Strategic Plan III

The Dickinson Student Experience

SP III affirms Dickinson’s mission to prepare young people by means of a useful education in the liberal arts and sciences for engaged lives of citizenship and leadership. In order to achieve this end we must address the student educational experience comprehensively. As early as 1962 a campus committee on the state of study at Dickinson concluded:

A liberal education cannot be provided without regard for the physical, social and moral climate of the community. Our purpose can be furthered or hindered, according to the kind of community we build. All aspects of the community must be considered: from student housing and study facilities; to extra-curricular and cultural opportunities; to faculty salaries and teaching loads.  Above all, thought must be given to the ... values of the community and the human interaction and interrelationship within the community….

This statement fundamentally articulates what might be called a campus ecology view of the student experience in which all dimensions of activity are seen as deeply interwoven. All dimensions of student activity—in the classroom and beyond—should be informed by characteristics central to Dickinson’s vision. These shared characteristics of both our academic and student life program include:

  • Independence—students at Dickinson enjoy freedom to craft individually-suited educational programs reflecting their own interests from among a wide variety of choices. They are encouraged to find their own voices as learners and citizens and to develop a sense of purpose.
  • Engagement and active learning—students are encouraged to become active agents in their own education inside and outside the classroom, as part of the campus community and in interaction with the multiplicity of communities beyond. Students are actively engaged in solving the challenges of a residential campus and feel a part of decision making and planning.
  • Diversity—students exhibit competence and willingness to move beyond the familiar to challenge their view of themselves, others and the world around them. They deepen their learning by engaging in a diverse environment that expands their current scripts. At the same time, security and inclusion are important to us. Learning flourishes when human dignity is paramount and artificial distinctions among students do not exist.
  • Interdependence and responsibility—students recognize that with freedom comes responsibility to others individually and in community. Interdependence has multiple expressions on our campus ranging from shared governance and active yet civil dialogue to collaborative learning; it also includes a sense of responsibility for the success of the college. One key expression of interdependence is a mentoring culture in which students have ready access to many and diverse exemplars—fellow students, faculty, alumni and staff—from whom to learn.

While respecting the need for balance in our programs, SP III confirms the college’s strategy of placing special emphasis on areas in which Dickinson can offer distinctive, exceptional opportunities. Such an approach enriches our students’ experience and advances the institution, as exemplified by our national leadership positions in global education and sustainability.

At the same time, SP III recognizes one major area in which we have not articulated a compelling vision and charted a path to excellence. For decades, the college has struggled to develop a consistent program for student life beyond the classroom. Reports and studies from 1962 on reveal continuing concern and frustrations about campus life, namely: tension between social and intellectual dimensions in many students’ lives; ambivalence about the role of the Greek system; underdeveloped potential of the residential and social experience to bolster a more mature learning environment; the inadequacy of facilities in support of student life; and a weakly developed sense of campus community.

Strategic Plans I and II addressed these concerns but largely failed to find ways in which our newly articulated vision for the college could help resolve them. SP III focuses on this task. The time is right to advance a more substantive vision of how the experience beyond the classroom challenges and supports students who are seeking a stimulating college experience. Over the past decade the college has done a remarkable job of competing for outstanding students and recruiting an increasingly diverse, talented student body drawn from an ever-widening geographical pool. Continued success rests heavily upon the long sought improvement in student life on our campus.

Strategic Goal A: Dickinson’s curriculum reflects our commitment to independence by offering students freedom to choose from many options in fulfilling all-college requirements, selecting a major and picking electives. This breadth of offerings—unusual for a college of our size—and flexibility work to our advantage both in allowing students to tailor academic experiences to their individual needs and in recruitment. Similarly, we offer an unusually wide range of opportunities for student involvement in student life, both in the residence halls and through a multiplicity of organizations and activities. Both the emphasis on independence and breadth of opportunity that underlie the student experience should be maintained. 

Objective 1.  While recognizing that we are operating in a period of limited resources, Dickinson should maintain and even enhance its rich curricular repertoire, continuing our practice of developing new programs that address emerging contemporary issues and reflect special areas of faculty and student expertise and interest. One potential vehicle for achieving curricular innovation and “movement” at a time of resource limitation is broader application of certificates, currently exemplified by health studies, security studies and dance.

