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Weber State, President Mortensen look ahead as semester starts

By Harrison Epstein - | Aug 30, 2021

Harrison Epstein, Standard-Examiner

Weber State University President Brad Mortensen sits in his office in Ogden on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021.

OGDEN — There’s no way to know what’s going to happen until it happens. Going into another school year with COVID-19 lingering in the public consciousness, Weber State University President Brad Mortensen and the rest of the faculty are focused. Focused on the start of the fall semester, every day of class after it and the future of the university. Earlier this year, Weber State released its five-year strategic plan which outlines goals for the future — with classes underway Monday for the 2021-22 academic year, the plan is in action.

COVID-19

The year starts on the heels of the university releasing its plan for requiring COVID-19 vaccines on campus. Mortensen told the Standard-Examiner on Thursday that the best way out of the pandemic is for students to get vaccinated — something he wishes could be done without “potential political fallout that comes from government mandates.”

One of the other recommendations made was for university faculty to keep track of student attendance and keep seating charts, an idea Mortensen will be bringing to Ogden.

“That’s not something that college professors are used to doing the way that you see in elementary, junior high and high school. And the classrooms are bigger; they don’t want to take the time to call roll,” he said. “The challenges are different from last fall.”

Despite the challenges that would be presented from taking attendance, the process will be vital in contact tracing efforts in the event of a COVID-19 positive test.

Due to state law, they cannot mandate or require masks be worn on campus. They university is doing everything possible to have a school year with in-person classes and health risks as mitigated as possible. For students who do not return to campus, there will be an increase in online options to about 23%-25% with 75%-77% in person.

Mortensen also reiterated a point from Mike Good, dean of University of Utah Health, that “faculty are feeling everywhere from anxious to angry.”

The rules regarding COVID-19 quarantines and hybrid options have left administrators and faculty in difficult positions. Mortensen posited a hypothetical where a professor tested positive and was unable to teach a class in person and wanted to know their options. “We don’t have all that figured out. There are contingencies because there’s just so many possible options,” he said. “So we’ll continue to bob and weave through the fall semester and –hopefully — the best case is that lots of people get vaccinated and we don’t have high transmission moving forward.”

Moving forward, the university will keep in close contact with the Weber-Morgan Health Department and continue updating their website with COVID-19 positive cases on campus. No matter the decisions made by students — although Mortensen hopes all who can get vaccinated do so — he hopes to provide a productive learning environment.

Diversity

Tied together with all other goals and strategies for the university is the plan to build a more equitable learning environment for students. Specifically mentioned in the plan are students of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Step one will be an audit, done by fall 2023, to determine what at Weber State contributes to “inequitable outcomes” for students.

“We know that our students of color, we’re not serving them in the same proportion as we are to what they represent in the community. Their completion rates are lower, their retention rates are lower,” Mortensen said. “The equity audit is intended just to look at our practices, policies, if there are things we’re doing that make it more difficult.”

Ogden is home to one of two majority-minority school districts in the state with the majority-Latino Ogden School District. The other is San Juan School District with a majority Native American student population.

Despite this, Mortensen said only about 10%-11% of students at Weber State identify as Hispanic. The numbers have stayed steady for several years. There are plenty of possibilities being considered that could help students. Mortensen sees possible reformations to curriculum structure, the admissions process, admissions requirements, concurrent enrollment options for local high school students and more.

Weber State is also no stranger to struggles with diversity. In 2019, the Weber State debate team and its then-coach Ryan Wash were swept up in controversy. In the summer of 2020, Scott Senjo, then a criminal justice professor at the university, came under fire for a series of tweets during nationwide protests.

Those incidents, and others across the country, have shown the importance to Mortensen of making sure the campus is a safe environment.

“You can’t wait for the racist stickers to show up or for the YouTube video to go online or for the tweet to appear and then, in that moment of crisis, try to reach out to whatever community might feel targeted by that action and say ‘oh, let’s work on this,'” he said. “We need to be more proactive at establishing relationships, opening channels of communication, catching problems and concerns when they start to arise.”

Mortensen praised the work of the teacher education program faculty who have worked to ensure that students are aware of these issues and how they affect people’s lives before they start to work in classrooms. He believes the proactive approach is one that can prepare the university for anything that may come up in the future.

Co-charing the task force on equity, diversity and inclusion are Adrienne Andrews, Weber State’s chief diversity officer and assistant vice president, and Wendy Holliday, dean of the library.

Student Retention

One of the goals outlined in the strategic plan is to improve retention from 56% for students who stared in fall 2019 to 60% by 2025-26 for the fall 2023 freshman class. The average retention rate for public institutions is 81% overall and 61% for open-enrollment universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Mortensen sees the improving of the school’s retention rate as part of a plan to provide more educational opportunities to students who may not have had as many in the past. “To me, that doesn’t mean those students aren’t smart. This means, for whatever reason, they didn’t have the (same) chance as others to be prepared the same way,” he said. “Students who encounter something in their first semester or two that make them think ‘oh, college isn’t for me’ when they have all the intellect in the world to be successful in college.”

