February 22, 2013

Consideration of the final draft of the Willamette University Strategic Plan

I’ve been thinking about how to get us started today, and perhaps it is best to first acknowledge that this is not really the beginning of anything. Strategic planning began years ago, long before I arrived, launched because the long range plan developed at the end of the last century was becoming dated and less useful in either day to day work or, frankly, in long range planning. It was, after all, developed for a seven year planning horizon.

At the October 2008 meeting of this Board, you launched a process that was expected to conclude with approval of a final strategic plan at the October 2009 meeting. The plan would be in place to inform the development of a preliminary accreditation report, and form the basis for the launch of a capital campaign in June 2011.

That calendar proved just a little bit optimistic. First, it failed to recognize the complexity of the initial stages of the planning process, the initial generative work that involved many people from many constituencies. For Willamette, the task force that resulted in the Strategic Statement included 34 people, including students, faculty and staff from across the university, among them Brian, Eric, Guy, and Julie. And that might look like a model of streamlined efficiency compared to the recently finished Strategic Plan at my alma mater, which involved not just a steering committee but also 13 working groups totaling 139 faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni, and trustees producing a 23 page plan along with 96 pages of appendices.

This would worry me less, as an alumni donor, if the final result hadn’t included such important, transformational strategic steps as develop “an elevator speech that capture[s] the gist of [our] quality and distinctive strengths.”

You might think 139 people working for 18 months could actually compose a respectable elevator speech, not just agree that a speech was needed.

But the point is that it is hard to develop a strategic plan for an organization characterized by shared governance, with widely distributed authority, widely distributed expertise, and a complex mission. A strategic plan for a university must be owned and supported in a real sense by the entire organization. And good plans are rare, as you’ll find if you go and start reading a few at random.

Strategic planning goes off the rails in one of two directions. Some plans try too hard for consensus, and become simply statements of mom and apple pie sentiments with which nobody strongly disagrees. We will enhance academic excellence, increase our diversity, internationalize our campus, and produce graduates ready for a changing world. If Willamette had truncated our planning process with the Strategic Statement, that is pretty much where we would have ended up. Other plans fail in the opposite direction. Rather than including only principles that everyone agrees with, they include everything that anyone agrees with, and become unfiltered laundry lists of every choice that a campus might make, and here we need only return to that 119 page plan for an example.

I believe that the draft plan that you have in front of you this week avoids both of those problems. It has pushed to a level of detail where real choices are required, and has articulated specific decisions and priorities. There is nobody on campus who loves the whole plan, and I am sure that each of you will find aspects of it with which you may not agree. But at the same time, I think you would find few people on campus who can’t embrace the overall direction we’ve articulated, and I hope that the same will be true in this group.

Of course, there were other reasons it took so long to get here, not the least the unfortunate timing relative to the presidential transition. Once I became acclimated, so to speak, and we got the wheels turning again, the draft document actually came together pretty quickly. And in retrospect, I think the delay has proved fortuitous, given the enormous financial disjunction that the Great Recession brought, with effects we continue to feel today in our endowment and our net pricing power and discount rate.

We’ve been here before, of course. I turn to the Chronicles to find a feeling of connection with presidents and trustees long dead and almost forgotten, and I want to take a couple of minutes to share a snapshot of Willamette of a century ago.

John Coleman was appointed president of the university 111 years and 11 days ago. He arrived by train in Salem to find a Willamette whose “debt had so long been like a millstone tied about the neck of the pioneer school with circumstances ever ready to shove it into the sea of bankruptcy.” He was hired in hopes that his Methodist connections would help him raise funds, and as the minutes of the Oregon Conference reported it, “The Churches, inspired by the devotion of the preachers, responded heroically” in retiring the debt. But the Chronicles continue:

“The basic financial problem which had created the debt was not solved. The revenues from tuition, the small income from endowment, the stream of small gifts year by year, did not equal the absolutely necessary expenditures required to keep the school in operation. Each year showed a deficit. The reduced amount of money required to pay interest as the old debt was cleared was a major help but not enough to keep pace with the increasing expense of improving the school to meet the advancing standards of education. Sharply increased tuition charges did not appear feasible, nor in line with Willamette’s long established policy of the widest service to students. The solution appeared to be in increased endowments, and to this end President Coleman and his Board devoted their best efforts.”

