Westminster College: Hidden Gem No Longer
June 1, 2008
By Meghan Flynn
Founded in 1875, Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah has always been a small, liberal arts school, one few people from outside the state had ever heard of. When Michael Bassis, president, joined the college back in 2002, he initiated a 10-year strategic plan that profoundly increased Westminster’s visibility.
“This wasn’t an institution in trouble by any means. Many of the pieces were already in place for the kind of progress we’ve made,” said Bassis. “But my fear was the pervading contentment with remaining a hidden gem would make the college vulnerable to demographic and economic trends that are not favoring small, private colleges these days.”
Bassis explained that his role in the transformation of the college has been to give a boost to an already successful institution. A boost indeed: in just six years, dozens of new academic programs were implemented, several construction projects finished, and Bassis reports that the number of applications the school received last year was higher than it has ever been.
The first four years of the college’s 10-year strategic plan have seen the completion of a new performing arts center; a health, wellness and athletic facility; and the installation of an artificial athletic field on top of a parking garage. Next month, the college is breaking ground on a new science center.
The biggest change the college has experienced by far is a shift in its educational paradigm. Bassis explained that, traditionally, a class starts with what the professor is going to teach his students. Now at Westminster, the starting point for each course is outlining what the student will learn. Subtle on the surface, this shift has had huge implications for how Westminster students learn.
“If you begin by articulating what you expect students to learn, you open up all kinds of different ways for students to accomplish that learning, with the professor as a coach and mentor rather than a fountain of knowledge,” Bassis explained. “These days, there are so many places for students to get information that they don’t necessarily need the expert at the front of the class packaging the information; they need someone to help them make sense of the information.”
Westminster is launching a new business program this fall that epitomizes the new philosophy. Rather than attending formal classes, students work online on projects that replicate real world tasks, such as developing a marketing plan. They learn the skills they will need on the job and broader skills such as critical thinking, effective speaking, and data analysis.
While there have been detractors, Bassis estimates that about two-thirds of Westminster faculty understand and are enthusiastic about the new educational paradigm. The success the college has experienced during this shift has a lot to do with the inclusive planning process Bassis used to develop the strategic plan.
Bassis, who has experience crafting strategic plans in higher education, said there is no set formula for success, and local traditions and culture play a huge role. The first step he took at Westminster was to bring all the faculty and staff of the college together for a full day of discussion about the core values and principles that had served the college so well.
From there, faculty and staff task forces spent months developing specific goals that ultimately became the 10-year strategic plan Westminster launched in 2004.
The plan is not a series of benchmarks. “People expected me to look at the initiatives that had been proposed and prioritize them, but instead I let the energy of the faculty lead the process,” said Bassis. Faculty and staff drove all of the new changes on campus. Bassis explained the strategic plan provided a framework to inspire and guide the campus, rather than dictate.
“Rather than my choosing where the college was going to go, the people who would be most affected by changes chose the direction. The amount of dynamism and vitality that brought to this campus is incredible,” said Bassis.
People are noticing. Two years ago, the Princeton Review included Westminster in its book of the 366 best colleges in the country for the first time. And last year, Newsweek and Kaplan’s annual edition of America’s Hottest Colleges listed Westminster as one of the “most interesting” schools in the country.
But Bassis said the success of Westminster students during and after their time at the college is the real success story. “We’ve gotten a lot of attention recently, and while the sizzle is important, so is the steak. This is a strong institution, and lots of good work has been done here all along. Now we are letting everyone know.”