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A Faculty Perspective

The Strategic Plan: A Faculty Perspective

By Kimberly Dodson

Dr. Kimberly Dodson is an assistant professor of management in the Gore School of Business.

In January 2004, members of the Westminster College community gathered together to celebrate the launch of our ten-year strategic plan. Under the festive balloons, we signaled our support for the college's new vision. It was an exciting time. I couldn't help but think that we were celebrating both an exciting new future for Westminster College and the collective voice that had defined our destination. In so many ways, the plan reflects all of us. The strategic planning process, through its collaborative and integrative design, truly allowed everyone to play the part he or she wanted to play. It was an opportunity for Westminster College to collectively "Find Our Voice."

During the summer of 2003, I served on a task force composed of members of the faculty, staff, student body, Board of Trustees, and administration. We were asked to take the common patterns, themes, and directions that had emerged throughout the first eight months of the process--from two all-day conferences, the work of nine critical-issue task forces, and an extensive campus dialogue--and create the first draft of the strategic plan. No small task!

Stepping back from the whiteboard to get a better view of the framework emerging before me, I glanced through the doorway of the Howa Board Room to see summer task force faculty colleagues Diane Van Os (nursing) and Chris Cline (physics) waiting for me to join them for another strategic planning meeting. That afternoon, our objective was to define a list of proposed learning outcomes. I was looking forward to it. Working with Diane and Chris had fast become a highlight of my summer strategic plan activities.

At this particular moment, however, we were all feeling tired. We had been working on the strategic plan as a large group all morning and were anxious to get together as a small group and finish our assignment for the day. They were waiting because I was currently engaged in an unexpected debate--a debate necessary to achieve needed clarity, but also a little decadent because I love dynamic encounters that evolve into a meeting of the minds. I took their interest in what was happening at the white board as tacit permission to continue and turned my attention back to the colored lines and words on the board.

Re-engaging the dialogue with a direct question and some well-aimed scribbling and alterations to what had just been drawn on the board, I turned to my challenger for his reaction. I felt bold and confident. I knew I was onto something. We were finally getting close to a breakthrough in our thinking. We had been debating for quite some time to arrive at this point. Taking it all in, President Michael Bassis paused to contemplate what I had just said and formulate his response. I had his full attention. I knew he was hearing me. It felt good to think that I was making a difference; I was truly taking part in the collaborative process. Best of all, I came to see and believe that my voice genuinely mattered.

This story describes a defining moment for me in the strategic planning process. It emerges from my memory not simply because it was the moment I realized I had a voice in the strategic plan, but because I started to really see the president's purpose in creating an inclusive, extensive planning process. The desired result was a plan that would reflect the Westminster community as a whole, which would include all our voices. For that to happen, we needed to break away from our defined roles, status, distinctions, and fear. We also needed to come together--faculty, staff, students, and administrators--and not only listen to one another, but really hear what was being said.

Long before this breakthrough moment, the strategic planning process had revealed itself as a unique and dynamic process, something Westminster had not experienced before.

At the fall 2002 Core Values Conference, theater professor Brian Pilling proposed the title for Westminster's year-long, multi-stage planning process. In front of 250 faculty, staff, students, and administrators, he suggested "Finding our V.O.I.C.E." a title that was eventually modified to define the acronym: Values, Opportunities, Implementation, Challenges, and Excellence.

The acronym itself was very fitting. We explored the college's values in depth; we defined new opportunities for the college; we started the implementation process of new programs; we confronted challenges ranging from miscommunication to philosophical differences (and persevered through them!); and above all, we sought a level of excellence to reflect the pride we take in ourselves, our work, and most importantly, the students of Westminster College.

Individual Voices

"Finding our V.O.I.C.E." grew to have many meanings. At the individual level, all of us, in our own way, found our voice. Through the inclusive, iterative process, everyone was encouraged to participate. I recognized this as I stood toe-to-toe with President Bassis at the whiteboard that summer day, but it was much more powerful than that. As educators we are often encouraged to find our individual voice in the classroom. For the strategic plan, we encouraged everyone (as well as friends and family) to find their voice as well:

  • During the summer task force I sat in a meeting and listened intently to Teresa Elias (student, '05) and Jason Sturges (student, '04) explain how they came to their decisions to attend Westminster College and what they value about the institution.
  • In breakout sessions for the spring Visioning Conference, numerous colleagues shared their ideas emerging from task forces such as student mix, academic excellence, student learning, diversity, program design, keeping quality affordable, institutional capacity, and how to stand above the crowd.
  • At a summer picnic I sat with Trustee Tom Ellison and brainstormed how to align the college's core competencies with the evolving strategic plan and the changing market.
  • Tasked with condensing all of the information into a cohesive plan, the fall planning committee stepped up to align the campus community with the early versions of the plan, elicit feedback, and produce a cohesive product.

The Community Voice

Designed to elicit everyone's individual voices, the strategic planning process ultimately had its greatest impact in helping us, our community, find our voice. By bridging the gaps between different groups of people and opening a broader dialogue, it helped us realize our shared commitment to offering quality education, creating and maintaining the campus as a special place, and developing mentoring relationships with students that allow us to truly make a difference in their lives. We realized collectively that we are all interested in helping to educate tomorrow's citizens of the world.

It was through developing "our voice" that we realized the advantages, as well as the opportunities, of being part of a small college community. Unlike larger institutions, where coming together as a group is unlikely and philosophical agreement difficult, Westminster College is a place where different voices can be heard. Working through the plan activities encouraged us to step up to the challenging issue of arriving at an understanding of "our voice." In so doing we defined a key issue: our desire to measure the impact we are having on each student.

We realized that certain learning goals should transcend any single degree or academic discipline. These learning goals are critical for preparing all graduates for success in a rapidly changing world. In expressing our support for college-wide learning goals, we came together from all parts of campus and, as a collective, agreed that the following represent the distinctive signature of "Graduates of Westminster College."

As we move forward in implementing the strategic plan, we will strive to ensure that every student graduates from the college demonstrating proficiency in the following areas.

§ Critical, analytical, and integrative thinking

§ Creative and reflective capacities

§ Leadership, collaboration, and teamwork

§ Writing and other communication skills

§ Global consciousness, social responsibility, and ethical awareness

Voices of the Future

The strategic planning process helped us to recognize and respect the diversity of the members of the Westminster College community, while at the same time it illustrated how united we are in our passion to make a difference for our students and the college. In learning to listen to our individual voices and to come together in agreement around a collective voice, we took another step toward creating an institution where students will better find and use their own voices.

We know that the voices that shaped the strategic plan cannot fall silent as we implement it. The plan is a guide, not a blueprint. It will and should evolve as conditions change and new challenges emerge. We also welcome and need new voices--your voices--as we proceed. A plan is not a product: it is a process. And it is one we want to continue with your help. Join us in creating the future of Westminster College--we'd love to hear from you!