But a decade later, in 1915, the situation remained dire for the new president Carl Gregg Doney, who later remembered his first days very vividly:

“Naturally there was a debt, some seven thousand dollars of current unpaid bills and a bank loan of twenty-five thousand and five hundred dollars. But there was the endowment approaching half a million, no mean sum for a college at that time. The obligation at the bank did not bother so long as the interest was paid promptly, but the floating debt to merchants was a jagged pebble in the shoe. Tradesmen called with bills, they waited for me on the street, telephoned at night. Credit was exhausted and food was needed for the dormitory, so we shopped around among new merchants and had black nightmares.”

It does put our own comparatively manageable situation into perspective.

Of course, since Doney’s day Willamette has never again teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, but in the aftermath of the Great Recession we wrestle with the same challenges: low net tuition revenues, disappointing endowment returns, costs of servicing a substantial debt built up by a decade of expansion, the rising expectations of our students and their families for the breadth and quality of our educational programs, a shortfall of annual giving, and an underfunding of campus maintenance. And it is liberating, I believe, to understand that these are truly eternal challenges: they will be faced by presidents and trustees a hundred years from now as they were a hundred years ago. And we need to remember that Willamette was built by men and women who could not ignore these day to day hardships, but neither did they despair of them or lose faith in working towards the long term growth and improvement of the university.

Let us not ignore the enormous advance that was made in the last planning cycle. Since 2000, Willamette has built tremendous new residential and academic buildings, and significantly upgraded existing facilities; expanded and reinforced our faculty with first-rate teacher-scholars, and greatly diversified our student body. We have opened the Atkinson Center in Portland, created a stand-alone Graduate School of Education, and acquired Zena Forest and Farm. We successfully completed our largest capital campaign, raising well over a hundred and thirty million dollars.

We are not where we imagined, in 2000, we would be thirteen years later. Predictions of continued investment growth and success were unrealized, as were promises of continued net tuition growth, when the economic downturn dragged down family incomes. As we all know, in consequence we are spending endowment at an uncomfortable rate, and have been forced to redirect maintenance funds to financial aid.

I’ll admit that there are times I sympathize with President Doney, when he said “Never yet have I disliked any man enough to wish him to operate a college on promises.”

But I don’t feel that way very often.

We who are charged in this era with the care and advancement of Willamette face some challenges, certainly, but we also have the strongest faculty we have ever had, in CLA and in the professional schools. We enjoy a physical plant of great beauty and utility. We have relatively high visibility both in and out of our region, attracting larger fractions of out-of-state undergraduates and international graduates than ever before and generally strengthening the academic profile and diversity of our student body.

This, then, is the context in which the current draft strategic plan was developed. Without ignoring the sense of relative financial constraint we face in the next few years, and the need to bring spending and resources into better alignment, writing a long range strategic plan provides us as the governing body an opportunity to look beyond the short term pressures to focus on the university we want to build, the ways we choose to continue and extend the success of recent years, and how we will make Willamette a better, truer version of itself, a human-scaled educational community where students are prepared for lives of achievement, contribution, and meaning.

The plan that you have in front of you this weekend is in one sense a completion of the work you began in the Strategic Statement and continued last winter with your approval of the revised university mission and values statements. It has been shaped, as well, by our five year budget plan and the associated conversations in the Committee on Financial Affairs and Audit, and by both formal and informal consultations with a very broad range of stakeholders. It is now your document, and when approved it will become your strategic guidance to me and to the university for at least the next decade to come, fulfilling your responsibility to establish and review strategic direction for the institution.

