Strategic Plan III

The Internal Environment: Assets & Challenges

SP III’s confidence in our ability to sustain our ambition and momentum is rooted in core institutional strengths. Together these assets constitute Dickinson’s “value proposition.”
History:  Our first asset—not only chronologically but also in vision—is our history. Dickinson was founded by Dr. Benjamin Rush, an outspoken revolutionary and signer of the Declaration of Independence, who envisioned the college as the embodiment of a distinctively American education.   This new “republican education” would be “useful” in its application of liberal learning to the task generated by the American Revolution of building a just, new democracy. Dickinson College would advance an education that prepared rising generations for active and informed engagement as citizens and in their careers. The curriculum would be a purposeful mixture of traditional liberal arts with those areas of study deemed most helpful to an American citizen living and working in an increasingly complex world marked by commerce, science and global reach. For example, the modern languages of German and French were added to the curriculum as useful for Americans in diplomacy, trade and the arts. Chemistry was recommended both as the subject most potent for scientific discovery and as exemplifying a “connective” mode of thinking that saw associations among disparate elements. Outside the classroom, the college was to be located in a government seat so that students could go to municipal offices and gain an intimate understanding of “how America works.”

This legacy gives Dickinson a distinctive advantage. While conferring on the college the prestige associated with hallowed historic roots, Rush’s forward thinking provides the foundation for an education that connects powerfully with emerging new knowledge and contemporary concerns.

Program:  Over two centuries later, Dickinson continues to answer Rush’s call for education that responds to demands of the times and thereby prepares students for lives of meaning and accomplishment. This education forms the heart of our case for the value of enrollment at Dickinson. We offer students the opportunity to develop characteristics, already articulated in the Dickinson Dimensions, calibrated to ready them for our complex era:

  • Intellectual curiosity and creativity—a strong commitment to inquiry that makes students lifelong learners and generators of new knowledge, ideas, and perspectives.
  • A commitment to engagement in local, national and global communities imbued with a strong sense of personal and social responsibility. 
  • Cross-cultural and global perspective; willingness to appreciate and thrive in a diverse, complex world.
  • Responsiveness to the challenges of rapid change and sustainability; an appreciation that change is inevitable and can be engaged productively.
  • A commitment to civility and dialogue that includes both finding one’s own voice and cultivating the capacity to hear others.

These characteristics are supported by what we call a “21st-century skill set.” This set of abilities, rooted in proven skills commonly attributed to the liberal arts, includes competency in critical thinking and analysis; facility in communication in written and oral form; understanding of the major fields of knowledge as organized in the humanities, social sciences and natural and physical sciences; competence in foreign language, and mastery of tools of research and information technology. In addition, Dickinson places special emphasis on areas that connect powerfully with current and future challenges.

  • Global education: the college has developed a global education program that makes the campus the hub of a worldwide network of study centers and research.
  • Sustainability:  Dickinson has emerged as a national leader in operations and in education for a sustainable society, for living in a world in which “less is more.”
  • “Connectivity:” the complexity of our era places a premium on “connecting the dots”—addressing problems by drawing on knowledge and methods from multiple fields; Dickinson has unusual strength in interdisciplinary (i.e. connective) programming.
  • Active learning: Dickinson’s faculty seeks to make students active learners, for example, through laboratory research in the sciences, fieldwork in the social sciences, and creative work and performance in the arts.

In sum, Dickinson offers students skills and habits of mind that position them to navigate and succeed in their complex, rapidly changing world.

The impact of the Dickinson experience on students is magnified by the college’s exclusive focus on undergraduate education and the individual. Here a student is not a “number” among many, but rather someone with a name who possesses unique abilities and ambitions to shape into accomplishment and personal satisfaction. Dickinson faculty and staff listen carefully to the emerging questions and aspirations of each student and work closely with them to build a course of study tailored to the talents and interests of each.