According to Mortensen, there are about 3,000 students who drop out of Weber State each year. This led to conversations among faculty members as to how they can best help students — particularly in developmental math and English programs. They found that students placed in those developmental programs are currently 28% less likely to graduate than their peers, a number they hope to have down to 20% in five years. Other gaps are found among low-income students (6% with a plan to lower to 4%), first-generation students (7% to 4%) and “BIPOC/minoritized” students (12% to 8%).

Mortensen said faculty members are making curriculum accessible students and will continue to do so. This includes expanded out-of-class options like tutoring and new methods of teaching the material.

“Math probably gets this overblown, dare I say, reputation sometimes — this difficulty of it. Overall, our goal is to find ways to bring down that anxiety that people naturally have and help them navigate that better,” he said.

For the students who could leave Weber State for financial reasons, the university started the ‘CATapult Scholarship that Mortensen first announced in January 2020. It’s one of a host of financial aid options available to students.

Student Success

After getting students to stay beyond their first year, Mortensen and the rest of the faculty work to make sure everyone can succeed. Work has been done to support the current student body and future attendees.

Not mentioned in the strategic plan was tuition. Acknowledging that there will most likely be a tuition increase at WSU, Mortensen expects it to be in line with inflation as it has the last two years around 2%. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the current rate of inflation is around 5.4% over the past year.

“Some schools have gotten a lot of headlines the last couple years for not increasing tuition. But if you compare their tuition, they’re already higher than Weber State. So our tuition is relatively low and we want to continue to keep it affordable,” he said. One change was to give the faculty in the nursing program 12-month contracts as opposed to the typical nine-month deals.

This is due to the popularity of the program, which graduates more nurses than any other in Utah, according to the university’s website. It also allows more opportunities for those classes to be taught during the summer semesters.

Regarding student mental health, Mortensen said there has been an expansion in staff for the student counseling center, “but there’s still much greater demand there for services than what we can meet from a staff perspective.”

Mortensen supports hiring more academic advisors who can help students get through programs efficiently and keep them on paths to graduate.

“If we have financial aid dollars, but we don’t have the people who can give that to students in a timely way, students think ‘oh, I don’t have any financial aid; I can’t go to school.’ So we continue to try to balance all the support we need as we grow,” he said.

He hopes that growing these programs and providing more assistance will help students and the university in the long run.

Student Involvement

While targeting growth in student populations right out of high school, Weber State is already notable for its support for nontraditional students. “Nontrads,” as they’re sometimes called, are any students who are over the age of 25, have a spouse, are widowed or are parents. According to the university, nontrads account for 56% of the student population.

“Regardless of what your academic background is, at a school like Weber State, you’re going to come, you’re not going to be placed in huge auditoriums with 500 students and you’re not going to have a lot of graduate teaching assistants,” Mortensen said. “You’re going to get a very personalized, hands-on educational experience from faculty who have the top credentials in their field and oftentimes have real-world work experience too.”

The accessibility to faculty and their wealths of knowledge are invaluable to students of any age. Mortensen joked that alumni tell him how prepared they are for their workforce and graduate education, sometimes more than their peers with undergraduate degrees from prestigious universities. They chalk it up to the faculty involvement and out-of-class programs from the Center for Community Engaged Learning.

He also hears from business owners and managers about the preparedness of Weber State graduates, having already received years of hands-on learning.

At a time when things are changing in Ogden, he sees the university as a way to help facilitate change and uplift the community. In addition to growth at Hill Air Force Base and the technology industry, Ogden is literally changing. Mortensen is asked about how students will be able to actually get to campus with the various construction projects being completed, but eventually they’ll be finished and leave behind a newer product for everyone.

“As employment demands grow, why would we try to recruit more people from Ohio and California and Texas to come take high-paying jobs when we have a lot of people here who have all the capacity in the world to do that when given an education?” he said.

Another perception of Weber State that Mortensen hopes to change focuses on the student life experience. He hopes additional marketing efforts to younger students can show off recreational opportunities. This includes events held each of the first three Fridays of the fall semester, a purposeful decision to make sure students know campus is open and give people chances to meet.

In addition, the university will continue to promote the recreation opportunities nearby, which Mortensen said “can compete with any place.”

There were also plans, pre-COVID, to try to develop more student housing options. Currently, there are eight options for on-campus living across University Village and Wildcat Village. The strategizing has been put on hold while the pandemic continues.

For Mortensen, all of the plans, every piece of maneuvering comes back to the same goal — to make Weber State the best institution it can be and to be recognized as such.

“I’ll hear people say, ‘Wow, Weber State is just the best kept secret.’ I just think no, we’re just the best. We don’t want to be a secret,” he said.

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