It will be the base for regular discussions between us about implementation and progress towards our strategic goals, as well as for the outward looking strategic marketing plan that will define how we present the university and our goals to our external friends and prospective students, revisions of our campus master plan that will shape our physical development, and the case statement that will identify the specific financial goals of our next comprehensive fundraising campaign.

We’ve had time already in various forums to begin to discuss the plan in detail, and we’ll have much more time this weekend, so I’m not going to go through it now in any detail, but I will make a couple of points to frame the conversation.

First, the most important single sentence in the plan is the one labeled as the university’s “strategic goal, and repeated at the top of the each section:

“Willamette aspires to become the Northwest’s leading institution for rigorous, personalized liberal arts and graduate professional education, attractive to students and faculty from across the country and around the world.”

Everything else in this document, including the four broad strategic objectives and all of the more detailed planks — everything is intended to support this core strategic goal, which is itself an aspirational reframing of the heart of the university mission statement.

And let me zoom in even further, and focus just on the core of this sentence: “rigorous, personalized liberal arts and graduate professional education.”

Every word in this phrase is a critical piece of Willamette’s strategic positioning, and represents choices that Willamette has made on important issues facing higher education.

Take the word “personalized.” The idea of education as what takes place when two minds directly challenge each other is encapsulated in President Garfield’s formulation of the ideal college as Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other. But such a model is expensive. Public institutions have found efficiencies by putting hundreds of students in lecture halls, and and even wealthy universities like Princeton, whose mission and self-definition demand heavy investment in research, have for years been putting lowly assistant professors, like me at one time, up to lecture in front of classes with 200 or more students. Today, MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are just the most fashionable of many attempts to use technology to crack the same nut.

Liberal arts is of course also a contested phrase in the marketplace. To address the perception of some students and parents that the liberal arts have become dangerously irrelevant in the job market, a great many colleges and universities have expanded undergraduate business and professional programs. A study last year found that of the 212 liberal arts colleges that were so classified in 1990, only 130 remain as true liberal arts colleges today. And of course, the value of professional education too, and particularly legal education, has come under unusually strong scrutiny as employment and debt trends have diverged in the last economic slowdown.

But one thing we all know is that human-scale liberal education has been around for a long time, and it has been the subject of doubt, misunderstanding, and scorn since the beginning. You need only turn to Aristophanes’ send-up of Socrates in The Clouds to find the earliest argument that such education is impractical, or even dangerous. And at least since the civil war years, when the Morrill Acts established this countries land grant universities to promote “the liberal and practical training of the industrial classes,” there has been tension in this country between what the Morrill Acts call “scientific and classical studies” on the one hand, and “such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts” on the other. It is self evident to many, including the legislatures of several states, that we should prefer the immediately practical, and measure the value of education by the salary of a graduate’s first job.

And yet, personalized liberal education survives, and though its death has long been predicted, it continues to thrive. Those who have the means to make a choice continue to disproportionately choose to enroll their children in the schools most committed to the traditional liberal arts. And they are wise to do so.

Winston Churchill famously said to the Commons in 1947 that “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Substitute liberal education for democracy in his formulation, and I think you’ve got it just about exactly right. Nobody pretends that schools like Willamette are perfect, or that our faculty and leadership are all-wise. But we are doing something right.

I think the evidence for this remains very compelling.

Hardwick Day did a study in 2011, at the request of the Annapolis Group, on the value and impact of college, comparing the experience of students in liberal arts colleges to that of students in flagship public universities. They found that students in liberal arts colleges graduate in less time, are far more likely to find a mentor in school, are more likely to feel that college prepared them for their first jobs, and are far more likely to believe that they are prepared for life than are public flagship graduates. And while it is commonly believed, often by those in politics rather than business, that businesses want colleges to emphasize technical training and preparation, AAC&U surveyed businesses in 2010 and found that in fact businesses said that they want well-rounded, critical thinkers and problem solvers who can communicate clearly. And the numbers bear this out. Liberal arts college graduates are greatly overrepresented in the top rungs of nearly every field and profession, from the most successful CEOs to the US Presidency, from winners of the Pulitzer Prize to those who receive PhDs. It would surprise many people who misunderstand the scope of the liberal arts to learn that while only 3% of American college graduates are educated at a residential liberal arts college, 20% of recent inductees into the National Academy of Sciences were such graduates.

