The unprecedented rate and nature of change in the landscape of higher education in recent years was a key consideration in deciding it was time to undertake a strategic-planning process at Oberlin College. How would these changes affect the future mission, objectives, and operations of Oberlin, a small, elite, residential, liberal-arts college and conservatory of music in a rural Ohio setting? We saw worrisome signs: intense media criticism of high-tuition institutions, skepticism about the value of a liberal-arts education, utilitarian notions about a college degree’s “return on investment,” unrealistic expectations that technology can instantly reduce instructional costs, unrelenting competition for students and faculty, and unfavorable demographic trends for colleges like ours. We wanted to be ambitious and realistic about the future while simultaneously preserving Oberlin’s distinctiveness.
It was time. Our last strategic plan was adopted in 2005. We knew our financial model would soon be in jeopardy. So it was prudent to revise the model while revenues were still relatively robust.
The Oberlin College Strategic Plan 2016–2021: Institutional transformation through an inclusive approach to academic and musical excellence was developed over an 18-month period from September 2014 to February 2016. It was led by the strategic-planning steering committee, which we co-chaired, in an open process that invited regular participation and feedback from all constituencies. The result was a final report with recommendations that won widespread support from the faculty, board, and the community at large. While our process may not serve as a model for every institution, we did learn some valuable lessons that we share here.
What did Oberlin’s 2005 strategic plan accomplish? How was it received?
The 2005 strategic plan presented “strategies” within two primary goals—educational and financial—that are firmly derived from our mission: “Oberlin as a liberal-arts college and a conservatory of music exists to achieve—and to enable its students and faculty to achieve—academic, artistic, and musical excellence.” Six working groups set goals and reported on progress the following year. Faculty committees did additional work, and the board reviewed reports on strategic indicators to gauge performance against the plan’s goals and aspirations.
What did Oberlin hope to accomplish with the new strategic plan?
We wanted a strategic framework for times of growth as well as contraction. We hoped to revitalize our mission and articulate core values that could unify our community as we faced the coming challenges in higher education.
Oberlin has been on an upward trajectory since the approval of the 2005 strategic plan, with notable improvements in national reputation, honors for our faculty and students, application numbers, student credentials, financial stability, graduation rates, student research, student services, endowment, fundraising, and alumni participation. We continue to produce more PhD candidates than any other liberal-arts institution, with the unique assets of a world-class conservatory of music and a nationally renowned art museum.
Yet Oberlin was not where it needed to be to remain one of the most selective and distinguished colleges in the nation. Our tuition and fees are an obstacle for many. We had not met our goals for recruiting and retaining faculty, administrators, and students from historically underrepresented communities, as well as for admitting first-generation and low-income students. Further enhanced student services were desirable but costly, and we knew that changes were necessary in order to finance new initiatives.
Our new effort would address these issues head-on, educate the community about context—including our financial concerns—and build consensus as we identified opportunities and made tough calls while being more nimble in our decision making.
What was the process, including the pre-planning process?
We spent a lot of time on process, and as great believers in pre-planning, we encouraged the board to create a planning advisory group (PAG) of trustees in December 2013 to handle startup activities, including organization and scheduling. Thus, when the Oberlin College Strategic Planning Steering Committee (composed of 12 trustees, 11 faculty members, three senior administrators, two professional staff members, nine students, two alumni representatives, and one senior staff coordinator) convened in September 2014, it could begin work immediately.
The PAG mapped out the process and developed ideas for scenario planning, an interactive website, and a speaker series of experts on the financing of higher education, technology, diversity and inclusion, and the arts. It also hired an outside consultant and, in spring 2014, established four guiding principles to inform the work:
- Leadership: Full support of the administration and board, as evidenced by cochairmanship by the president and the board’s vice chair
- Transparency: Timely, thorough communications
- Participation: Broad and deep representation on the steering committee and extensive outreach activities
- Focus: Concrete recommendations for the next three to five years that set a vision for the coming decades
In June 2014, the board unanimously approved the PAG’s framework, officially launching the strategic planning effort.
The steering committee met almost monthly from September 2014 until February 2016, with three working groups formed to produce in-depth discussions and specific proposals. The groups concentrated on cultivating a new learning environment, the students we teach, and resources to support the mission. Our meetings included exercises on both scenario planning and a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats).
We spent a great deal of time considering the following:
- a new mission statement
- core values, especially excellence, inclusion, community, and sustainability
- key strategic directions
- a review of finances
- a fair and credible implementation process to make the hard decisions and balance each of our core values
In addition to discussions and updates at faculty meetings, we sponsored listening sessions for faculty, students, staff, and alumni. The steering committee met three times with the board and communicated on our website with the community, posting meeting agendas and summaries; the bibliography of articles, books, materials, and research papers we consulted; and videotaped lectures by outside experts.
The working group reports were synthesized to create a preliminary report from the steering committee, issued in May 2015. Honoring our promise of transparency, the draft was circulated to the extended Oberlin community with an invitation to submit comments through the website portal. Hundreds of people sent us comments and ideas.
Over the summer of 2015, the steering committee refined the proposals, and in October, it distributed a revised draft report that stated our consensus on four overriding conclusions:
- We must enhance our equity, diversity, and inclusiveness.
- We must position Oberlin strategically to continue to thrive in a fast-changing world.
- We must recognize that our hightuition, high-financial-aid model is not sustainable.
- We must make the case for Oberlin more effectively.