Objective 2.  Freedom of choice in the academic program helps students develop independence, enhances capacity for lifelong learning and inculcates a sense of accountability for decisions. It also makes the college responsible to provide appropriate support, especially through effective advising. We need to continue to enhance our advising system 1) by improving evaluation of faculty performance of this role, 2) by linking advising more closely to planning for graduate study and career—this means integrating the Advising Office, Career Center, and academic departments into a seamless network and (3) by considering ways for students to make meaning out of the entirety of their Dickinson experience. In regard to this last goal, we should charge a working group with developing a proposal for a system that facilitates all students’ intentional thought about their personal, academic, career and civic goals. For example, a digital or electronic portfolio might assist with planning and provide a final, creative product that could be shared with prospective employers and/or graduate schools (students might particularly document experiential learning activities in academic and student life).

Objective 3.  The senior year is a particularly important time for student reflection on what they have learned and what awaits. Moreover, many Dickinson seniors return from study abroad and feel a sense of disconnect with the campus. We need to make the senior year more meaningful as a time of reflection, for example, by revising the current senior week programming in favor of a comprehensive, year-long senior class program and establishing a senior club—a place complemented by interesting programs and discussions with faculty and staff where seniors can gather.

Strategic Goal B: Dickinson’s vision of a useful education focuses on the development of a “21st century skill set.” The college endorses all of the skills identified by the American Association of Colleges & Universities’ VALUE project: inquiry and analysis, critical thinking, creativity, written and oral communication, reading, quantitative literacy, information literacy, teamwork, problem solving, and integrative and applied learning. Underlying these individual skills is the foundational ability to “learn how to learn,” to apply the multifaceted capacities engendered by a liberal-arts education innovatively in a rapidly changing, complex world. While thus envisioning the skill set we desire for our students broadly, SP III cites the following for special attention either as elements of distinction for Dickinson and/or requiring particular enhancement: 

Objective 1.  Reflecting and anticipating the growing complexity and interdependence of the world in which we live, Dickinson emphasizes the ability of our students to synthesize knowledge, methodologies, and perspectives—to “connect the dots.” We want students to see connections between courses, curriculum and co-curriculum, academic and residential experiences, and the campus and wider world.  This commitment to connectivity works across the curriculum including in the traditional disciplines. It is especially reflected in the strength of our interdisciplinary offerings, including majors (many with dedicated staff and facilities). We should continue to enhance interdisciplinary endeavors, taking full advantage of the flexibility of our curriculum and openness of our faculty. Steps include enhanced advising for students in connecting elements of their programs, ongoing support (e.g., workload flexibility, development funds and rewards) to faculty for interdisciplinary endeavor and curricular innovation especially through certificate programs.

Objective 2. Dickinson is a recognized leader in developing global perspective. We must continue to build our program in this arena with particular attention to: introducing active learning (field study, research, independent study projects, internships) into study abroad, providing better re-entry experiences for those returning from off-campus study, exploring ways to apply technology to enhance our concept of a “global campus” and expanding our presence outside of Europe. This must proceed in conjunction with strong efforts in regard to domestic diversity (our new majors in Africana and Latin American, Latino & Caribbean Studies offer examples).We need also to review funding of and enrollment in abroad programs to ensure financial viability of our global education network.

Objective 3.   The study of sustainability has become a distinctive element of our program, and we have already established a leadership position in this arena. We need to push this initiative by identifying Dickinson’s unique approach to sustainability, defining more fully the place of sustainability in the curriculum and taking full advantage of sustainability’s potential for enhancing active learning by tying curriculum to operations, service and the wider world. One definite focus for us must be melding our international and sustainability initiatives to create a global sustainability dimension unique among American colleges and universities. Most immediately, we must fully endow the Center for Sustainability Education.

Objective 4. Dickinson places a premium on active learning; across the curriculum, students are already asked to search out, question, re-conceive and create knowledge. We must enhance our efforts in this arena. Key elements include: student research and creative performance, independently and with faculty; internships; field study; and service learning. We need to advance the concept of the campus as a “living laboratory” for sustainability and continue integration of research and internships into study abroad. These goals will require us to exceed current limits of support, with high priority assigned to endowing student-faculty research, internships, pedagogical innovation and the Community Studies Center. Our active learning initiative should also place a premium on work connected to community engagement. For example, the already substantial coordination between Academic Affairs and Student Development in regard to service learning, internships and volunteerism can be more visible, more actively celebrated and better communicated to the campus and public.