As Stanford President John Hennessy said last fall, “We should all accept the premise that residential and liberal arts institutions are the gold standard. The challenge is how to preserve the gold standard.”

I wholeheartedly agree with the first of President Hennessy’s sentences, but I strongly disagree with the second.

Willamette is an outstanding university. I’ve been here about 20 months now, and my general feeling is that we have a great deal of which to be proud. I even think it is fair to say that we are among a select group of the very best schools focused on quality of education — we are the gold standard, as it were. But our challenge is not preservation, as Hennessy would have it, in the face of external pressure. Our challenge is to recognize that we have significant work left to do on our core business of mission fulfillment.

And that, I think, is the key for you and me and the campus leadership in understanding the real significance of this plan, in the way that it calls on us at Willamette to become a better, more authentic version of ourselves. This is not a plan that stakes out some bold new direction; I think we are already on the right course. It is not a plan that launches expensive new programs, or calls for major expansion. But it is also not a plan that endorses the status quo. It is not a plan that allows us to accept what we are currently doing as good enough.

If I could offer one unifying theme that I think will help you weave together the 14 or so pages of specific recommendations and directions endorsed in this plan, it is that phrase that I keep using: that it helps Willamette become a better and more authentic version of itself. And maybe it is just that Kristen has repeated that so many times that I can’t get it out of my head. An even blunter summary might be that this plan brings the best of Willamette to the rest of Willamette.

What I mean by that is very simple. We have done a wonderful job at Willamette of developing innovative pilot programs, and demonstration projects, and special tracks. We have been less successful at integrating our most exciting programs into the core of what we do in a way that makes them a real part of the average student experience at Willamette. With a campus culture that values and rewards innovation and creative development, we have not always focused appropriately on the scalability and sustainability of our efforts.

Take for example the objective of delivering the highest-quality student experiences. In the CLA, we have an innovative and successful College Colloquium program and senior capstone experiences for all of our students. In between, programs like LARC, the Liberal Arts Research Collaborative, connect students and faculty together in scholarship in wonderful ways, as you saw demonstrated last year.

But outside of these high points, our success is more mixed. The truth is that programs like LARC and SCRP can reach only a small fraction of students. We have a tremendously rich and broad curriculum, but a curriculum that exceeds the capacity of our existing faculty: in any given class, the average first-year student has about a 50-50 chance of having a temporary instructor instead of a permanent member of the faculty. We have unparalleled opportunities for students to develop leadership in major co-curricular activities, such as Opening Days or Kaneko Commons’ self-governance, but at the same time a majority of our upperclass students live off campus, and organizations like our fraternities and sororities are starved for senior leadership.

In the same way, Atkinson has developed marquee programs in what they call consequential education, in which learning takes on depth and a new effectiveness when it moves from typical tools of active learning, such as models and simulations, to situations like those found in the O’Neill Investment program or the Willamette Angel Investment fund, where students work with real money, real companies, real people and real consequences. But these programs are expensive and currently reach a minority of students. This strategic plan calls on Atkinson to expand its commitment to consequential learning by developing similar programs in social entrepreneurship, HR, and other disciplines.

In law and GSE, we propose expansion of existing externship programs, in a variety of ways, with the goal of expanding training in practical skills to all of our graduates. If you read the plan with this unifying theme in mind, I think you will find again and again that it calls on us to take the wonderful accomplishments that mark Willamette at its best, and integrate them into a more coherent and intentional whole, that delivers more consistently on our core promises.

From working to ensure that every student graduates with a considered plan for their post-Willamette endeavors, to weaving together the many different threads of work on sustainability into a more coherent campus position that integrates with our region and resonates with our values, this is a plan that focuses all of our attention on that core value proposition of rigorous, personalized liberal arts and graduate professional education that will demonstrably prepare our students — all of our students — for lives of achievement, contribution, and meaning.

