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Strategic Planning

For 180 years, Willamette University has prepared graduates to “turn knowledge into action.” Willamette’s purpose is to provide smart, committed people with the capacities and skills they need to become engaged, effective participants in the project of building a better world.

Introduction | Areas of Focus | Willamette's Strategic Position | Operational Framework and Addressing Today's Imperative | Objectives | Advancing Tomorrow's Vision


Through two centuries of profound social, economic, and technological change, Willamette has grown and evolved, but with a continuing belief in the value of human-scaled teaching and learning communities. Transformative education occurs when dedicated faculty, staff, and students work together to create, discover, test, preserve, and transmit knowledge. Willamette measures its success by the achievements of its alumni, the contributions they make to their communities, and the meaning they ultimately find in their lives.

Willamette’s 30,000 living alumni represent all walks of life. They include a current US Senator, a Governor, and CEOs of the third largest company in the US and of the world’s wealthiest art institution, as well as countless scientists, entrepreneurs and businesspeople, artists and designers, authors, teachers, lawyers, judges and ministers. Throughout the region and world, Willamette alumni live the university motto:

Not unto ourselves alone are we born.

Today, the College of Arts & Sciences is one of the top liberal arts colleges in the Pacific Northwest. The College of Law is emerging as the region’s leading experiential law school. The Atkinson Graduate School of Management offers Oregon’s best MBA as well as new undergraduate programs that firmly ground management on a liberal arts foundation. The Pacific Northwest College of Art is the Northwest’s flagship private art and design school. And newest to the portfolio is Willamette’s innovative MS in Data Science, designed to be human-centered and cross-disciplinary in content and approach.

Over the next decade, Willamette seeks to strengthen and build these and other programs, growing to 4,000 students divided between campuses in Salem and Portland, Oregon’s public and commercial centers, while advancing its position as an intellectual, cultural, social and economic driver for the Northwest. Willamette intends that every program it offers will be among the three top choices in the Northwest for the students it serves. An important goal is to educate students who reflect the full diversity of the region, and to raise necessary resources to eliminate barriers to access.

Looking forward to its bicentennial 20 years from now, Willamette is well positioned to solidify its standing as the Northwest’s leading liberal arts university. Not content to imitate institutions built for the needs of another era, Willamette is pioneering a 21st century model of higher education that responds to the emerging understanding that the most important barriers to human flourishing are complex, ill-defined, so-called “wicked” problems. Across all of our schools, Willamette students will be prepared to bring multidisciplinary perspectives to bear on some of the most pressing challenges of their generation.

The United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), adopted by all UN member states in 2015, provide useful framing. Ranging from ending poverty and hunger to advancing gender equality to building resilient infrastructure and promoting inclusive economic growth, the complexity of the elements of the SDG framework starkly emphasizes the mismatch between society’s needs and existing college and university models. As a crucial example, the SDG analysis emphasizes how racial and economic disparities underly all of these issues, and the importance of developing an equity lens when understanding and addressing their disparate impacts.

Willamette can define a new path forward. Unlike most colleges, Willamette has strengths across the liberal arts and sciences and the professions to prepare its students for complex work. And unlike most research universities, Willamette has not become a decentralized “multiversity” structured to serve conflicting needs of external constituents at a steep cost to curricular coherence. These 19th and 20th century models were not designed to educate students for 21st century challenges. Almost alone, Willamette can define a better way, centered on student learning and engagement with the world.

Areas of Focus

Big data and human-centered computing

The rise of ubiquitous computing and “big data” are fundamentally reshaping how we understand and navigate society. (The UN has identified connections of big data to every one of its Sustainable Development Goals.) By building innovative programs at the nexus of the arts, humanities, design, computer and data science, and management, Willamette will help develop an equitable and ethics-aware technology workforce that centers humanity and creativity.

Democratic Institutions

In the United States and elsewhere, there is a crisis of confidence in the resilience and effectiveness of democratic governments and community organizations (cf. Sustainable Development Goal 16, “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”). By deepening an existing focus on government, deploying the tools of the humanities and social sciences, law, arts, computation, and management, and capitalizing on its locations, Willamette will support and cultivate more effective practitioners and policymakers.

Climate Change

The inexorable effects of climate change will likely dominate historical accounts of the 21st century. Climate is deeply interdisciplinary: entwined with topics such as ecosystem integrity, food and water security, public health, geopolitical stability, manufacturing and industry, transportation, and technology. (Sustainable Development Goal 13 is “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts,” but climate connects to every SDG goal.) Willamette will integrate resources from across the university to prepare students for this complex, cross-disciplinary work.

By ensuring its graduates are ready to tackle the biggest challenges of their generation, Willamette will continue to be the important institution its founders envisioned in 1842, not just for the students whose lives it touches directly, but for all who benefit from the knowledge, skills, passion, and commitment to service Willamette’s alumni bring to their work for more just and equitable communities, and a more healthy and sustainable world.

