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Central Washington University

CWU Alumnus, Trustee featured at State of the University Address

Thursday, October 17, 2019

In a presentation that was both personal and insightful, Robert Nellams, director of the Seattle Center and vice chair of the Central Washington University Board of Trustees, said the environment for students of color has improved significantly since he attended classes at CWU—and that’s a good thing.

Speaking during this week’s annual State of the University address, Nellams, who graduated with an accounting degree from CWU in 1982, said he joined the board of his alma mater specifically because he saw that the university was making meaningful efforts to attract a diverse student body.

CWU BOT Vice Chair Robert Nellams at State of the University address“I do not come before you today to accuse, to judge, or to preach,” he said. “Instead, I come to share my own insights as a CWU grad, a parent of two college grads, a 63-year member of our society, and a trustee who is desperately trying to be real with you.”

Nellams’s remarks revolved around what he called “othering”—treating people from one group as essentially different and generally inferior to another. He acknowledged that it’s a subject which is extremely personal to him, and was during his time at CWU as well.

Nellams says it’s clear to him that CWU now genuinely wants to attract students from a variety of backgrounds, to be known as a safe, secure, and successful place for all students, as a stepping stone for first-generation students and a model for their success.

“This is all incredibly inspiring to me,” He continued. “It’s why I’m a trustee. It’s why I want to be here. And, it’s also very practical.”

Nellams then referenced that, for the first time in school history, students of color, at 52 percent, represented the majority of applicants for first-year admission to CWU. However, Nellams warned that continued university-wide diligence against othering in all forms must still be recognized and avoided. 

“Research shows that the process of othering can lead to complexes around identity, inferiority, inequity, that it creates tension and stress—which we know negatively impacts learning—and that it promotes conflict, even among other others,” he said. “But the biggest fundamental thing that it does is that it creates an us versus them environment. Being one of them is a lose-lose proposition.”  

He explained that othering often manifests itself, even unwittingly, through language. As examples, he used the terms “remedial” or “disadvantaged,” which can lead to students realizing they are perceived as different, as an “unwanted guest in someone else’s home.”

CWU BOT Vice Chair Robert Nellams, and crowd, at the State of the University address“Collectively, we applaud and pats ourselves on the back for the attempt to bring ‘them’ into the university community but that applause rings hollow and falls on deaf ears if you’re one of the others being labeled,” he continued. “Let me be clear on this point. Bringing students into the university community is not worthy of our applause or praise. However, getting students through the university is worthy of our praise, appreciation, and expectations.”

In order to do that, Nellams says inclusive learning environments, with culturally neutral classrooms, to ensure students are considered individuals but not “unique” individuals, or members of a particular group, and that each can achieve excellence and be successful, and that the entire university community becomes aware of individual assumptions, biases, and limitations that could hamper student success.

“Don’t be frightened—we all have them,” he added. ““We can ask students before, during, and after they are here, ‘how can we be better?’ ‘how can we be more inclusive?’ We can simply listen to them and their stories.”  

Nellams concluded his remarks by asking the faculty, staff, and students in attendance, and those watching via a livestream, to join him in making Central a place committed to meeting any student where they are and to get them through in their chosen field of study.

“That will do so in an inclusive, engaging, and supportive way,” he continued. “That we understand—and believe—we are made better by the shared experience of all of our students. And that we will judge our success by their graduation rates.”  

During the State of the University address, CWU President James L. Gaudino also announced related university five-year goals to increase first-to-second-year student retention from 71 to 80 percent and boost the diversity of university faculty and staff by 5 percent.

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Media contact: Robert Lowery, Department of Public Affairs, director of Radio Services and Integrated Communications, 509-963-1487, Robert.Lowery@cwu.edu

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