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Starting from strength

Board approves strategic plan

By Jeffrey Lott

DSC_0040.jpgAt its December meeting, the Board of Managers approved a comprehensive set of strategic directions that builds on the College’s acknowledged strengths and emphasizes its core values.

The strategic plan’s six major recommendations encourage curricular innovation while preserving intellectual rigor; envision Swarthmore as a model residential community for the 21st century; support faculty excellence in teaching, scholarship, and artistic production; affirm the College’s commitments to admit and support a diverse student body; urge the creation of an Institute for Liberal Arts to strengthen liberal arts education at the College and in the world beyond; and seek to engage alumni throughout their lives—especially through greater alumni-student involvement.

Adoption of the plan follows more than 18 months of research and self-study that drew faculty, staff, students, and alumni into hundreds of conversations about the College’s position in American higher education, its sources of strength, and the uncertain economic and higher education environment that Swarthmore faces today and in the future.

“Scores of faculty, staff, students, and Board members invested untold hours in our strategic planning process,” said Gil Kemp ’72, chair of the Strategic Planning Council. “Why? Because we believe that doing so will make Swarthmore an even stronger institution as it embraces the challenges and opportunities of the next decade.”

All of the major recommendations are underpinned by more specific suggestions that will be explored in an implementation phase beginning in the first half of 2012. Some, such as a mandate to create a comprehensive diversity plan, will be undertaken forthwith; others will be studied to determine their feasibility and cost.

It is expected that a major fundraising campaign will be mounted in the near future to finance and implement the plan. “We must be vigilant about our finances, grateful for the support of our alumni, and realistic about our plans,” the document states. “So as we move forward, two principles will guide implementation of this plan: 1) pay as we go, and 2) start small, evaluate progress, and slowly grow any programs or initiatives that require significant resources only when we can afford to do so.”

Swarthmore’s values were central to the creation of the plan, and every aspect of the process was designed to keep these in the forefront of the discussion. The final planning document describes these values as having been “derived from our Quaker founders.” They are: “respect for the individual, decision-making by consensus, simple living, social responsibility and justice, generous giving, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

The College’s key strengths as an educational institution are listed as:

  • Our singular commitment to academic rigor and creativity
  • Our desire to provide access and opportunity for all students, regardless of their financial circumstances
  • Our diverse and vibrant community of students, faculty, staff, and alumni
  • Our conviction that applied knowledge should be used to improve the world

“I’ve been involved in other strategic planning efforts but never have I seen such a consensus of opinion about an institution’s core values,” said President Rebecca Chopp. “It was remarkably affirming to go through this exercise together and emerge with a clear set of guiding principles and values to help shape our future direction.”

As the plan was developed during 2010 and 2011, the current financial and educational environment weighed heavily on the minds of members of the planning council. The council comprised more than 25 members of the Board, faculty, staff, and the alumni and student bodies. It oversaw the work of four working groups, each of which included members of the planning council and other members drawn from the College community who brought special interest or expertise to the area being studied. In all, more than 80 persons served on one or more of these committees. It is estimated that well over 1,000 people participated in a face-to-face conversation about the College’s strategic direction. Hundreds more submitted comments and questions online.

The plan acknowledges several “significant issues that Swarthmore must address.” These include not only the uncertain financial environment, which requires additional financial aid for many families but also changing demographics and differences in preparation for college, the demands of environmental sustainability, and “domestic critiques of the liberal arts, even as international interest grows.”

To support liberal arts education at Swarthmore and strengthen it both in the United States and abroad, the plan proposes the creation of an Institute for the Future of the Liberal Arts at the College. It states that “higher education on the whole has done very little generative thinking about its future. At Swarthmore, we are committed to encouraging and taking part in this important work…. As a leader in liberal arts education, we must be vigilant in analyzing the pressures and opportunities for liberal arts education.”

The recommendations conclude with an acknowledgement of the critical role that alumni play in “the College’s future and its place in higher education. Our ability to provide an outstanding academic experience for our students, to maintain and enhance our position of leadership in liberal arts education, to promote our reputation and identity worldwide, and to raise money to support these objectives necessarily depend on alumni engagement and concomitant philanthropy.”

The definition of “alumni engagement” is considerably broadened in the plan—and although financial support of the College remains key, there is also a commitment to offer alumni “deeper, more generative relationships with the College and each other; more enriching academic experiences; and more active connections with current students, thus enhancing the intimacy and excellence that defines Swarthmore.”

The plan is said to be “an organic document that can adjust both to additional community input and new challenges or opportunities as they arise.” In the months ahead, existing committees such as the Council on Educational Policy and the Sustainability Committee, as well as the Alumni Council will begin to act on relevant recommendations, articulating each project’s goals, providing “maps for implementation activities,” and establishing ways to measure progress. At the same time, in addition to the diversity and inclusivity plan, a campus facilities master plan, a financial plan, and a capital campaign plan will be developed additional other working groups.

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