Objective 5.Technological and information fluency is an area in which we must do more. Students come to us accustomed to using technology but lacking mastery and a full grasp of its potential and limits. Liberal-arts skills and values are precisely those that enable people to understand and steer the rapidly developing world of information over-abundance. We currently have a comprehensive writing initiative with defined learning goals for the curriculum, faculty training, a new student “writing associates” program, a multilingual writing center and good assessment tools. We need a comparable initiative on technology and new media. Efforts should include coordination and re-imagination of existing information literacy programs, articulation of clear goals for information technology and expansion of digital media and geospatial fluency programming. This must include enhancement of our digital resources and an emphasis on the library as the central focus of campus intellectual life. A top priority is the creation of an Academic Commons to draw together currently dispersed LIS resources and support outreach. Beyond facilities and equipment, the Commons must have staff who can track emerging academic technologies and translate their knowledge into applications for our program.

Strategic Goal C.  Diversity. Strategic Plans I and II identified diversity as a critically important goal. While continuing strong efforts in recruitment, hiring, and academic program, we need also to focus on deepening the dimension of diversity in the student life experience. 

Demographic data and student surveys confirm that diversity may—beyond its obvious significance to any 21st century educational program—in some aspects distinguish Dickinson from regional peers. In the 2010 senior survey, for example, our graduates reported an enhanced ability to relate to people of different races beyond that of our comparison institutions. Still, many graduating seniors report “no change” or “weaker” skills related to diversity. It remains relatively easy for students to avoid sustained interaction with people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse ideas and perspectives, particularly outside the classroom. Housing options, dining hall culture and strong student identification with clubs, teams, and fraternities and sororities often prompt students to find and maintain an identity with a homogenous campus sub-community.

Objective 1.  We need to extend and deepen student life programming around diversity, reducing our reliance on one-time programs as a framework for diversity education beyond the classroom in favor of more sustained efforts. For example, we must develop a residentially based peer education program with clearly articulated outcomes as part of a substantive first-year residential program. More broadly, resident advisors, orientation advisors, club and organization officers and athletic team captains are all cohorts of student leaders who represent the college and have significant social influence over peers. We should provide these students with training to develop leadership and understanding around issues of diversity and privilege to in turn positively influence and educate other students.

Objective 2.  Building a supportive and inclusive community characterized by respect, equality and accountability is a priority. This goal requires both strategies to promote a pluralistic, integrative and accepting campus culture and to address what counteracts such a culture. In building such a community, we will extend full participation in campus life to individuals and organizations which embrace our community standards and values. So, for example, we should expand services and support for LGBTQ students, and enhance campus education to foster a more inclusive and safe environment for individuals. Or, in another area of diversity, we need to address facilities shortcomings in spaces that support students’ spiritual and religious faith expression from a variety of traditions. At the same time, we should refuse participation to organizations that do not embrace our Community Standards (Code of Conduct). And we must formulate and disseminate a bias incident response protocol to our campus as a tangible representation of our commitment to address intolerance.

Objective 3.  It is vitally important that students experience meaningful opportunities to learn from sustained interaction with people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse experiences and perspectives. In particular, we should evaluate the current special interest/theme housing options to make sure that our desires to support group interests are not at the expense of a residential experience in which students are, without exception, interacting with and learning from the rich diversity of the student body.

Strategic Goal D:  Students themselves are a valuable resource for enhancing the Dickinson educational experience. We need to take full advantage of our students’ abilities to contribute to their peers’ learning process. This deepens their own education and expands the college’s human resources.  

Objective 1. We need to expand student activity as mentors. Initiatives should include continued experimentation with upper-class teaching assistants and writing associates in first-year seminars, heightened activity by academic majors’ committees and advisory groups, expanded networks of peer advisors in offices such as Advising and the Career Center, enhanced involvement of students returning from off-campus as mentors on study abroad and peer advising among international students. In student life, there are strong possibilities for involving students more actively in mentoring. We must continue to develop leadership abilities among students in clubs and other activities and more systematically involve upper-class students as mentors in residential life.

Objective 2. We must make more work-study experiences meaningful on the models of Clarke Forum staffers, Trout Gallery interns, student farmers and ALLARM workers.

Strategic Goal E:  Enhance the Residential Experience. The residential experience exerts a powerful influence on students’ growth and development. The opportunities and expectations associated with the residential experience can significantly contribute to or detract from students spending their time in educationally purposeful activity. Dickinson must articulate and implement an improved, comprehensive vision for residential experience—one that includes the ways buildings are designed, the ways in which students are housed and the ways in which program facilitates learning and dialogue. 

