Long before he was named the 15th president of Central Washington University, Jim Wohlpart was drawn to the institution because of its 130-year tradition of serving students from all different walks of life.
As a 25-year veteran of higher education leadership, he felt a personal connection to Central’s faculty and staff, who have built a reputation for giving students the knowledge, practical experiences, and life skills they need to carve out successful careers and make the world a better place.
“What I saw in CWU was the great work that was happening with students, and I was eager to become part of that community,” said Wohlpart, who became a Wildcat in June 2021, with his official installation taking place May 19 of this year. “The faculty and staff here truly make a difference in the lives of students, their families, and their communities.”
But it wasn’t only the professors, lecturers, and support staff who inspired Wohlpart to pursue the opportunity to join Central. The students themselves also played a significant role in his decision to move out west after spending six years at the University of Northern Iowa as the provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.
“CWU provides access to higher education for a unique type of student—determined, hard-working, persistent, and even tenacious, but also humble, kind, and generous,” said Wohlpart, who spent 21 years at Florida Gulf Coast University before his time at UNI. “The alchemy that happens here both inside and outside the classroom provides these students with what they need to be prepared for professional careers, civic agency, and a life of purpose and meaning.”
Needless to say, the president has been impressed—even overjoyed—by his frequent interactions on campus and in the community since he arrived in Ellensburg last spring with his wife, Sasha, and their two dogs, Annabelle and Leopold. During the past year, he has spent countless hours listening to key stakeholders, gathering information about what he can do to further elevate CWU’s stature around the state and the region.
In talking to students, employees, alumni, donors, legislators, community leaders, and business owners over the past year, Wohlpart’s primary takeaway is that Central “transforms lives by providing an engaged learning environment, both inside and outside the classroom.” As the university develops a focused and clarifying vision, mission, and strategic plan—a process that began last fall—it will elevate this work of providing active and meaningful learning experiences.
“Our students are given the opportunity to apply their learning in real-world settings, solving real-world problems,” he said. “This is what employers are looking for—graduates who can hit the ground running and add value on day one.”
Another critical way in which Central contributes to student success, he noted, is through relationship-building and one-on-one instruction. The personal learning experiences students enjoy at Central aren’t as common at larger institutions, and Wohlpart believes these relationships are a major reason CWU is in a category of one.
“One of the things I’ve heard over and over again from alumni is the way in which a single faculty member or staff member got to know them, took an interest in their journey, and helped them find their purpose and passion,” he said.
Vision Takes Shape
As the world of higher education becomes more competitive every year, Wohlpart understands that the status quo will not suffice if CWU is going to achieve its true potential. He has heard repeatedly that the university must adapt to academia’s ever-
changing landscape, which led him to convene a team of faculty and staff to create a new vision, mission, and strategic plan for the institution.
The president’s objective for the committee is to establish a bold, forward-looking vision that will propel the university forward. Along the way, he is seeking consensus around a narrow vision that CWU “can be really good at, and be leaders at, but that is still off on the horizon.”
“We need a vision that can pull the whole community forward,” Wohlpart said. “We do such great work here, making an incredible difference in the lives of our students, our employees, and the local community. But can we take that work to the next level? Attract even more students who would benefit from the type of educational experience we offer and help them succeed? If we can, our ability to transform even more lives will be expanded.”
However, if the university is to accomplish these short- and long-term benchmarks, Wohlpart says increasing enrollment will be paramount. He would like to see student numbers return to 11,000 to 12,000—compared to roughly 10,000 in each of the past two years—so Central can offer a more rich, vibrant campus experience.
“Increased enrollment will make our campus more alive, and it will allow us to strengthen our academic programs and add new programs in student engagement and success,” he said, adding that CWU is currently searching for a vice president for student engagement and success. “In order to increase our enrollment, we will also need to increase our retention rates and graduation rates for all students, especially those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. We will also be able to
provide better support for our faculty and staff.”
Another potential calling card for the university will be the growing number of new and renovated facilities on the Ellensburg campus. In addition to the $60 million Health Sciences Building (which opened this spring) and the $60.5 million Health Education project (which broke ground this winter and includes a renovation of Nicholson Pavilion), CWU is hoping to advance capital projects for Psychology, Art + Design, and Family and Consumer Sciences in the years to come. The concept for a multicultural center is also in the works.
“Diversity is a source of strength and renewal—of innovation and creativity—and we need to find ways to sustain and celebrate the various cultures, histories, languages, literacies, and backgrounds that our students bring with them to campus,” Wohlpart said. “A multicultural center would allow us to do just that.”
New Funding Sources
As Central advances toward its goal of developing more student-enrichment programs and upgrading campus facilities, Wohlpart emphasized that another major piece of the puzzle will be funding. Since his arrival, he has been seeking to expand the Office of University Advancement so the university can build new alumni partnerships and business relationships that will help CWU become even more of a destination.
Vice President of University Advancement Paul Elstone is working alongside Wohlpart to identify and cultivate new funding sources so Central can share its story more broadly with alumni, donors, and state lawmakers.
“Diversity is a source of strength and renewal—of innovation and creativity—and we need to find ways to sustain and celebrate the various cultures, histories, languages, literacies, and backgrounds that our students bring with them to campus.”
—President Jim Wohlpart
“If we can expand the gifts brought into the university and show our supporters the difference that their gifts make, we can continue to grow our impact,” Wohlpart said. “We have such a remarkable story to tell, and we believe that if we do that more effectively, this will help us increase our enrollment.”
Wohlpart and Elstone understand tapping into new financial resources—scholarships, endowments, and grants—will be a multi-year process, and it will involve a great deal of time and travel. They already have visited alumni in Arizona, California, and all over Washington, and they are exploring more outreach opportunities in the coming year. Wohlpart also plans to spend more time in Olympia, working with legislators on capital funding requests to further enhance CWU’s physical footprint.
“They always have wonderful things to say about CWU,” he said. “We need to continue to build those relationships so we can gain even more support at the state level.”
After one year on the job, Wohlpart couldn’t be more pleased with the opportunity he’s been given to join CWU. Likewise, his colleagues and members of the student body couldn’t be any happier with their new leader. The shared sentiment across campus seems to be that this president is a perfect fit for Central.
“President Wohlpart has been incredibly supportive of student concerns, and he has met with us numerous times to work on developing solutions to those concerns,” said ASCWU President Madeline Koval, who serves on the Vision, Mission, and Strategic Plan Task Force. “He is working to reunite this campus ... and from what we have seen, Jim is trying to modernize CWU’s culture and launch us into the future.”
Koval noted that the university will face some “growing pains” as it shifts collectively toward a new way of thinking, but she believes Wohlpart has put the university on the right track.
“In the long term, this will make CWU a more organized, equity-minded, and harmonious place for students, faculty, and staff,” she said, adding that she and her peers appreciate the president’s insistence that everyone’s voice be given equal value.
Sigrid Davison, the associate director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, offered a similar take as her student colleague on the task force. She pointed to Wohlpart’s ability to adapt to disparate groups on campus and in the community, and she applauded him for making a genuine effort to bring people together.
“He is thoughtful and intentional with his actions, and he is proactive about communicating, which helps soothe the power imbalance between those who are in the know and those who are not,” Davison said.
Aside from Wohlpart’s relatability, adaptability, and desire to unite people, Davison appreciates his relational approach to leadership. She also likes how the president listens to and embraces a wide variety of perspectives.
“Leadership is a skill, and it happens within a social context,” Davison said. “A good leader adapts their approach to the context they find themselves in, and this president is able to step into other people’s worldviews. I believe this leadership approach will be highly effective in advancing CWU into the future.”