Strategic Plan Executive Summary

Executive Summary

Strategic Plan III

Reaffirming Our Mission in Challenging Times

Dickinson is now carrying forward its planning process with Strategic Plan III (SP III). These are difficult times, marked by financial constraints and public questioning of the value of the liberal arts. Nonetheless, we chart our path forward with optimism born of institutional momentum. Dickinson has in the past ten years established a distinctive position among America’s leading colleges, though, admittedly, one made vulnerable by our movement into a new peer group and comparatively modest wealth. SP III is a blueprint for turning our decade-long momentum into long-term success. At its core, the plan reaffirms our historic vision and ambition—to offer students a pragmatic education for democracy that readies them for success in our complex era. Our value proposition rests on what we call a “21st-century skill set” that includes proven capabilities commonly attributed to the liberal arts plus special emphases such as global education, sustainability, community engagement and responsiveness to change that connect powerfully with the demands of a rapidly changing world.

We believe that our distinctive version of a useful residential, undergraduate education in the liberal arts is the college’s best response to current and future challenges. These challenges are very real. SP III is structured around a series of major concerns that we, with many other peer institutions, face. They include:

  • Intense competition in the arena of enrollment, especially among our new peer group,
  • A pressing need to enhance the residential experience at the college,
  • The absolute requirement to address shortcomings in our facilities in key areas,
  • An imperative to build stronger connections and mutual support with our alumni, and
  • The need to extend the past decade’s progress in providing the college a more adequate financial base required to achieve our aspirations.

SP III outlines the distinctive ways in which Dickinson will address these challenges. Like our earlier plans, SP III outlines broad goals and objectives, with detailed implementation schemes to follow. Some projects, such as individual facility improvements, can be achieved in a relatively short, defined time frame. Others, such as cultural change in student life or alumni philanthropy, are long-term ventures. Yet even here, we can make an important start. 

In sum, we are confident that, taken together, these proposals represent an agenda for Dickinson that can be achieved in the next five years. We make this assertion, of course, with an awareness that external circumstances, especially in the economic realm, may change in unpredictable ways over this time period. Therefore, the proposals outlined in the plan have been designed so that they may be either accelerated or slowed in accomplishment in response to unforeseen circumstances.

Enrollment Management: SP III recognizes that there are currently formidable challenges to achieving our goals in this arena. The proportion of high-school-age students in Dickinson’s traditional primary pool (the Northeast) is declining. Moreover, the population of students of color—who have not historically been adequately represented in the college’s recruitment pool—is rising. Current economic instability has diminished both the real and perceived ability of families to afford a private college education. And Dickinson has entered a new peer group of colleges with considerable wealth that many seem willing to deploy in an “arms race” to recruit desired prospective students.

Therefore, we must sustain and strengthen selectivity by increasing the quality of applicants and by improving the college’s yield rate. Dickinson needs to strengthen its position as a first-choice college.A key element in this effort will be reshaping our geographic and demographic reach according to national and international shifts in prospective student pools. We need to optimize the relationships among students’ actual and perceived financial needs, the college’s financial resources and macro-economic trends. This means defining a discount rate target that is competitive in recruiting and realistic in regard to our resources, especially as we anticipate greater socioeconomic diversity. Funding our educational program while simultaneously providing access to families with greater demonstrated need will be a major challenge for the coming decade. One critically important avenue for us to follow—already well traveled by virtually all of our peer and aspirant schools—is fundraising for financial aid.

The Dickinson Student Experience: Dickinson has developed an effective educational program built upon core skills integral to the liberal arts plus areas of special emphasis. These latter include global perspective, “connectivity” (interdisciplinarity), sustainability, active learning and diversity. We should sustain our momentum in these areas, particularly in fields in which the college has established a national leadership position.
At the same time, we must address one major area in which we have not succeeded in charting a path to excellence—student life beyond the classroom. Dickinson needs to articulate and implement an improved, comprehensive vision for the residential experience. Initial steps include (a) a first-year residential “neighborhood” program to create a laboratory of engagement in community and civic life and (b) the development of a “network of responsibility” with the expectation that students improve the experiences of others around them. We also should enhance our leadership development program and, more broadly, improve the overall “campus ecology.” Key elements of this last task range from better dining and residential facilities to an objective external study of the compatibility of fraternities and sororities with our future ambitions.