Objective 1.  Create a comprehensive framework for residential life that supports personal and academic success and fosters leadership and civic development by providing opportunities for students to create, manage and sustain a community for learning. We must fully implement a first-year residential “neighborhood” program to create a laboratory of engagement in community and civic life. Specific components include: residentially-based leadership councils to provide students with opportunities for self-governance, such as developing guidelines for productive community living and solving concerns; a residentially-based system of peer-review and accountability for behaviors disruptive to community; safety councils (modeled on neighborhood “block-watches”) to work with Public Safety in oversight of residences; partnerships with Carlisle agencies for reciprocal benefit and mutual learning; program councils with tools and resources to meet social, cultural, academic and recreational needs of each neighborhood through event planning; and advisory boards that add staff and faculty guidance.

Objective 2.  SP I endorsed a “ladder of responsibility” as a residential program philosophy. In this model, students move to progressively more independent housing options as they rise in class year. An unanticipated outcome of this sequential model appears to be significant stratification of class years on campus. Cross-class friendships do not easily develop. The independent living so coveted by seniors has perhaps helped their individual development, but it has reduced their campus influence as engaged citizens who lend maturity and perspective to younger students and provide stewardship of the campus as a whole. Also, the “ladder” philosophy provided a framework for housing but not for education and community development within the residence halls. We need to complement the “ladder of responsibility” with a “network of responsibility.” While our students will continue to be housed in residences appropriate to their stage of learning, the “network of responsibility” adds an expectation for them to improve the experiences of others around them, and to enhance the college generally.

To move forward in establishing such a network we need to: a) implement the first-year neighborhood program, b) establish a programming partnership between first-year neighborhoods and residence halls typically occupied by sophomores in order to extend the neighborhood concept, c) develop a residentially based series of programs for sophomores with a focus on leadership and career/internship planning that is facilitated by seniors through a senior house model, and c) permit interested sophomores the opportunity to “block book” into areas based on academic or theme interests that enrich their residential community and engage first years in partner building. Overall, we must explore longer term integration of first years and sophomores in common foundational housing arrangements.

In regard to upper-class students, we need to balance legitimate needs for independence that juniors and seniors feel with a responsibility for them to impart their guidance and experience to others for the improvement of campus culture. Key objectives include (a) taking advantage of juniors who remain in Carlisle by selecting and training them to provide leadership in two elements of the first-year experience: the orientation common reading (selection and facilitation) and the community service engagement initiative and (b) creating a senior “house” program by refurbishing the college’s “grand” houses to provide desirable space (singles and good social space) for seniors. Residency would carry cross-class responsibility (with training) to guide and mentor small cohorts of sophomore students, who are often overlooked in college programming.

Overall, the network of responsibility includes a strong emphasis on students as mentors—sophomores, juniors and seniors all reaching to those coming behind them. Yet there are other sources of important mentoring in residential life. We have at Dickinson a significant and under-tapped resource for our students: more than 60 employees who are also alumni of the college. We should develop a program linking these alumni to residence hall floors to provide new students with an administrative resource/adult presence for questions and concerns about navigating Dickinson and for exposing students to role models for whom Dickinson is a defining aspect of their personal and professional lives.

Objective 3.  A strong residential program depends on a foundation of quality and equitable housing. Despite projects including renovations in the Quads and Morgan Hall and the construction of the “Tree House,” we have not paid adequate attention to residence halls. Many of our facilities have significant deferred maintenance needs and are overcrowded, leading to difficulties in student culture and experience. For example, the need for beds has eroded common rooms and lounges in the residence halls—elements essential for community life to form. Residence halls are of widely varying quality with resulting painful inequity in housing options, and they lack sufficient spaces for study. In order to resolve these fundamental shortcomings we must:

  • Initiate plans and fund construction of new beds required to create swing space for long-term deferred maintenance, relieve crowding, reclaim social space and reduce reliance on off-campus and leased properties.
  • Target improvements to the Quad area to improve the architecture and modernize space, enhance the presence of the Dickinson Walk as per the Campus Master Plan and address landscaping and aesthetic deficiencies. 
  • Re-claim and renovate some of the college’s “grand” houses for the new senior housing program.
  • Finalize a residence hall renewal plan (long term) as part of the current Quality of Student Life Facilities Study to address deferred maintenance and modernization.

Strategic Goal F:  We must take what might be called a “campus ecology” approach to create an overall campus culture of mutual support and respect. Our goal is to improve the learning and living environment at Dickinson by encouraging safe, healthy and positive norms for behavior by individuals and organizations. SP III envisions the following steps in the next five years: 

Objective 1.  Our current dining facilities do not meet our goals for campus culture. We must redesign the dining hall to promote a more mature, inclusive and respectful form of campus life. Redesign will facilitate program initiatives, such as potential enhancement of faculty and family presence.