Willamette’s strategic position

No university can do everything or serve everybody. The genius of American higher education is its enormous diversity of institutions, from the tiniest seminaries to multiversities the size of cities. The best colleges and universities are not found in any one sector, built to any one plan. They are not the biggest, or the wealthiest, or the most selective. But they do share one common characteristic: they have a strong sense of identity and purpose. They know whom they serve and why.

Willamette’s purpose is, in its way, a simple one, which has guided the work of the university for many generations. Willamette exists to provide its graduates, through education in the liberal arts and professional practice, the skills and capacities that they will need to be active and effective participants in a common project of building stronger communities and a better world.

The core values that shape Willamette’s identity, defining its essential nature, begin with an understanding of the deep truth behind Willamette’s motto, “not unto ourselves alone are we born.” Whether we trace its roots to the Stoic cosmopolitanism Cicero had in mind when he reminded us that “our country and our friends have a share in us,” or to the Wesleyan idealism of those who founded Willamette, the belief that the purpose of education is to advance one’s capacity to be of service to others remains the singular animating idea that binds faculty, staff, students and alumni into this academic community.

A second distinguishing aspect of Willamette is the sharpness of its focus on the specific mission of preparing students to turn knowledge into action through transformative education in the liberal arts and professional practice. Many large universities have earned the sobriquet “multiversity” to emphasize the multiplicity of “customers” they serve, and are structured in alignment with the needs of governmental and industrial research sponsors. In contrast, Willamette’s human, capital, and financial resources are devoted to education, and the university’s success is measured by the success of its graduates.

Finally, Willamette is deeply committed to ensuring the widest possible access to its educational programs, and to being an inclusive community. Willamette was founded as a coeducational institution open to students of all races, and although imperfect in practice, Willamette continues to reflect the full diversity of the region it serves, and to be a community in which all have full standing and voice. Willamette affirms the importance of active engagement in the community by individuals with a broad range of life experiences, social and socioeconomic backgrounds, gender and sexual identities, and political beliefs.

As important as these values-based commitments are, they are insufficient to fully define Willamette’s mission and strategy. With its limited size and resources, Willamette must make additional choices about what part of the higher education market it seeks to serve, what programs it will offer, and what strategic tradeoffs it will make to establish a sustainable competitive advantage.

Experience with the 2013 Strategic Plan, together with extensive conversations over the last year in many venues, have led to the identification of three fundamental pillars of Willamette’s distinctive strategic position. In short, they offer specific answers to three questions:

  • Who does Willamette aim to serve, and with what types of programs?;
  • How should Willamette be more deeply engaged with society beyond its campuses?; and
  • How should the university be structured to meet the needs of today’s students?

Strategic Positioning

  • Meeting lifelong needs for liberal and professional education

    The most important positioning decision for Willamette is to focus on offering high-quality liberal and professional education for committed, highly capable students who seek to advance their own goals of preparing for lives of action and service.

    These students are served at three life stages, distinguished by different student support needs and educational objectives:

    • Full-time undergraduate education (e.g., BA, BS, BFA), optimized for traditionally aged students in in-person (often residential) community, with integrated co-curricular and extracurricular programs that are designed to support identity formation and vocational discernment and planning;
    • Full-time graduate professional education (e.g., MBA, JD, MS, MA, MFA), optimized for early career students with strong undergraduate records, comparatively limited work experience, and specific professional objectives; and
    • Non-residential part-time, hybrid, and potentially cohort-based online graduate professional education (e.g., MBA, MS, MFA, certificate), optimized for established mid-career students with professional experience who are seeking career change.

    By choosing not to compete in other areas characterized by different teaching modalities, different support needs, or different staffing requirements (e.g., undergraduate distance learning, non-cohort based asynchronous online education, etc.), Willamette can design its structure and allocate resources to support these compatible activities.

  • Developing a deep engagement with the Pacific Northwest

    While Willamette attracts students, staff, and faculty from across the country and around the world, it was founded to educate leaders for the West – especially the Northwest. The majority of Willamette alumni remain in this region. Although ranking and rating systems suggest universities are generic and interchangeable, in fact, geographic context matters: it is impossible to imagine Stanford without Silicon Valley (or vice versa), or NYU without the urban resources of NYC, or a CalArts disconnected from the creative context of Los Angeles.

    The Northwest is an attractive region for many students (whether for the environment, the job prospects, the culture, or even as climate refugees). The shift of the regional economy from resource extraction to creative and technological industries and the rising importance of connections to other Pacific Rim countries are trends driving a growing need for education and a technologically and culturally adept workforce.

