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Dickinson Matters: On Challenges and Opportunities

Neil Weissman

by Neil B. Weissman, Interim President

We are constantly looking at the challenges and opportunities facing the college. That is especially true this semester. As part of the normal higher education accreditation cycle, Dickinson is due to provide the Middle States Association with a Periodic Review Report (PRR) on progress over the past five years. The PRR will include much data and will describe how we meet Middle States standards, particularly around assessment. It also must have a section specifically designated as the “challenges and opportunities” facing the college. We are still drafting the report, but some key points for that section are clear.

Most obviously, we share with the rest of higher education the interrelated challenges of controlling cost and maintaining access. The parallel phenomena of rising tuition and increasing demand for financial aid embody both. For us, shifting demographics in the Northeast—fewer high-school graduates and more students from populations underrepresented at liberal-arts colleges—intensify the challenges. Dickinson is responding in multiple ways, most notably through zero-based budgeting to monitor costs, building reserves against rainy days and expanding financial aid. There is opportunity here, though, as well as challenge. We are widening Dickinson’s enrollment outreach to new geographic areas beyond the traditional Maine-to-Virginia corridor, and we are intensifying our advancement efforts. We deeply appreciate current support through volunteer work and giving. Yet we also know many alumni and parents with low affinity for the college who could become active supporters. The recent change of Dickinson’s S&P rating from A+ “stable outlook” to a rare in higher education A+ “positive” should reassure all that the college is a strong investment.

Bringing coherence to students’ educational experience represents a further challenge/opportunity. Dickinson offers an extraordinary range of different avenues for learning and engagement. Indeed, we continue to build more opportunities, as exemplified by our current Mellon Foundation-funded initiative on civic engagement. At the same time, we are working to provide students with an overarching framework for their educational experience. I refer to the Dickinson Four. Each year students are presented with a broad task—from “making Dickinson yours” in the first year to “expanding your story” as a senior—to guide their activities. The dual goal is better planning of and deeper reflection on pathways through college and beyond graduation to career and community.

One key goal both for recruitment and for the student experience at Dickinson is inclusivity. At the time of our 2000 strategic plan, the college’s catchphrase for our aspirations was “Reflecting America, Engaging the World.” Although that formulation has evolved, the double commitment implicit in the original continues. We remain determined to bring to Dickinson students both from underrepresented domestic groups and from across the globe. And we aim to ensure that our community benefits from and enriches all its members. This is a complex challenge. It demands providing access to diverse applicants in admissions, opening avenues for all students to engage fully while here and preparing graduates with skills and perspectives to thrive as alumni. Here, too, we embrace the challenge as an opportunity to improve Dickinson. Our PRR will, I am certain, address our nation’s roiled politics. Emotions run strong. Many of Dickinson’s fundamental concepts, including community and the search for truth, are in question. Not just challenge or opportunity but Dickinson’s very mission of educating citizens compels us to address these issues. Where better to engender dialogue than at a liberal-arts college? Especially one with Dickinson’s culture of civility.

There are many other challenges/opportunities to address in the PRR. I will close with a final task that we have well in hand—presidential transition. The appointment of Margee Ensign as Dickinson’s 29th president brings to us a courageous, visionary leader who will summon forth the best that is in our community. She will challenge us boldly, and therein lies our opportunity.

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Published April 5, 2017