Objective 2.  The impact of Greek organizations on campus culture has been a persistent point of dispute at Dickinson and elsewhere. We should commission an objective external study to help us determine what role fraternities and sororities should have in our 21st-century liberal-arts college. Our intent is to move beyond anecdotal information in addressing key questions. Does the presence of Greek organizations detract from or enhance recruitment and retention? How do fraternities and sororities affect the academic climate at the college? What contributions do they make to our student development effort? Are there other forms of residential and social life that better prepare our students for the world before them? For decades the college has been ambivalent about Greek organizations. We should use the opportunity of a study to decide whether Greek Life is or is not part of our 21st-century ambition and, if so, how?

Objective 3.  We need to address behaviors that are clearly destructive to our goals for our community. Steps include: 1) completing initiatives to reduce sexual assault such as implementing a peer educator program and introducing a required module on sexual assault as part of the pre-college education expected of all students, 2) implementing an education/intervention program (drawing on our new hazing policy), particularly for student populations known to be at greatest risk and 3) translating findings of a current research study on campus alcohol use into a comprehensive plan for improving the campus climate around alcohol—this plan to address social norms, risk management and education, assessment and interventions related to student conduct, and environmental support/management.

Objective 4. With the arrival of a new Director of the Counseling Center, we must draft a strategic plan that will expand the focus of the counseling center beyond therapy and crisis intervention, to include outreach, education, greater emphasis on developmental concerns, an orientation toward positive psychology and helping students bolster their resilience in the face of stress and other difficulties.

Objective 5.  Many issues of campus life lend themselves to collaborative research endeavors between faculty and staff. We should enhance these opportunities, which create positive benefit to faculty in advancing their scholarship and to staff who reap the advantage of insights gleaned for policy and program improvement.

 Strategic Goal G:  An integral part of Dickinson’s mission is to prepare our students for leadership. We need a cohesive leadership development program that enhances students’ talents, helps them take responsibility for their environment, and maximizes opportunities for them to be engaged in complex problem solving for campus benefit, thereby enhancing their self-perception as stewards of the college: 

Dickinson has a long-standing tradition of involving students in the leadership work of the college. Students sit on all-college governance committees and have held major responsibilities for managing residence halls, coordinating orientation, and guiding other initiatives. We need to expand such opportunities and also address obstacles on campus to effective leadership development. For example, recent cohorts of graduating seniors report that among the skills least well developed while at Dickinson were those associated with functioning effectively as a member of a team. Our students value activity but anecdotal impressions from staff members who work with student leaders suggest that for many being busy in multiple activities trumps the deep and difficult work that is often associated with doing something well. In sum, we need to significantly enhance the opportunities and expectations for students to learn and demonstrate leadership for the campus good. 

Objective 1: Develop new opportunities for student engagement and leadership. These include roles within the first year “neighborhood” residential program; participation in advisory boards sponsored by each department within the Division of Student Development—these boards will parallel the majors in academic departments; leadership in comprehensive review and evaluation processes for fraternity and sorority chapters; management of thematic/special interest housing options; and engagement in a new peer conduct review board and in a new men’s program for early intervention in conduct issues as part of our student disciplinary process.

Objective 2. We must expand leadership education for all club and organization officers, establishing a student advisory board for consultation and program development support. Non-traditional forms of educational outreach, such as social media and electronic/digital resources accessible by any student, can be used to reach a wider audience. As part of this effort, we should develop a plan to continue the very successful LeaderShape Institute and also develop a program whereby retired members of our local Carlisle community with significant leadership experiences connect with emerging student leaders to provide guidance, networking and opportunities for students to acquire valuable lessons.

Strategic Goal H: We must enhance students’ sense of community and connection to Dickinson. 

A sense of belonging and community can powerfully anchor a students’ experience, improve retention, and create a lifelong connection to Dickinson. Anecdotal and survey information reveals that this is an area where we must improve. We have heard from students through focus groups and on institutional research surveys that Dickinson lacks a fully vibrant sense of “community” on campus, particularly when compared to peer and aspirant institutions. Building a meaningful sense of community and social engagement that reinforces academics is complex work, and we may not have adequately invested time and resources in this direction. Many of the proposals offered in SP III, such as enhancing the dining hall or more effective senior year programming, will help us address this issue. Nonetheless, we need to create a special ad hoc group to investigate and recommend ways to enhance our students’ affiliation with Dickinson as a source of support, meaning and affection.