    The 2013 strategic plan emphasized the importance of place-based pedagogy: using the diverse environmental, social, and cultural resources of our region to build high-impact educational experiences that advance educational goals for students in ways that cannot be easily duplicated. Equally important is building relationships with companies and organizations that allow us to create and tune programs that match student skills and experiences to local job prospects, and that prepare students to address regional needs.

    Exploiting these advantages requires Willamette to actively engage with the region, and to be responsive to the resources and opportunities it provides. Being a university in the Northwest is a happy fact. Being a university of the Northwest can be a powerful strategic tool.

  • Building an integrated university responsive to the needs of the 21st century

    In higher education, cross-disciplinary programs have become increasingly important as we prepare students to work in increasingly complex environments, often on so-called “wicked” problems that aren’t tractable with traditional disciplinary approaches. At the same time, Willamette’s combination of relatively small size and relatively broad program mix offers opportunities impossible in smaller competitors (without the breadth) and very difficult in research universities (with deep disciplinary silos designed to support differing research cultures and sponsored projects).

    Recent examples include the collaboration between management and arts & sciences to build a business major on a strong liberal arts foundation; the marshaling of talent in business analytics, computer science and statistics, and the natural and social sciences for a data science MS that no other school in the Northwest 5 group can imitate; and the involvement of faculty from across the university in reinventing the politics degree as Politics, Policy, Law and Ethics.

    Used thoughtfully, such integration offers a variety of opportunities to build additional distinctive programs, improve quality, and reduce redundancy and cost. But it is important to understand that interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs aren’t something Willamette will do only when they can be layered on traditional silos; the decision to build a highly integrated university will demand changes from the status quo.

    An example is centralization of student and administrative support functions, and alignment of academic planning across the university. Centralization versus decentralization is a classic strategic trade-off: both have real advantages. Research universities have strong department structures with distributed authority to support discipline-specific demands of research. But siloing makes coherent, cross-disciplinary curricular planning difficult, and even cross-disciplinary research is often impossible without centrally supported ad hoc incentives. Organizational choices that work well to maximize research productivity and PhD training are maladaptive for undergraduate and professional education—e.g., there are reasons no research university has successfully implemented a Willamette-quality 3-2 BA-MBA.

    Deepening this strategic position will require rethinking which current structures and practices actually inhibit integrated approaches, perhaps at times because they originated in other types of institutions with other needs. In short, structure must respond to strategy, not the other way around, and it should be expected that strategic distinction will entail distinctive organizational choices as well.

Operational framework

Willamette’s vision, values, and mission, described above, are fundamental to institutional identity, recognizably continuous across nearly two centuries. The framework that outlines the basic strategic choices Willamette has made about how best to pursue mission fulfillment, in contrast, respond to the changing needs of the students and society that the university serves. Willamette has evolved significantly over the years in its mix of programs and degrees, its teaching strategies, and the design of its administrative and academic support units: although the nature and purpose of the university is recognizably the same today as it was in the 1850s and 1950s, it is a very different organization.

Still, strategic positioning, like culture, generally evolves slowly, on generational timescales. The day-to-day and year-to-year work of building and improving the institution comes from the identification of short and medium-term operational priorities for better aligning activities with strategy, and improving the quality and effectiveness of the university’s programs.

The operational objectives summarized here are the result of conversations over six months with campus stakeholders including academic deans, faculty, administration, staff, and students. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all projects to be undertaken, but an initial prioritized planning framework to guide choices and decision-making of the Board of Trustees, administration, and faculty, focusing on the next three to five years. The purpose of this framework is to support the development of annual prioritized workplans at the institutional and unit levels, as well as to coordinate with the Board’s own annual workplan development.

Because this operational work is responsive to an external environment and internal circumstances that may change rapidly, this framework itself is intended to be reviewed and updated at least every three years, to ensure continued alignment with institutional strategy and with the overriding goals of improving mission fulfillment. The Board and university administration will review on an annual basis the university’s progress toward the objectives articulated in this plan.


Having identified a long-term vision and distinguishing values and strategic anchors, the Board of Trustees has identified a singular strategic imperative to ensure a strong foundation for the university:

In the next three years, Willamette will align its revenues and expenses to ensure intergenerational equity and return a 3 to 5% operating margin that can be invested in operational excellence and in the people and programs that will make the Willamette 2042 vision a reality.

Over the next three years, focused work will be required to build enrollment and revenues, and to continue the university-wide administrative alignment work that will be necessary to support the larger integrated university. At the same time, limited investments will become available in the early stages of growth to begin to address the most urgent needs and attractive opportunities for strengthening curricular and co-curricular programs.


