Chancellor Elwood L. Robinson began his tenure January 1, 2015, and initiated the strategic planning process soon thereafter. The work commenced with an assessment of the state of the institution. The 2010-2015 strategic plan was leading the university through a rebirth of liberal education. This direction was chosen because the literature suggested that graduates strong in writing, thinking and problem-solving would be able to compete successfully in the 21st century global marketplace. Building intellectual skills is at the heart of a liberal education approach. The curricular shift necessitated changes in every other area of the institution. The changes included adopting a new approach to general education, restructuring academic support units to better align them with retention goals, increasing admission requirements, setting more rigorous minimum standards for tenure and promotion, redesigning the physical master plan, developing a strong case to support fundraising, and designing a strategic budgeting process to better manage resource allocations.
The assessment revealed positive movement towards the goals. The recruited students’ academic profile had increased in quality, and retention and graduation rates had improved markedly. The institution had successfully moved the bar for hiring, tenuring and promoting faculty, and there was an increase in faculty scholarship. The new campus master plan had been fully implemented, adding the beds and classrooms necessary to support a liberal education. Fundraising for capital projects and scholarships were at an all-time high. All of this had been accomplished while leading the University of North Carolina (UNC) in degree production and efficiency, revealing the impact that is possible by strategically aligning resources with the highest priorities.
With the positive state of the institution suggesting that it was on a nice trajectory, the planning process thus moved to a review of current higher education literature. Recent publications by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) reiterated the importance of developing writing, thinking, communication, and interpersonal skills as institutions prepare graduates for the 21st century. The Association is furthering this focus in partnership with the Lumina Foundation by outlining a set of experiences central to a quality education. These include developing both broad (General Education) and specific (major) knowledge, and opportunities to apply and integrate what is learned. Additionally, AAC&U has sparked a conversation around racial and socio-economic status inequities as they relate to receiving a quality education. Coining the phrase “equity-mindedness,” the Association has focused attention on historical barriers as they relate to poor and minority students, and the need for institutions to take responsibility for ensuring that all students receive access to the opportunities needed to prepare for the demands of the 21st century. Other reports, focused on enrollment, financing, and administrative restructuring trends, highlight the opportunities and challenges facing higher education today.
The literature helped to identify several next steps. Primarily, it became clear that changing curriculum, realigning structures, and adopting policies and practices in support of liberal education was only the beginning. Ingraining these changes into the cultural fabric of the university would be more challenging. Cultivating a faculty and staff fully committed to the liberal education tradition would require ongoing investments in hiring and development. Meanwhile, it became clear that there was a need to invest more in activities such as internships, undergraduate research, and study abroad, so that students are afforded the opportunities proven to support the development of intellectual and interpersonal skills. Such investments would require new sources of funding. From all indications, it was unlikely that the State of North Carolina would fund the UNC system at the levels it did prior to the 2008 financial crisis. Increased focus on fundraising, and identifying other entrepreneurial opportunities, would therefore be crucial to generating the revenue needed for continuous investment in the academic programs at WSSU. Still further, there was a need to identify areas for strategic growth. While a decision was made to level off enrollment and program growth so that the institution could focus on strengthening student outcomes, opportunities for selective expansion exist. Several areas of WSSU are recognized for their academic excellence. Strategic investments in some of these existing programs, coupled with intentional growth in complementary areas, would comprise a solid vision for ensuring WSSU's long-term progress.
Various approaches were used to engage the university community in the planning process. Early conversations were held during the Chancellor’s executive staff meetings, with a full-day retreat held in late March 2015. Between April and August, the Chancellor and Provost visited almost every unit on campus to discuss matters emerging in the review and to solicit early feedback. A full discussion of the emerging direction was the topic of a full-day retreat of academic leadership in early August followed by a second executive staff full-day retreat later that month. The Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees was updated on the process at the June and September board meetings, and a town hall meeting was held with students in early October. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, board members and friends were surveyed in late September through early October regarding revisions to the vision, mission, values statements and the identified strategic goal. Feedback on the direction was very positive and comments were used to further develop the plan objectives. Subgroups for each goal were appointed and tasked with generating activities towards the goals and objectives. What lies within is (1) greater elaboration on the principles guiding the strategic directions chosen and (2) the emergent 2016-2021 strategic plan.