So, that has brought us back to our big goal. I think it is important that we express it in a meaningfully aspirational way. There were some choices. There are those in the CLA who would like to see us frame our aspiration in terms of being one of the nation’s top colleges, which is the kind of phrasing used by Lewis & Clark and Puget Sound, and probably scores of other liberal arts colleges. But while I certainly believe we are among the nation’s top colleges, I don’t think its very helpful to aim our aspirational conversations at focusing whether we are number 55 or number 63 on the US News list. And honestly, a national framing doesn’t work all that well for our professional schools.

Instead, we’ve chosen a Northwest framing that I like for a couple of reasons. First, it is a little hard to argue for national prominence unless you can first make a credible case for leadership in our region. I think such leadership is within reach for all of our schools, and if pushed I would feel good about arguing on behalf of any of our schools that the quality of the student experience is already competitive with any other regional institution, even if the external perception or rankings haven’t caught up with that truth.

I think it is worth reminding ourselves of our regional competitive environment. The Northwest, which depending on how you construe it could be as expansive as Northern California to Alaska and the Continental Divide to Hawaii, is a huge and remarkably open playing field. In this whole region, there are only two really leading research universities, by which I mean members of the Association of American Universities: those are the Universities of Oregon and Washington. This is the only part of the country without a major independent research university, like Stanford or USC or Duke or Rice or Chicago or Harvard or Princeton. There are only a handful of top notch liberal arts colleges.

Imagine how different you would feel if you were the board of Ursinus College. Whereas Willamette could already make a credible case for being the leading independent university in the Northwest, Ursinus, with a similar undergraduate student profile to Willamette, would be hard-pressed to reasonably aspire to ever be among the three leading liberal arts colleges of suburban Philadelphia.

Even so, the purpose of enunciating a goal of being the Northwest’s leading institution is not to choose an easier playing field, and it is absolutely not about regionalizing our ambitions. In important ways, it is a placeholder for a future marketing plan. I don’t think we have understood and properly capitalized on how attractive the Pacific Northwest is to those from outside our region.

Especially in February, it is easy to focus on the grey skies, forgetting that much of the country is shoveling snow. We focus on our challenges, which for some means high taxes, for others geographic isolation from east coast markets, or low educational attainment in rural areas, and you each have your own list. We forget that the most common response many of us have when telling someone in the east that we are from Oregon is “Oh, it is so beautiful there.” They know the beaches and the mountains and the rivers and the forests.

The Northwest, Cascadia, is the symbol for much of the country of sustainability and the environment. Our biggest companies are consumer favorites like Nike and Starbucks and Kettle Chips and Amazon and technology leaders like Microsoft and Micron, and we’ve become a magnet for clean tech and a center for advanced manufacturing and the creative industries. With pardons to California, we make the best wine and beer in the country, and grow some of the best food, supplying one of the most innovative restaurant scenes. We’ve got a strong arts and culture community and have been a birthplace of popular music trends forever, from the Kingsmen to Jimi Hendrix to Pearl Jam to The Decemberists and, yes Kristen, True North.

And the numbers back this up. For 35 years, the largest mover, United Van Lines, has annually published data, and the 2012 report came out a few weeks ago. The bottom line: for the last three years, 2010-12, Oregon has been the most attractive state, lagging only the District of Columbia, with the highest ratio of inbound to outbound moves.

Even more relevant is a study two Portland State faculty published last fall of migration patterns to and from the 50 largest metropolitan areas, focusing on young people and especially the young college educated. What they found was that cities and regions come and go in fashion. Austin has been hot, Boulder as well. But only two of the fifty cities have consistently been net attractors of college educated young people for all of the last 30 years: Portland and Seattle.

And once you accept the idea that this is a part of the world that is attractive to mobile, educated young people, then suddenly positioning ourselves as the leading educational option in this part of the world starts to sound like it might be a savvy marketing position. And what is true for CLA is even more true for the professional schools. And here I think the regional framing becomes absolutely critical.