  • Build enrollment and increase revenues

    Although Willamette students benefit from generous current and endowed support from alumni and other donors, most university funding is directly related to enrollment through tuition, fees, and room and board. Net tuition accounts for about 70% of the university’s annual revenues, partly paid through various governmental financial aid programs, but most often paid directly by students and their families. Significantly raising tuition on individual students is untenable for most existing students and contrary to Willamette’s goals for increasing access, and few options remain for cutting expenses without damaging program quality. Building enrollment in ways that don’t incur commensurate cost growth is a far more attractive tactic, and if done thoughtfully, growth can directly improve mission fulfillment, increasing the number of students served.

    A first step in building enrollment is to improve effectiveness of our admissions and financial aid programs, by better aligning resources now distributed throughout the university. Also important is a renewed effort to identify the most important current impediments to student retention and success in each program. In the short term, there are also opportunities to accelerate implementation of new programs in high-demand areas, and to review and improve opportunities for international enrollment in the post-COVID era.

    The key objectives in the next three to five years are:

    1. Consolidate university-wide enrollment management operations to increase efficiencies, scalability, bench strength, and cross-school marketing coordination;
    2. Implement an integrated, university-wide strategic enrollment management plan to achieve more effective and efficient operations in admissions, marketing, and financial aid;
    3. Streamline university-wide enrollment management software to improve communication to and engagement with prospective students and families and produce more effective data, and refocus the website on the prospective student experience;
    4. Invest in programs of strategic focus on a compressed timeline;
    5. Identify and implement strategies to improve retention in all programs;
    6. Increase international student enrollment, focusing on key areas such as data and computer science and the arts.
  • Strengthen academic and co-curricular programs through cross-university integration

    Over the longer term, the fundamental marketing challenge is to ensure that we are offering high quality programs that meet the needs of the students we seek to serve. Consistent with our strategic position, we are focused on programs responsive to the needs of the region and the world, that are distinctive in the way they use cross-university integration to connect the liberal arts and professional practice, are financially sustainable, and offer a clear return on investment for students. Both the success of students at Willamette and their readiness to flourish after graduation also require attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion practices that advance our institutional values and mission, as well as a commitment to co-curricular initiatives related to student health and well-being, career development, and academic support.

    These outcomes will be accomplished by pursuing these key strategic objectives in the next three to five years:

    1. Create and implement integrated cross-university academic and co-curricular programs that speak to 21st Century challenges while highlighting Willamette University’s distinctive offerings around:
      1. Big Data and Human-Centered Computing
      2. Democratic Institutions
      3. Climate Change
    2. Align university-wide focus on effective experiential and active learning in pedagogy and in identified student outcomes;
    3. Identify and develop additional distinctive “only at Willamette” graduate and cross-university joint degree opportunities, and identify and pilot non-residential, part-time, and cohort-based professional education programming to support the lifelong needs for liberal and professional education;
    4. Develop university-wide learning outcomes supported by planning and assessment;
    5. Align university-wide student support services—both academic and co-curricular—to better support student success, health, and well-being in accord with Willamette’s commitment to access and inclusivity;
    6. Enact curricular and co-curricular civic engagement initiatives that strengthen existing collaborations, partnerships, and student learning efforts in support of our commitment to service and our role as an outward-facing university for the Pacific Northwest.
  • Reorganize to serve a larger, more complex, student-focused university

    A larger and more complex university will require re-aligned and integrated operations to support both student success and efficient business practices. Alignment and integration will be achieved over the next three to five years through the following key strategic objectives:

    1. Align university-wide structures, policies, and practices to support collaboration and student curricular mobility across all schools;
    2. Integrate institutional research functions to ensure more robust assessment, planning, and accreditation practices;
    3. Continue cross-university integration and standardization of technology systems while seeking scalable IT solutions with maximum operational efficiency, maintainability, and user satisfaction;
    4. Implement business process improvement strategies university-wide to improve project management and ensure resources are allocated in alignment with strategic efforts.

Advancing Tomorrow's Vision (2025-2030)

As Willamette moves past the COVID-era low enrollment in the next few years, attention will turn to the next set of investments to advance the institution towards the 2042 vision. In preparation, significant work must start soon, so that projects can be properly scoped, planned, and prioritized.

Once the foundational imperative of aligning revenues and expenses to ensure intergenerational equity and an adequate operating margin are achieved, investment in people and programs to achieve the Willamette 2042 objective can become the center of our strategic planning.

Primary objectives of this phase include:

  1. Design and develop Willamette’s Portland campus location(s) as part of a complete campus master plan;
  2. Invest in new academic units or programs that have been identified as contributing to strategic growth and excellence (e.g. graduate programs in public policy);
  3. Analyze, strengthen and expand areas of distinction and respond to new regional needs;
  4. Expand student support in key areas of identified or emerging need (e.g. career, health and well-being);
  5. Continue investment in advanced technology systems for student support, teaching and learning, and administrative effectiveness.

Approved by the Board of Trustees May 14, 2022

Willamette University

Strategic Plan

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