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External Environment

Strategic Plan III

The External Environment: Challenges & Opportunities

Dickinson’s Strategic Plan I was drafted at a time of optimism. That outlook has altered dramatically in the past decade. We live in a world of growing complexity and accelerating, often disjunctive change. Forces such as globalization, technological transformation, the movement of peoples, the interaction of cultures, and growth of human population and our ecological footprint have placed growing strain on our institutions, practices, values and the natural world. Take, by way of illustration, the characterization of current affairs offered by our faculty in international studies:

“At no point in American history has the issue of security … been more complex. Over the past two decades, the people of the world have become more interdependent and the structure of the global system has changed. As a by-product of those developments, the nature of threats to the national interests of each country has become more multifaceted. Thus, the list … now includes interstate conflicts, attacks on civilian populations by terrorist organizations, civil wars marked by genocide, the dangers of failed or failing states, abuses of human rights, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, global pandemics and potentially catastrophic environmental security threats. And of course issues of economic interdependence, including access to critical resources and energy. Finally, the complexity of this environment is further heightened by the global transparency that results from the Internet, worldwide media, and social networking.”

Or, for another comparably profound challenge, consider the rising issue of sustainability. We are depleting critical resources; degrading land, water and air; increasing exposures to toxins and carcinogens, and changing the earth’s atmosphere, climate, oceans and ecosystems. Such changes present interlocking scientific, economic and policy issues—all pointing to fundamental value questions about our relationships to other human beings including future generations and to the natural world, of which we are but one part.

The global economic instability of the last two years not only offers another salient example of troubling change but also illustrates its direct impact on colleges such as Dickinson. Even in good times, Strategic Plan I noted the following economic stressors:

the declining popularity of the residential liberal arts experience; the high cost of financial aid; the emerging competition from the for-profit education industry; the potential challenge of distance learning; the rising costs of health and liability insurance; the increasing litigiousness of society and the high costs of legal services; the decreasing funding available through state, federal and private organizations to liberal-arts colleges; the high cost of equipment in the sciences and computer technology generally; and the increasingly consumer-oriented parent and student audiences that enjoy wide choices and, therefore, require high levels of service.

The current economic downturn has exacerbated all of these challenges and added others. Instability has eroded endowments and has reduced support from foundations, government, and, most importantly, private donors. More threatening for tuition-dependent institutions such as Dickinson, families have seen a downturn in their assets and ability to afford higher education—this effect multiplied by comparable erosion in their perceived ability to pay. When one adds a slip in the demographics of high school students in key recruitment pools for our college and its regional peers, we face a potentially severe weakening of demand for a Dickinson education. 

One further troubling development is heightened competition among colleges and universities, including our peer group. Students and their families are increasingly aware of choice in the recruitment process. Higher education institutions are responding not only by deepening programs but also by providing ever more services and amenities and by offering steadily larger amounts of financial aid often based on merit rather than need. This type of competition presents an especially acute problem for Dickinson, since we have moved into a peer group of wealthier and, traditionally, more prestigious colleges. 

Despite these challenges, we see real opportunities for Dickinson. For example, while traditional pools of potential students are leveling off or shrinking, new and more diverse populations are opening to us. Public questioning of a liberal-arts education is matched by a growing, countervailing endorsement of what we do. The recent effort of military service academies to redefine themselves as liberal-arts institutions is one salient example of this trend. Voices emphasizing the timeliness of our type of education have appeared in the business community and media. Though disparate in particulars, advocates for what we do share a conviction that the very nature of the changes surrounding us—the speed, complexity and high stakes of our times—makes liberal learning more not less essential. We need, they argue convincingly, leaders and a public who comfortably and regularly cross the borders of culture, language and knowledge.

Even the increasingly competitive, fluid situation within higher education can be turned to the advantage of dynamic institutions with strong value propositions and the ability to innovate. Since the articulation of Strategic Plan I, Dickinson has demonstrated that it is one such institution.