Independent Minds, Working Together

Strategic Priorities for 2009-10

September 14, 2009

Dear Fellow Scots,

I write, as I have for the two years past, to offer some thoughts on the priorities for our work together this year. As one might hope and expect, the catalogue is different from last year’s, not because those priorities are no longer important, but because we see good evidence of progress and well-organized plans that are being pursued to good effect.

We began the year with two significant facilities improvements coming on line and one approaching completion. The renovation of Babcock Hall and its dedication as the new home of the Center for Diversity and Global Engagement, and the installation of a new artificial turf field and lights at Papp Stadium, along with the restoration of the track, are initiatives that will provide benefits for years to come. And as the Beall Avenue Streetscape project begins to take its final shape, it’s easy to see the aesthetic impact it will have on the main north-south corridor through campus.

I am also pleased to note that Wooster took a big step forward on the national college rankings scene this fall. In U.S. News & World Report, we moved up nine places, from 77 to 68, and once again were included on two of their short lists of “academic programs to look for” — senior capstone and undergraduate research/creative projects. Much more important is our place in a new U.S. News ranking, which recognizes colleges and universities with the best teaching. Wooster is distinguished as one of the top ten liberal arts colleges in the nation, in the company of Williams, Swarthmore, Haverford, Carleton, and others. To my mind, this is external validation of something we already know; we have a singular teaching and learning culture at Wooster, demanding of both students and faculty, which is the basis of excellence in our core mission.

Enrollment

This is our top strategic priority because it is the sine qua non of progress in all other areas. We have made progress on many key indicators since 2007: applications have increased from 3,169 to 4,752; our admit rate has dropped from 74.3% to 58.8%; diversity, retention, and net tuition revenue per student have all improved.

We have not, however, achieved our goal for the entering class size this year, and our yield on admitted students has dropped to 17%. The most obvious explanation is that we were too aggressive on selectivity; by admitting more qualified students, all of whom have more options, our competition to attract them to Wooster was more challenging this year. Deeper analysis in needed, however, and it is well underway.

With regard to retention, our goal is to achieve a first-year to sophomore retention rate of at least 90%, and a six-year graduation rate of 80%. These benchmarks are consistent with the nation’s best liberal arts colleges and they are within our grasp.

There are many factors that contribute to student transience – personal, financial, academic. We can and must take a coordinated and systemic approach to retention, which is at the same time individualized. This year, for the first time, we have established a position solely devoted to coordinating our retention efforts across all departments and divisions. Anne Gates, now serving as associate dean of students for academic success and retention, will be the nexus of collaboration in our retention efforts, and we have every confidence that we are poised to make further advances here.

Of course, strong retention and graduation rates begin with strong entering classes, with admitting and matriculating students who are well matched to our mission. Much of this has to do with our admissions practices, with identifying, cultivating, admitting, and enrolling students who are well suited, both intellectually and by disposition, for Wooster’s demanding educational program. We are making strides in this area and will relentlessly strive to have the most attentive, professional, innovative and persistent admissions operation of any of our peers.

Bringing in the right number of the right students also calls for a clear and effective marketing strategy and message. We have been working hard to discern and articulate our value proposition, that is, our own clear understanding of the differentiating strengths of the College of Wooster, and at translating this understanding into a set of compelling messages and a clear brand identity.

We have launched our new web site and by any measure it is a huge advance. Still, as the metaphor of a launch suggests, this is the beginning of a journey, not an end point. We have built a web site with an excellent design and the latest architectural innovations; now, like a new house, we must furnish it with appropriate content, developed to enhance the design and take full advantage of the architecture. Around sixty staff have been trained as site editors. Led by our web team, this group will steward the development of new content for the web, rich with compelling media, messages, and information. It is important to keep in mind that this project will take time. It will call for patience and persistence to realize the full potential of the new design, but the project is critical to our mission.

We have also completed a competition among the nation’s top firms to reinvent our admissions publications, and hired a group called Generation. They have spent a good deal of time on campus with students, faculty, and staff, interviewing, listening, and discerning our core strengths. It is safe to say that we now have new set of colleagues who have come to know and love this place. They are hard at work translating our strengths, our character, and our heart and soul into a communication strategy tuned for our target audiences.

There is no single person, office, department or division that can achieve our desired goals; progress in recruitment and retention will call for the coordinated efforts of staff in every area, faculty, trustees, alumni, parents, and current students.

Strategic Planning

The College has been in a mode of strategic planning for the last three years, since the inception of the presidential search process. Crafting the search prospectus entailed broad and deep discussion of Wooster’s strategic issues, needs, and aspirations. Since my appointment, annual strategic priorities memos, including this one, have served as the College’s strategic plan; the priorities articulated in them have guided resource allocation, decision-making, and assessment. In spring 2008, the Trustees, Cabinet, and faculty and staff leadership engaged in a process to identify a “Strategic Issues Agenda” for the College through a process facilitated by an organizational consultant. In late summer 2008, our strategic planning efforts were redirected to contingency planning with the onset of the sharp economic downturn. While we must continue to steward the College through this profoundly challenging time, we need simultaneously to return to our long-range strategic planning effort.

