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Words from Waller

August 31, 2022

Dear Willamette community,

Last week, I wrote about the excitement of welcoming a thousand new students to Willamette. A new academic year always refocuses us towards the future: towards the work we will do together on our Salem and Portland campuses and towards the work we are preparing students to do in the world.

Today, I want to turn my attention to the future of Willamette itself. Many of you were engaged last year in helping define and refine our strategic plan, but even so, it is worth spending a few words in summarizing how we got here.

One of the things that makes planning for a university both hard and fascinating is the range of timescales we have to plan for. We are used to planning for the near future: What do we need to accomplish this week to keep up with coursework? What do we need to do this month to hire a new leader for our program? How do we adjust costs and revenues to balance our annual budget?

But universities are essentially immortal--Willamette is nearly two centuries old, Oxford almost a millennium--and have to plan for the very long term. How do we design buildings to meet the needs of students twenty years from now? How do we hire faculty who can thrive here over 30- or 40-year careers? How do we ensure our mission can be sustained long beyond our own lifetimes?

That takes something different from just writing an annual plan every year. As Mo's Law of Evolutionary Development says, you can't get to the moon by climbing successively taller trees.

I believe that the most important thing any organization can do is to occasionally step back from the urgent questions of the moment and think on a bigger timescale. One reason was recently articulated by the futurist Stewart Brand when he said "[S]ome parts of anything complex and dynamic move very fast, and some parts move very slow. And we tend to pay attention to the fast parts, like fashion and commerce, and not pay attention to the really powerful parts, like nature and culture." While it is natural to focus on things that change fast, "the basic dynamics of the really slow stuff is where the power is."

Sensible long-term planning begins with "the slow stuff." To that end, we started strategic planning with discussions of values and purpose, and fine-tuned our official institutional mission statement:

"Through nationally distinctive programs connecting liberal education to professional practice, Willamette University prepares graduates to turn knowledge into action and lead lives of achievement, contribution, and meaning."

Then, last academic year we had round-table conversations involving a broad cross section of students, staff and faculty in discussions about the Willamette of today and our aspirations for the Willamette of tomorrow. I wrote about that in the March 17 edition of Words from Waller.

This second phase of planning was concluded at the May 2022 meeting of the Board of Trustees with the approval of a new strategic plan, which is an update of our 2013 plan. I encourage you to read and understand this plan if you want to understand the direction and path Willamette has chosen for its future. It is important enough that I'm going to spend the next editions of Words from Waller walking through its sections.

Unlike many university strategic plans, this document is focused mainly on the "slow stuff". The plan reframes the motto and mission in the form of three core commitments: to service, to action, and to access. It extends two core ideas from our last strategic plan: commitment to "place" as a university in the Pacific Northwest and a focus on integrating across the liberal arts and professions in exciting ways, and adds a sharper articulation of who we seek to serve with our programs. It brings new focus to our long-term planning: How can we better prepare students for the most important, complex challenges future generations will face? And it identifies three specific areas where Willamette can and should grow in distinction in the next few years: big data and human centered computing, strengthening democratic institutions, and addressing the impacts of climate change.

The plan is a firm foundation for the region's leading liberal arts university, and a path to greater distinction on a national scale.

While the strategic plan may be finished, strategic planning is still very much underway. Still to come is a return to what Brand called the "fast stuff." Currently, all of the units within the university are developing one- to three-year tactical and strategic priorities and tasks aligned with the longer-range positioning.

"Fast" and "slow" planning must be aligned if Willamette is to benefit from the powerful and important advantages of its deep culture, longevity, and size without becoming rigid and detached from the world. As Brand wrote in his book, How Buildings Learn, "The quick processes provide originality and challenge, the slow provide continuity and constraint. Buildings steady us, which we can probably use. But if we let our buildings come to a full stop, they stop us." What is true for buildings is true as well for universities.

Non nobis solum,

Willamette University

Office of the President

Salem Campus

Waller Hall, 5th Floor
900 State Street
Salem Oregon 97301 U.S.A.