Unpacking the potential successes and missteps of Cole’s strategic review process

On Wednesday, March 29, the whole student body received an email explaining that under the leadership of Ron Cole, Allegheny College will be undergoing a strategic planning process in the coming year “that will shape and define our future pathway.” The message also asked for student volunteers to join one of three working committees, which will meet three times over the summer to discuss a particular realm of planning. Personally, I was very happy to hear about this endeavor; strategic planning helps organizations think critically about their values and how they operate, enabling them to better cultivate their strengths and culture.
Also, it comes at a time where the student body feels uneasy about the future of the college. Enrollment has dropped from roughly 2,100 students in 2011 to approximately 1,300 now, a drop of over a third in about a decade. The college is drawing down on the endowment by more than four percent per year as well, which is considered the maximum you would want to withdraw to maintain the fund indefinitely by investment management standards. That means that if we continue using the endowment at our current rate we will eventually run out of money. However, one of the biggest sources of unease is the recent axing of numerous academic programs last year, which frustrated many students and prompted some to transfer.
It is abundantly clear that Allegheny cannot continue on its current trajectory, and Cole’s strategic planning initiative seems to be the first steps in correcting our course to ensure our long-term success and viability. This is very exciting and promising, but such projects can easily go astray and prove to be fruitless. For such an endeavor to be successful it is incumbent upon all stakeholders to provide both support and constructive feedback regarding the process, which is the purpose of this article.
The email to the student body, while helpful, still had ways in which it could have been improved. For one, it could have done more to expand upon what strategic planning is and how the college will benefit by it. I have the benefit of having taken an online course on strategic planning, and thus am somewhat familiar with it; however, many other students probably are not. Explaining it in the email would help students better understand what is happening, what they would be doing on these planning committees — which Cole wishes for us to join — and would promote greater community buy-in in the process.
Also, it would be helpful to have a better understanding of how students will be selected to serve on these committees. The application in the email asked for only one to three sentences explaining why one would be a good addition to the committee. This is a very short space to make the case that you would be a valuable voice to have on the committee, and thus will surely limit the ability of whoever is selecting students to serve on the committee. This also leads us to our next question: Who will be selecting the members of these committees? Is Cole going to personally read all these applications himself and decide? If there is a group reviewing the application, who are they? Are they going to consider only these three sentences we were asked to write? Are they going to look into students further? In addition, who decides which Board of Trustee members, administrators, staff and faculty members are on these committees? Explaining these things would have made the process more transparent and built confidence around it.
Another avenue that I think should have been expanded upon is what will actually happen in these meetings. For right now, the plan is for each committee to have three meetings, and while this is only the beginning, and not the end all be all, this still seems to be a very short amount of time, which means there is most likely a narrow goal or purpose for these meetings. Will these meetings be feedback for the Hill Group — the consulting firm helping us develop our strategic plan — to better understand the college? Feedback on a preliminary plan from the Hill Group? Are we generating ideas for the plan? This information would be helpful to let students have a better idea of what they would be involved in if they were to apply and be added to the committees.
Also, I think it would be very beneficial if we were informed of some sort of rough timeline for what the process would look like. Of course, such a process is very fluid and subject to change, but a rough idea would help community members know what to expect as we undergo the process, such as when there are opportunities to provide feedback. Knowing this would build students’ confidence in this process and help ease the anxiety some feel about the future of this institution.
While I would prefer the college itself answer these questions for the general public, I was able to ascertain answers to some of them from the Hill Group during their Tuesday student feedback session. Right now, there is a strategic planning committee which is made up of trustees, faculty and staff, who have been meeting and working with the Hill Group. The Hill Group has already generated market and strategic planning research pertinent to the college and presented it to the planning committee, and according to the Hill Group, Cole hopes to make the report available to students. On Tuesday, the Hill Group met with students, faculty and staff, and generated SWOT — Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats — analyses which together they will use to generate their plan. Later this month, the college planning committee will select members for the three working committees. From there, the Hill Group will make a first draft of the strategic plan, which will be presented to the main planning committee. Then the draft will be presented to the three working committees who will provide more feedback on the draft. The Hill Group and Committees will continue the revision feedback cycle until the plan is completed, hopefully around September. While these insights do not address all the issues I raised, it is valuable information about the strategic planning process and I’m glad to be able to share it with the campus.
Overall, it is great to see that the college is going to undergo the strategic planning process, and especially great to see that student feedback and involvement will be incorporated. To develop a viable plan requires the cooperation of all community members, which involves both support and constructive feedback. I hope all the suggestions I have made are seen as constructive, as I honestly believe that they would result in the greater buy-in and participation of the campus community, as well as build confidence in the administration of the college. I am enjoying my time here at Allegheny, and have fallen in love with the institution, and thus wish to see its long-term success and viability, and I believe that this is one step in ensuring it.