I have already written to you about this process and how it will unfold in the coming months, and we have set up a blog where all the relevant documents and updates will be disseminated. Our timeline is, without doubt, an ambitious one, but the work is critically important. Our goal reaches beyond the production of a strategic plan per se; it is to develop an institutional culture of planning at the College of Wooster that fosters strategic thinking and influences all decision making, resource allocation, and research and assessment efforts.

Governance and Administration

This year we must continue to strive toward excellence in our governance and administration. In this quest, we single out three points of emphasis.

 Reorganization of Academic Affairs: After extensive deliberation, we have a new organizational structure in Academic Affairs, with Shila Garg serving as the Interim Provost. Heather FitzGibbon is Dean for Faculty Development, which will involve mentoring faculty and supporting their teaching and research, and coordinating undergraduate research programs on campus. Henry Kreuzman serves as Dean for Curriculum and Academic Engagement, which gives him oversight in matters involving curriculum and student petitions, Wooster’s First-Year Seminar program, the Learning Center, and the Writing Center.

The overarching goal of this reorganization is to support and advance the mission of the College by creating an effective, efficient, and collegial relationship between the faculty and the administration. The strategic priorities for this year are, first, to implement the new organization in a manner that moves us further towards our goal, and second, to complete successfully the national search for our next Provost. Finding the right person, who understands Wooster’s mission and culture, who shares and is inspired by our vision for the College’s future, and who can provide inspiring leadership for the evolution of our educational program, is clearly a high priority that will involve the attention of many.

 Administrative Policies and Practices: To be a great organization our administrative policies and practices have to be tuned to be maximally efficient and strategic. The current stress on the budget means that we have to redouble our efforts to make sure we steward our resources with great care, and allocate them in ways that are focused on advancing the mission and prosperity of the College. We look forward to strong and creative collaboration between Laurie Stickelmaier and the Financial Advisory Committee as they continue their work to establish a process for developing our annual budgets that is transparent and strategic. Laurie will introduce a new multi-year budget development model that is an outstanding advance.

This year we must also make progress in developing what we would call a culture of Datatel. The College has invested significant financial and human resources in the implementation of a robust and comprehensive data management system; now we have to put it to work. Anyone who has been through a transition to a new enterprise-wide data management system knows that it takes tremendous collective will and discipline to realize the value of the investment, but that the potential benefits are substantial. With the system now in place, we need to make demonstrable progress in putting the power of it to work for the College.

 Governance: The College of Wooster is blessed with an outstanding Board of Trustees. This year we will engage the Board in a process of evaluating and perhaps revising the organization and structure of the Board and its meetings. Jim Clarke is convening a group of fellow trustees to research the issues, consult the literature, and plan how best to work with the Board in a process of self-assessment and redesign.

Center for Diversity and Global Engagement

Also new this year is Wooster’s Center for Diversity and Global Engagement. This initiative, one outcome of the research and deliberation of the Diversity Task Force, brings a progressive new model, not just to Wooster, but to higher education, for how to organize and advance our efforts to be a community of learners diverse in our composition and viewpoints, and engaged with one another in ways that are respectful, searching, and collaborative.

In its inaugural year, the Center will be co-directed by Marc Goulding and Susan Lee. Together, they will coordinate the Center's programming, facilitate the collaboration of student groups thematically associated with the Center and its mission, and cultivate the affiliation of academic programs.

As is the case with the reorganization of Academic Affairs, the creation of the Center is only a beginning. It will take time, commitment, and resources to realize its full purpose. One indicator of the initiative’s success will be when the Center, its offices and programming, are understood by all to serve all Wooster’s students, faculty, and staff as we collectively strive towards excellence in our mission.

Campus Stewardship

There are two strategic priorities that fall under the rubric of campus stewardship. First, we must aspire to the highest standards of campus maintenance and upkeep. While we think our current students, faculty, and staff deserve to pursue their collective work on a campus whose quality and upkeep are worthy of our mission, it is also the case that prospective students and their families will judge that quality by what they see. I wish to acknowledge the generous work of our trustee, Steve Gault, who has been working with our facilities and grounds staff to prioritize campus maintenance projects, and also the efforts of our WooCorps students who toiled all summer on projects big and small. With the completion of the Beall Avenue Streetscape now in sight, we have made strong strides towards our goal of having the most beautiful and well-maintained campus of any of our peers.

The second strategic priority in campus stewardship is to advance the planning of Phase I of the Campus Center project. The project steering committee, led by Jackie Middleton, will continue its work with the architects, administration, and trustees to finalize a design for Phase I that will enable us to address our most critical needs in a project that, once completed, will serve all students, faculty, and staff, improve student satisfaction and retention, and strengthen our attractiveness to the prospective students we want to choose Wooster. At the same time, we will be refining and pursuing both a fund raising plan for the project and a business plan for how the College budget will accommodate the operating expenses of the new facility.

Thank you

It is a profound honor to serve a college with the legacy and promise of The College of Wooster, and a privilege to share that work with a group of colleagues like you. I’ve said it before, but it can never be said too often: Thank you, for all you do for this college and for your hard work, day in and day out, in support of our common endeavor.

Sincerely,

Grant Cornwell