For concreteness, let me pick on Atkinson. Atkinson is not a market competitor to Tuck, or Wharton. And for now that’s OK. In fact, I think it would be a strategic error for us to try to compete directly with Tuck or Wharton in the next decade. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to stress our world-class education, as the Atkinson mission statement puts it, that is the equal to their programs, or that our graduates aren’t just as capable as their graduates of succeeding anywhere in the world. But in the near term, we are not going to out Wharton Wharton for the average student who is already aiming for a career in a big firm on Wall Street or in DC. But we can and should do is be darn sure that Wharton isn’t going to out Atkinson Atkinson for a student who seeks to live and flourish in the Northwest.

My crystal ball doesn’t help much looking twenty or thirty years down the road, but in the next decade, if we can be the university to whom those thousands of educated young people emigrating to the northwest and the even more homegrown college graduates will turn for their professional education in management, law, and education, then we’re going to be more than just fine.

I’ve been living with this framing of our strategic goal for some months now, with rigorous, personalized education at its heart, coupled with an aspiration for leadership in our region and an affirmation of our national and international reach, and I find it compelling and hope that you will too. When combined with our mission statement and our motto, we have a concise, five-sentence framing of what we do, the values that guide us, and the direction we are trying to go.

Your job, by noon tomorrow, is to think deeply about proposed strategic objectives encapsulated in the draft plan, and wrestle with how they support this overall goal, of becoming the Northwest’s leading institution for liberal arts and graduate professional education, attractive to faculty and students from across the country and around the world.

You will take on in turn each of the four objectives: providing the highest quality student experiences, ensuring access for a diverse group of talented students who will contribute to this community, delivering lifelong value from a Willamette degree, and strengthening the coherence and distinctiveness of our programs through a genuine engagement with this place in which we live and learn. Quality, access, value, and distinctiveness.

This will be a complicated mixer; you’ll be with different colleagues in each 90 minute session, and we will have three admin council members helping to take notes and facilitate the discussion in each group. They have been charged with helping move the conversations through a series of key questions: first, looking at how the broad strategic objective advances the core goal and how success in our objectives would change or improve Willamette; second, looking at how the specific recommendations for the four schools would move us towards success in our broad objective; and finally, evaluating how the plan prepares us for the work ahead, including the development of operating plans and benchmarks, as well as the marketing and campaign plans.

Implicit are the questions I posed earlier: have we captured an authentic vision of Willamette with realistic goals in a way that helps us embrace positive opportunities and change while also improving focus on our core mission and most important activities?

The hope is that we will not have forty people wordsmithing this document; there are typos to be fixed, and genuine differences of opinion or emphasis that we will never reach consensus on. But if there are substantive amendments that need broad debate, we will try to capture them and return to them on Saturday afternoon. To the extent possible, I’m hoping that we concentrate on the big W plan, which is on p5 (or, p. 36 of the annotated agenda), and the school plans that follow. That, and not the president’s letter nor the fountain photo on the cover, is what you will be asked to eventually approve. My letter at the front is to help frame the board’s work — it isn’t part of the plan.

Similarly, the budgetary appendix is intended as a summary of the five year operating projections discussed in Financial Affairs, as well as the current year budget you endorsed this morning. It isn’t part of the plan. And cosmetically, this document is laid out to simplify discussion. It isn’t intended to be a polished document to send in this form to alumni or parents or anyone else. So I ask that you focus on substance, not form.

I am happy to take questions now, of course, but we will be coming back together tomorrow after you’ve had time to wrestle with the text and each other on specific points, so I want to be sure that our top priority questions today are about process and your marching orders for the small groups. When we are done here, we will recess to Rogers Rehearsal Hall for lunch, including a very brief performance by the The Willamette Singers, and at greater length, a presentation from Zeddie Bowen, a strategic planning expert recommended to us by the Association for Governing Boards, and then we will break to the small discussion groups for the afternoon.

Willamette University

Strategic Plan

900 State Street
Salem Oregon 97301 U.S.A.

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