Facilities: In the next five years we must redress deficiencies that interfere with our academic and residential programs and that cripple our ability to achieve our recruitment goals. Facilities improvement is not a frill or an option; rather it is an essential step to ensure the financial strength of the college by making the case that the experience is worth the price.

SP III proposes an investment of $35 million in facilities projects over the next few years. We aim to address pressing campus needs, move the college incrementally toward the larger vision articulated in the Campus Master Plan and remove obstacles to improving our admissions and retention performance. Projects will be chosen from: (1) science facilities to reunite the biology department, remediate deficiencies and continue toward a full “science campus,” (2) initial renovation of the Holland Union Building to reconfigure the cafeteria and provide a central gathering space for the campus, (3) a phased plan to address inadequacies in our athletic facilities—steps such as an expanded fitness center, squash courts, varsity sports arena, field house with indoor track and completion of Biddle Field facilities; (4) progress on a comprehensive plan to improve residences, particularly through construction of a new facility (to relieve overcrowding and return students from off-campus for the full residential experience), improving the Quads and targeted modernization of areas most deficient regarding deferred maintenance and programmatic obsolescence. Sustainability must remain a key criterion in operations to meet our institutional values and goals, including our commitment to reach zero net emissions of greenhouse gases and climate neutrality by 2020.

Alumni: SP III identifies stronger relationships with our alumni as critical to our future. Graduates’ activities and achievements fulfill the college’s mission and powerfully validate the worth of a Dickinson degree. Our alumni are the college’s strongest single source of philanthropic and networking support, yet alumni relations is an area in which the college has made strides but continues to lag behind peers.
 A stronger sense of affinity with Dickinson must be cultivated during the undergraduate experience. We also need to ensure that we offer comprehensive, effective support for our graduating students’ plans for advanced study and career. Further, we must launch an initiative to intensify and modernize our alumni relations program, including recognition of the potential role of Dickinson parents as an integral part of the Dickinson community.

Resources: Over the last ten years Dickinson has out-performed peers relative to our modest resources, chiefly through the efforts of the people who make up our community. SP III focuses on the need to sustain that high level of human contribution by providing a challenging, rewarding work environment for faculty, administrators and staff. Additional areas of high performance that must continue are operational efficiency and financial management. The latter includes careful management of our credit rating, wise deployment of our reserves and balancing our operating budget.

While acknowledging the importance of human contribution and strong financial management, SP III asserts an additional truth. Reaching our goals to enhance the Dickinson experience and to maintain our position among a new peer group requires building wealth. Endowment size and deeply rooted cultures of philanthropy drive institutions’ prestige. We need to translate the momentum of our current capital campaign into the permanent, pervasive culture of giving that characterizes the best colleges. As we move forward in building a 21st-century alumni relations program we must be sure that it is appropriately integrated with our fund raising activities. At the same time we will proceed to plan another fund raising initiative, defined in the year ahead with counsel and support from the board of trustees. The priorities for this effort will grow naturally from SP III.

Planning for the Unexpected:  We have drafted SP III in a spirit of “optimistic realism.” Our optimism is reflected in ambitions for the future of the college, but realism demands that we consider how the college might reposition to meet extraordinary challenges. We must remain attentive to the national and global discussions about higher education, especially in relation to economic and cultural trends that challenge our current institutional model. In a special addendum, SP III recommends establishment of an ad hoc “21st-Century Challenge Committee” of faculty, students, administrators and staff with trustee, alumni and parent consultation as appropriate. The committee should investigate options for major institutional change in response to possible shifts in the higher education landscape that threaten and/or offer new opportunities to us. Potential innovations include broader affiliations with community colleges, offering masters degrees in selected fields, the use of on-line educational strategies, more aggressive outsourcing, and imaginative new collaborations with other institutions.