Oberlin’s Strategic Plan Makes Some New Moves
This entire academic year has been conducted with a specific undercurrent: the Strategic Plan. All year the question of how and when it would be implemented has been a driving force behind student and faculty concerns. It seems appropriate, in the last issue of the Review this year, to take stock of what’s been done, what will be done and what has fallen by the wayside.
The General Faculty Planning Committee is an elected faculty committee that has been overseeing and facilitating the process.
“There’s no template to follow,” said Provost Al MacKay, chair of the GFPC. “We’ve invented the process.”
He explained that the GFPC took the strategies in the plan and created six working groups from faculty, staff and students whose job was to research and consult about issues and brainstorm implementation.
The College working groups are: Curricular Pathways; Curricular Support; Build Campus Community; Internationalize Oberlin; Move Towards Environmental Sustainability; and Build and Support Faculty — the only group that did not contain student members. The Conservatory also came up with a draft for the Strategic Plan’s implementation.
“The working groups more or less finished their work by the end of the year,” said MacKay. “Build Campus Community felt they had a lot on their plate, and they’re going to keep going.”
In the spring, all the groups submitted reports detailing their proposals. MacKay ultimately shortened these reports to an “executive summary.” The list comprises 142 proposals in all. Many are marked as “underway,” though MacKay emphasized that this may just mean that serious discussion or task force research groups had begun a preliminary process. He gave an example.
“There are proposals that are being discussed about adjusting the student course load and the faculty course load,” said MacKay.
Adjusting the student course load, he explained, is complicated by the diversity in the kinds of courses students combine and widely differing academic trajectories. As for faculty loads, the default load is five courses per semester. However, this doesn’t really happen since different departments quantify courses differently.
“A subcommittee will be studying this over the summer,” said MacKay. “They’ll be looking at what the issues really are. How will changes for students affect faculty and vice versa [for instance]?”
Curricular Pathways and Curricular Support is an example of something that is truly underway and fulfills the proposals made by two different working groups.
“[The proposals] are focused on the idea of using technology to develop what is called e-portfolios,” said MacKay. “Students would put in work they’d done, plans [and] accomplishments. It would amount to a kind of portfolio that would be useful to advisors as well as potential employers.”
The College has bought the necessary software. MacKay said he thought a pilot program would be studied in the fall of next year and be fully rolled out mid-year.
Curricular support also had a proposal to put more emphasis on pre-major advising.
“The dean’s office is going to assemble a group of volunteer advisors,” said MacKay. “[The students and advisors] will have special opportunities to get together and talk things over and have consultants come in when that would be helpful.”
This new strategy will be tried out on the incoming first-years, and orientation has been re-organized accordingly.
More new programming to be rolled out this fall is modeled after the Oberlin Business Scholars program, which MacKay described as, “a high-class program bridging the gap between theory and process.”
This new program will be called the Legal & Law Scholars and will offer professional training during Winter Terms — and perhaps the summer, as well as a pipeline to internships.
Students this semester were e-mailed a long survey about the possible construction of an “academic commons” in Mudd Library. This comes out of the Build Campus Community work group, and MacKay predicts it will happen soon.
“We still have to raise some money, but we’re in the advanced planning stages and we’ve been talking to architects,” said MacKay.
The commons will be on the entrance floor of Mudd, and will probably include a café area and a consolidation of research resources.
Another goal of the Strategic Plan was to increase the diversity of the student body. Based on the proposal of Build Campus Community, the College has joined two organizations: Posse and Quest Bridge.
Posse identifies inner-city students who are likely to succeed at top colleges; Quest-Bridge is less personal and simply matches interested students up with colleges over the internet, but it has a good track record. Both programs will go into effect next year.
Also in the works is the Master Housing Plan (see page 14), which will fulfill the Building Campus Communities proposal that residential buildings on campus be re-evaluated and a “master plan” for re-doing residential life conceived. The process will begin this summer.
The Strategic Plan in its overarching “Educational Goal” calls for the school to “Enhance the value and the perception of value of an Oberlin education.” To this end, a marketing strategy has been adopted and a consultant, Mark Edwards, hired.
Another priority is to make Oberlin “financially sustainable.” The school plans to lower the student body enrollment and to reduce the faculty through attrition by seven positions. MacKay emphasized that the student-faculty ratio will remain the same.
“We’re trying to manage student body enrollment without any big surprises,” said MacKay. “We had a very big junior class this year. After they graduate the bubble will be out of the pipeline. We won’t replace the bubble.”
MacKay replied to a question about community response to the plan with, “So far, so good. We’re in early innings. We’re aware that the earlier part of this process wasn’t exactly behind closed doors, but people were surprised. This round, we’re deliberately trying to be open.” To this end, all reports have been posted online.
College juniors Ezra Temko and Matthew Adler, and sophomore Colin Jones have all served as student representatives on the GFPC this year. They offered their insights into this year’s progress.
“I feel that student concerns are being listened to,” Temko said. “[Although] I’m not sure that student concerns regarding performing and visual art — both academically and extra-curricularly — have been taken fully into account.”
“I do not feel [that] the environmental sustainability working group [is] moving at a very fast rate,” said Temko, adding that the GFPC did not seem engaged enough in issues of sustainability.
Adler agreed that the process “is going too slowly,” attributing much of the problem to what he described as “overlapping and underlapping” between the College offices and faculty committees.
Jones had shared his perspective on transparency with the execution of the strategic plan.
“Transparency is perhaps the biggest weakness of the plan now,” said Jones. “This is partially because the institution moves slowly but it’s [in part also] because the administration, staff and Senate as well are not doing the best job of keeping people informed.”
On that note, Jones commented on the position of athletics in the plan. “How we want to integrate athletes into the larger community, how hard we want to pursue success in athletics and what sacrifices we have to make financially is not transparent to students and seems unintentional,” he said.
But he agrees with MacKay that the plan is in its “early innings.”
“There were 144 recommendations from the groups and most of these are
still ideas,” said Jones. “The major moves, the ones that will
define the plan, still haven’t been made.”