Institutional Success:  Dickinson’s value proposition also rests on a demonstrated record of achievement as a dynamic, progressive, and energetic institution. Consider these major achievements since the inauguration of Strategic Plan I. We repositioned the college to the extent that the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2006 asserted, “If Dickinson College were a corporation, Wall Street would view it as a classic turnaround.” This judgment was based on striking admissions success that nearly doubled our number of applicants, operating budgets with annual surpluses, and fund raising and investment policies that consistently place us in the top quartile nationally and have taken our endowment to unprecedented levels—this final point confirmed by the progress of our current $150 million capital campaign. Equally impressively, we have confounded generations of doubters by transforming the college into a far more diverse place, tripling the proportion of students of color enrolled and increasing representation of international students even more. And we have raised Dickinson’s visibility among institutions of higher education and in the media, in significant part by speaking out on important issues such as college rankings, alcohol and the drinking age, for-profit education, the higher education business model, tuition discounting and three-year degrees.

As the Chronicle commentary demonstrates, our achievements have garnered significant outside recognition. For example, both the American Council on Education and NAFSA: Association of International Educators identified our global education program as the leader among liberal-arts colleges nationally. The Mellon Foundation has endorsed our efforts in sustainability through a $1.4 million grant for our Center for Sustainability Education; the work of the Center and college consistently places us among the national leaders in “green” rankings. In regard to active learning, our innovative fieldwork “Mosaic” has twice been honored by the Oral History Association as the outstanding program of its type. And on financial resources, Standard & Poor’s has improved our bond rating two steps from BBB+ to A.

People: Among the factors generating this success, the contributions of the people who comprise the Dickinson community stand out as most significant. Simply put, the college has the benefit of highly talented, dedicated faculty and staff. They are not only impressive individually but also—and very importantly—are adept at working together. Our collegial governance system effectively insures broad consultation and nimble response to opportunity. Such responsiveness fits our institutional strategies of focusing resources where we can excel, such as global education and sustainability. It also insures that our educational program moves with the times, as reflected in our recent work on global security. That responsiveness also characterizes our handling of challenges, as evidenced by our successful navigation of the recent financial crisis.

The human aspect of our success also encompasses our alumni, who contribute vitally to the college’s value proposition as exemplars of accomplishment. Across a wide range of endeavors, they demonstrate the power of a Dickinson education through personal achievement and by modeling the college’s core values of citizenship and engagement. For example, a recent survey querying alumni about public and community service revealed:

  • In the past two years, nearly 90% of alumni respondents engaged in community volunteer work;
  • In 2008, 85% voted—a rate at least 50% higher than the national average; and
  • Last year, 95% made a financial contribution to a non-profit organization.

Indeed, the college as a whole models the qualities of engagement, imagination and enterprise that we value so highly in our students.

Key Challenges.  Our internal assets provide a firm foundation for optimism. Nonetheless, a scan of our internal environment also reveals very substantial challenges for the college. Some reflect the imperative to push further in areas where we have momentum. Admissions and fund raising are salient examples. In other cases, such as residential life and facilities, the task is to create momentum—to move forward in ways that bring our program and accomplishments up to the level of success we have had overall.  

SP III identifies the following challenges as key for Dickinson. In order for momentum to be sustained and accomplishments realized we must improve in regard to each, in some, frankly, breaking past cycles of underperformance.

  • Intense competition in the arena of enrollment, especially within our new peer group (p. 7),
  • A pressing need to enhance the residential life experience at the college (p. 11),
  • The absolute requirement to address shortcomings in our facilities in key areas (p. 20),
  • An imperative to build stronger connections and mutual support with our alumni (p. 25), and
  • To achieve any and all of our aspirations, the need to extend the past decade’s progress in providing the college a more adequate financial base through greater wealth (p. 32).

SP III is devoted to a frank assessment of these challenges and to proposals for meeting them. As earlier plans, SP III outlines broad goals and objectives, with detailed implementation schemes (some as documents for internal use only) drafted in parallel or following. 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 as a whole, SP III represents an agenda for Dickinson that can be achieved in the next five years. We make this assertion, of course, aware 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.