After reviewing the feedback and another session with the board in December 2015, the steering committee and administration made further revisions and circulated the final draft prior to submitting it to the faculty for approval. In March 2016, both the faculty and board overwhelmingly approved the final report. The board then instructed the president to move forward immediately with implementation. At the June 2016 board meeting, the president announced the planning process for implementation, and the board formed an ad hoc trustee liaison committee.
What were the results?
The 2016 strategic plan sets the course Oberlin will take in the future with specific actions to take in the near term. It contains three broad, high-level, interrelated “Directions for the Future,” all rooted in Oberlin’s revised mission statement and core values:
- Foster academic and musical excellence in an equitable and inclusive environment, emphasizing connected learning, advising, and an integrated model to enrich the student experience called “Oberlin 4 + 4” (the 4 undergraduate years and four years afterwards).
- Develop the residential experience to ensure that it serves as an intellectual and artistic incubator for educational excellence, leveraging assets and creating equitable paths for success.
- Define and set in motion the necessary steps to achieve sustainability— educational, financial, and environmental—and promote wise stewardship of resources.
The administration is leading the implementation, in collaboration with the general faculty council—the executive committee of the general faculty that advises the president on the budget and other matters—and the board of trustees, as well as faculty, staff, students, alumni, and others as appropriate. Its task forces will implement the recommendations and observe the overarching financial parameters set by the board. The board, as in 2005, will identify a set of indicators to measure progress under the strategic plan and the overall health of the institution.
What went well?
We are proud of our inclusive, collaborative, and transparent process. The steering committee members, the campus community, and the wider Oberlin community of alumni and friends all contributed to creating a credible strategic plan. To give one example, after about one year of meetings, some members wanted to delve into Oberlin’s financial situation. As a result, our vice president for finance and administration formed a budget subcommittee of the steering committee, which spent a month studying finances in-depth and reported back to the full steering committee, helping to clarify the circumstances and our available options.
On day one, the steering committee members agreed that they would participate as citizens of the Oberlin College community as a whole and not as advocates from a particular group. They also agreed to abide by confidentiality to foster frank, bold, and unconventional thinking. As a counterbalance to this request, however, summaries of each meeting, without comments attributed to individuals, were posted on our website. We could therefore satisfy non-members’ curiosity about our activities without impairing our ability to function in an atmosphere of candor and collegiality.
We were also gratified about the educational nature of the planning process. For example, many members had been unaware of the looming weaknesses in our financial model. To prepare for the inevitable difficult discussions about finances—especially for some of the new initiatives we expected to emerge—we sponsored 18 presentations about the budget to all of our constituencies during the 2014-15 academic year. In addition, we made accessible to the steering committee and the community a vast array of information, including documents on the current landscape of higher education generally as well as Oberlin’s place in this environment specifically. It was clear that this not only was essential to the committee’s work but also helped inform the community about the realities of our situation.
Finally, we were pleased by the reception accorded the final report. One illustration: When we were finished, we asked a faculty member on the steering committee how he felt about the process and report. He replied, “Well, in 2005, I led the opposition against the strategic plan. This time, I’m actively supporting it.”
What most surprised you? Any thoughts in hindsight?
First, we underestimated the desire of our current students to be engaged in strategic planning. In 2005, three students were named as members of the steering committee, so in 2014, we had three student seats again. However, when it became clear that more students wanted to be involved, six more were added, which worked out well. They were mature in their viewpoints, articulate, and collaborative. It’s a reminder that students today want substantial participatory opportunities to chart their institutions’ futures.
Second, the large size of the steering committee had disadvantages as well as advantages. It was diverse and wideranging in scope, expertise, and background, but soliciting and reconciling the many differing views and priorities was sometimes challenging. We did not always agree. Some were dismayed at learning about our financial vulnerabilities and steadfastly argued about the need to spend more on priorities like financial aid. There was a lot of give and take. But what struck us was how willing everyone was to listen, to be civil despite occasional disagreements, and to collaborate so that we could win supporters.
Finally, circumstances beyond our control caused us to reassess and prolong our calendar. As was the case at many colleges and universities, fall 2015 was an especially difficult time at Oberlin due to issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement and Title IX. We chose to conduct more listening sessions and subsequently recrafted our plan to more clearly define equity, diversity, and inclusion as core to the academic experience. Our document was strengthened as a result.
What are the lessons for other boards?
On process, we did well in meeting our transparency goals with all constituencies— offering broad access and repeated opportunities to be heard. Despite numerous attempts to elicit input, however, we did not receive as many ideas or comments from the faculty or students as we had hoped. Possible reasons included lack of time, lack of interest, lack of radical ideas that required a response, or lack of a sense of great urgency or immediate crisis. On substance, while we would have preferred more development of topics such as global education and the impact of technology, the final report has enjoyed widespread acceptance throughout the Oberlin community and is well on its way towards implementation.
We would highlight the following lessons:
- Invest in a comprehensive pre-planning phase for efficiency and effectiveness.
- Establish some cardinal operating principles to guide the process, and stick to them.
- Seek strong and effective leaders from the faculty, staff, student body, alumni, and other interested representatives to serve on the strategic planning group— people who will put the institution’s needs first.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Be creative and consistent in keeping people apprised of your actions.
- Develop innovative and varied ways to involve and obtain feedback from key constituents throughout the process.
- Don’t hide the truth. Be honest and share information about the institution’s finances and realistic prospects to create a climate that can accept change and trade-offs.
- Show sustained board commitment and leadership. The process takes time.
- Institute a credible implementation process with clear metrics and regular progress checks.
- Remember that the how of strategic planning—the perceptions of fairness, openness, integrity, and inclusiveness—can be as important as the what—the specific recommendations that are formulated.