Strategic Plan III

Optimistic Realism: Planning for the Unexpected

Dickinson’s 2002 Middle States visiting evaluation team noted the “remarkable vitality that pervades this place” and our “ambitious vision for the future.” The team concluded that “Dickinson needs only to follow its optimistic realism and begin to write the next exciting new chapter in its long and venerable history.” SP III has been drafted in this spirit of “optimistic realism.” Nonetheless, we are aware of factors that threaten to change the prospects for liberal-arts colleges, including Dickinson, drastically for the worse. These factors include changing demography, economic instability and potential downturn, rising operating costs in such areas as utilities and healthcare and—especially—possible unwillingness of families from our traditional recruiting pools to pay the cost of a private college education.

As optimists, we do not believe these factors will come together in what might be called a “perfect storm” scenario. But realism demands that we consider how the college might reposition to meet radical negative change. We need to ready ourselves for such a possibility in an enterprising fashion that goes beyond the obvious, destructive path of simply hacking away at our current budget. SP III calls for the creation of an ad hoc “21st-Century Challenge Committee” consisting of administrators, faculty and staff with trustee, alumni, parent and student consultation as appropriate to examine potential responses to major negative change. We do so in preparation for very hard times but also open to the possibility that application of one or more of these options may well prove beneficial—in providing sustaining financial resources and/or in enriching our program—regardless of circumstances. Options to be explored—posed here as questions—should include:

  • A two-year upper-level model: Dickinson already has developed articulation agreements with five community colleges to facilitate transfer of a modest number of exceptional students. There are now signs that some families in our traditional recruitment pool are considering cutting costs by sending their students first to community colleges and then on to baccalaureate institutions. Might developing a 2 + 2 approach beyond our current modest program in order to capture this potential audience be worth exploration?
  • Masters degrees: Dickinson already is creating a network of articulation agreements with graduate schools that will accelerate our students’ possibilities for achieving masters degrees. If as some argue “masters is the new baccalaureate,” should Dickinson consider offering masters degrees in selected departments? Might a model for the college in changing times become 2 + 4 or 2 + 3? (Community college, then Dickinson for completion of baccalaureate and masters.)
  • On-line education: Dickinson will remain a residential college, but the rise of online technology may offer ways to reposition in the face of radical change in higher education. Beyond employing online technology to enhance our current program, should we consider more extensive online approaches? This might mean significantly altering our present pedagogies to have students doing more self-directed work in some dimensions of their curriculum and/or offering selected online options to students outside our current residential constituency.
  • Outsourcing: Dickinson has largely relied upon its own resources for program and operations, a policy that has brought us significant dividends financial and otherwise. Might we, however, imagine changing policy in this regard, moving forward to outsource aggressively? One version of this approach might be to press well beyond our current practices and explorations in regard to sharing with peer institutions.

Adopted aggressively, any of these options would markedly change the college in ways different from the vision articulated in SP III. Yet each of them offers a potential alternative to radical budget cutting in the face of a true “game change” for the worse for liberal-arts colleges. And each may offer some useful applications even in good times. 

While the tectonic plates of higher education may not be shifting, as optimistic realists we need to be alert to the possibility of rupture—that the model we and others have been using for decades is simply broken and must be substantially reinvented. Dickinson College certainly could not solve such a massive issue on its own. In this case, we remain attentive to the national and global discussions about higher education in relationship to economic and cultural trends. We will carry on continuous conversations with those inside and outside higher education about possible “industry-wide” actions that might be entertained in the face of radical change.