Heritage University aims to grow

By Erin Snelgrove
Toppenish, Washington (AP) October 2011

When John Bassett assumed the presidency of Heritage University last summer, he pledged to help make it into a school anyone would be proud to attend.

Slowly but surely, staff members say that’s happening.

“His experience coming from a really deep and varied history in higher education was just a perfect fit for the steps we need to take next,” said Michael Moore, vice president of advancement.

“He wants to create a better life for everybody here. That’s really terrific to hear from any leader, in particular for a leader of this institution. That’s so much a part of this university’s DNA.”

To that end, Bassett, 69, has hired a record number of new faculty this fall. He took part in developing the university’s 10-year expansion plan, and he’s devoting more resources to help students achieve their career goals.

He’s even questioning whether Heritage can develop a research agenda to investigate everything from health care to land-use policies in the Yakima Valley.

“What might a research role be at Heritage?” he asks. “By focusing on applied research and issues in the Valley, we could solve problems. It’s not off the ground yet, but maybe it will be a year from now.”

Before coming to Heritage, Bassett worked as president of Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Clark was founded in 1887 and is a research institution with 2,200 undergraduates, most of whom are white and live on campus. Heritage was founded in 1982. It’s a commuter school surrounded by hops fields, and its 1,500-plus students are primarily Hispanic and Native American adults who juggle work and families.

Although it has fewer students than Clark, enrollment has steadily increased at Heritage in recent years, growing from about 350 new students last year to an estimated 370 this year. To accommodate the growth, Bassett has hired 12 new, full-time employees, including two deans and eight professors.

Of these positions, Bassett said six are new. And during the next two years, he wants to hire 10 to 12 additional full-time faculty members across all disciplines.

“Our students need our faculty here,” he said. “Part of our strategic plan calls for having most sections taught by people who are here full time and available to students.”

Tyson Miller, for one, approves of this strategy. Hired this fall as a chemistry professor, Miller said he previously taught at universities where the number of students swelled to as many as 700 in one class. But the class sizes are much smaller at Heritage, which is one reason he was drawn to work there.

“Coming to Heritage and teaching classes of 10 and 12 is a breath of fresh air,” he said. “I can get to know the kids a little bit more, learn their names and spend real time mentoring and teaching them, as opposed to herding cattle in really large classes. This is fun.”

Another way to help students is to focus on their development, Bassett said. He wants students to graduate with resilience, strong communication skills and a commitment to civic engagement. He also wants to give them a rigorous liberal arts education with real world skills.

“I want to expose students to different careers, to give them a chance to see the world out there and what they can do,” he said. “I want to provide more opportunities for students to grow.”

Growth of the university itself is one of Bassett’s core objectives, made possible by the recent acquisition of 20 acres on the east end of campus. Plans for the land include building a new administration building, a student activities center and a college of education, Bassett said.

In the next six months, he hopes to begin a fundraising campaign to collect the $50 million to $60 million needed to complete the projects. He estimates the process will take 10 years.

Heritage needs to be an institution of quality, defined by the caliber of its staff and students, Bassett said.

That’s why it is upgrading its admission standards by taking a closer look at high school transcripts, placement tests and recommendations, Bassett said, adding that the university previously admitted almost everyone who applied.

“We’re trying to make sure we have students who can succeed,” he said. “We’re building a culture that says, `When you enter Heritage, you are going to finish and graduate,” he said.

Changing the culture goes hand in hand with enhancing the university’s brand, Bassett said. He wants Heritage to be associated with high quality and he wants Yakima Valley residents to be proud of the school’s accomplishments.

One way of achieving this goal is to develop a research agenda, Bassett said. Heritage could research the problems faced at underperforming schools, ways in which land, forests and fisheries could be sustained and methods in which health care delivery could be improved.

By forming community partnerships and bringing in visiting specialists to meet and mentor Heritage students, Bassett believes anything is possible.

“I’d like Heritage to be thought of by everyone here as the university of the Valley,” he said, meaning that he wants to help more Valley youths receive a college education, somewhere. “I have dreams of (benefactors) being more generous in the future. But I think we have to prove ourselves first.”

To put itself on solid financial footing, Heritage has steadily increased tuition. About five years ago, tuition cost $9,000 a year for full-time students. This year, the cost is $15,000.

Bassett defends the increases, saying the rate Heritage charges is still the lowest of any private college in America. Plus, most Heritage students are eligible for loans, scholarships and even the state’s need-based Pell Grant.

According to the university’s Financial Aid Office, about 94 percent of its undergraduates receive some form of financial aid. In addition, the level of financial aid has increased by 80 percent over the past three years.

“We’re still the best bargain,” Bassett said, adding that he hasn’t heard any student complaints. “Our average students graduate with about $20,000 in debt, equaling the national average. They can pay that off in several years. It’s manageable.”

If anything, Bassett said, the increased tuition is enabling the university to better its programs.

“When you improve your product, you attract more customers,” he said. “Increasing the success of students in the Valley is what we want more than anything.”

Moore shares this goal, adding that Bassett’s mood is infectious. He knows Bassett’s proposed changes won’t happen all at once, but so far, he’s pleased with the direction Heritage is heading.

“I don’t think there is a limit here,” he said. “It’s a question of opportunity and what are we going to focus on with the resources we have.”

Sister Kathleen Ross, the founding president of Heritage University, is equally excited about the direction Heritage is heading.

“I feel that these are just the next logical steps for Heritage,” she said. “Part of the original long-term dream for Heritage was to be a catalyst for positive change, for improving the quality of life in the Valley. Dr. Bassett has a lot of great ideas, and (with his national connections) he can make some of those research dreams possible.”

Aiding his efforts is the financial condition of the university, which Bassett said has never been better. From last year to this year, fundraising is up 15 percent and tuition revenue is up 23 percent -- driven both by higher tuition costs and increased enrollment.

Going forward, Bassett said he doesn’t want change for the sake of change. But he won’t settle for good enough, when he knows Heritage is capable of so much more.

“Our mission, in a larger sense, is tied to the health of the Valley,” he said. “A lot of stuff is percolating here, there really is.”