Preface — “The Big W”
Willamette’s structure — a traditional undergraduate liberal arts college paired with two graduate professional programs — is unusual in American higher education. Each school has its own mission and serves its own students, but all are bound by a common commitment to the university’s vision of rigorous, student-focused education and the values encapsulated in Willamette’s motto. It is an assumption of this strategic plan that each school strengthens and is also strengthened by its affiliation with “the big W”: that the curricula and student experiences, faculty scholarship, and external visibility of each part of the university benefit from the low barriers between the units and the strong coherence of our strategic planning. In short, by capitalizing on this unusual combination of a strong student focus, strength in the traditional liberal arts, and real expertise in law and management, Willamette has exceptional opportunities to build distinctive programs not found in either a stand-alone liberal arts college or in a research university with large, highly-independent schools.
To that end, this strategic plan emphasizes Willamette’s unity. It is structured around a single goal that emerges directly from the university mission statement and is traceable back to an original trustee, Gustavus Hines1:
Goal: To become the Northwest’s leading institution for rigorous, personalized liberal arts and graduate professional education, attractive to students and faculty from across the nation and around the world.
To achieve this goal, we will focus on four key objectives. Most important is our commitment to the quality of the student experience, ensuring that we deliver on our core promise with the very strongest curricular and co-curricular programs and an increasingly intentional approach to preparing our students to move from knowledge to action in their post-Willamette lives. We will make student access our fundraising priority, recognizing that all of Willamette benefits when we are able to attract and support the bright and talented students who are best prepared to benefit from and contribute to our diverse learning community. And we will take specific steps to demonstrate the life-long value of a Willamette degree, strengthening ties with alumni and others who share our values and support our mission.
Finally, we seek to take better advantage of our singular location by becoming the independent university most authentically engaged with the Northwest and the Pacific Rim. At a time when many institutions risk becoming bland “universities of nowhere,” we believe that learning contextualized by place—engaged in a particular history, art, culture, environment, politics, and economy—has enormous potential to foster moral and ethical development, critical awareness, social responsibility, and self knowledge.
As one faculty member discovered in her own teaching, “I have found that focusing on a sense of place and critically engaging students with the people, land, food, water, ecosystems, economics, policy, history, and culture of this region, creates incredible energy in the classroom and a strong sense of purpose in students. Things get real, minds get sharper, questions get better and more interesting, ideas become more robust, students engage in more complex and urgent questioning of their own values, and there is enough specificity to allow maximum complexity of thought…it supports precisely the kind of simultaneously bio-regional and global focus that is where students’ questions live right now, and where their minds and hearts come alive.”
(W. Peterson Boring)
Our three schools each benefit operationally from shared administrative and academic support resources. Being part of a larger institution also allows easier and more efficient control of financial risk, enrollment fluctuations, and investment in new initiatives. But over time, each school must be managed to be self-supporting, without ongoing cross-subsidies, and each school must generate sufficient revenues beyond direct costs to be able to share equitably in common administrative expenses and in maintenance and operation of the physical plant.
Less tangibly, it is important that each of Willamette’s schools contributes to a coherent “identity” for the university that helps prospective students, future employers, and alumni understand what is meant by a Willamette degree. Despite the relative financial independence of the schools, their distinct programs, and their varied competitive challenges, we are not adherents of Bunyan’s view that “every tub must stand upon its own bottom.” Indeed, each of our schools will benefit from Willamette’s unusual structure to the degree that alignment between them allows the whole to be stronger than the sum of its parts.
To that end, this strategic plan outlines the way that the institutional strategic objectives roll down to the level of the individual schools. The alignment is not perfect. Each school has strategic opportunities and challenges that are unique to its particular circumstances. The challenges in developing and managing the remarkably diverse curriculum in the undergraduate college are very different from those faced by the law school, for example, and the international enrollments that are critical in the Atkinson School are entirely absent from the Graduate School of Education. But the university-level strategic objectives usefully frame four key objectives for each school: quality, access, life-long value, and the distinctive advantages that arise from connection to place.
Taken together, an authentic sense of “The Big W” emerges. In a time of unprecedented uncertainty and change in higher education, we cannot avoid setting priorities and making hard choices. By focusing on quality, this strategic plan envisions a Willamette that will continue as a place where hearts and minds are awakened, where knowledge becomes action, and where we heed the call to service as the truest path to a life of meaning.