW: Yeah! This past April we were out in Daytona Beach with them and they won. The cheer team won the Division I National Championship for coed cheer and the dance team won the hip-hop competition, and Waldo won the mascot competition, so everybody on the entire spirit squad won a national championship this year.

S-E: Let’s talk about some of your accomplishments here, there’s a couple of them. You expanded the Dream Weber program, which provides free tuition for students who have an annual household of $40,000 or less.

CW: I have to give Ann Millner credit for starting that program in 2010 before I arrived. But, when I got here, I realized that this can change the entire conversation about how to pay for college and so we expanded the eligibility. There was a household income cap at that time, I think of $27,000 and we pushed it up to $40,000 to make more students eligible for that.

So, if a student comes to Weber State, a Utah resident, and has at least $1 of Pell Grant funding, then we plus up their Pell Grant to cover all their tuition and fees for up to four years of full-time study. So, the barrier to college is less about money and more about commitment because they have to go full-time. Dream Weber State students actually graduate at very high rates, much higher than average Weber State students. I love that program!

S-E: You also created the LGBT Resource Center and you also instituted the Chief Diversity Officer. Was that a priority for you?

CW: Absolutely! After I arrived here, Mike Vaughan, who was the provost at the time, came to me and made a proposal to establish an LGBT Resource Center here at Weber State. This is completely consistent with our mission of making college accessible and inclusive for everyone, so my reaction was, “Oh yeah! It seems like a no-brainer.” So we brought the trustees along and did it, and it was great.

S-E: When President Donald Trump signed the Muslim ban, you issued an email to members of the community where you asked President Trump to reconsider that ban. That was controversial. Some people in the community criticized you.

RELATED: WSU president asks Trump to rethink travel ban, despite partisan email rules

CW: They did and that’s OK. If a president is universally popular, well, (they) probably haven’t done anything important.

I was disappointed by the executive order and I knew that it struck fear into the hearts of many Weber State students and faculty and staff. People who are immigrants or refugees from other countries. I thought it was important to send a message to our community supporting our international students and faculty.

S-E: Would you do it again?

CW: Absolutely. Absolutely.

S-E: Why did you choose to stay teaching while being president?

CW: I got into this whole higher education business 35 years ago and the main attraction was teaching. So, why would I give it up now? I just make students a priority and do my best to keep up with that.

S-E: A lot of people call you Chuck, instead of President Wight. Why are you so casual?

CW: I struggled with that a little bit when I first started as president. All throughout my career, I’ve been pretty informal and had close personal relationships with people, including students, when I was at the University of Utah. When I came up here, it seemed really formal to me to be called president, and so I invited people to call me Chuck. Most people took me up on it.

I felt more comfortable on a first-name basis with people. I hope I didn’t do a disservice to the next president.

S-E: Tell me about this past sports season. You talked about the cheer team. Also, the football team had a historic season.

RELATED: Season in review: Jay Hill talks historic run, future of Weber State football

CW: The football team was amazing! They got to the third round of the FCS playoffs. Best we’ve ever done, ever, in football!

Jay Hill has done an incredible job with the team. But, you know what floats my boat? The football team has, I think, a 70 percent pass rate in mathematics courses. That’s what’s great! I mean, football winning is huge, fun, but having the coaches emphasized in the academics and the importance of that, and having the student athletes be successful in the classroom, that’s great.

They are doing something special. Jay Hill is doing it.

S-E: Is there anything else you wanted to accomplish but you haven’t at Weber State?

CW: I think we’ve accomplished a lot of things. One of the things that I’m very confident will happen in the near future is our six-year graduation rates are going to go up and our first-year student retention rates are going to go up.

Right now, those numbers aren’t as high as they should be, but we put a lot of things into place to improve student success and we are starting to see some of the fruits of that labor but, six-year graduation rates take six years to realize so I’m not going to be here to realize the fruit of that labor, but I’m sure it’s going to happen. 

S-E: What will you miss most about Ogden and Weber State?

CW: I think it’s really the friendships that both, Victoria (Rasmussen) and I have built over the last five-plus years with people in the community, people at the university. We have been welcomed here very, very warmly from the start and it’s very difficult to leave hundreds and hundreds of people behind and go across the country for a new job.

But, you know, we are in a good position. We are landing in a great university and it’s going to have a whole new set of challenges, so it’s going to be exciting.

S-E: If you could give the next president a piece of advice, what would it be?

CW: When I came to this job, I realized that the university was in good shape and I approached the job from the standpoint that it was my job to fit in to a place that was already in good shape, and then look around to see the things that we could improve and push on those.

I think I would advise the new president to take that approach. I would encourage the new president to look carefully at the institution, recognize its strengths, and then pick other few things to work on, but not come in with the idea that you have to change a bunch of things. We are not broken.

S-E: Any last thoughts?

CW: My wife Victoria Rasmussen has been at my side 100 percent of the time helping me to navigate this really interesting job and, without her, I could not have done it. I give her at least half of the credit for any success that I have.

Contact education reporter Sergio Martínez-Beltrán at smartinezbeltran@standard.net or 801-625-4274. Follow him on Twitter @SergioMarBel and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/STANDARDEXSergio.

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