Thriving in the New Normal
President Pamela M. Jolicoeur
As we greet the new academic year, there is no way around acknowledging the obvious: There's a lot of bad news out there. These are hard times - for families, for businesses and for colleges. The causes are well documented and the fixes much debated. The full impact on colleges and universities is only beginning to be revealed. But what we can safely surmise is that it will be severe and that it will affect all sectors - because it already has. This is the context in which we are assessing the results of our current five-year strategic plan as well as developing strategies for the next five years. We are determined to seize the moment so that we will not only survive this downturn, but be poised to thrive when the "new normal" takes hold.
The good news is that we did take the current environmental factors into account when we formulated the 2005-10 strategic plan, even if we didn't really envision the consequences. Our successes have set us up well to address the next set of challenges. Six major achievements stand out.
- The remaking of our whole enrollment management and marketing systems and the dramatic results that our hard-working staff has achieved - chiefly larger freshman class sizes, improved academic strength and retention.
- The implementation of the new Core Curriculum with its solid grounding in the Concordia tradition of education for life with a sharper focus on global education.
- The addition of two new Language Villages: Portuguese and Arabic.
- The successful completion of the capital campaign and the construction of the spectacular new Knutson Campus Center.
- The complete transformation of our information technology systems.
- The development of the signature leadership development program, LeadNow.
Together these initiatives have positioned Concordia not only to meet the challenges of new economic realities, but to seize the opportunities.
The challenges are ones that we share with much of private higher education. These include growing price sensitivity of parents and relatively small endowments that have been hard hit by market declines. Together they severely threaten our ability to deliver a high quality education and keep it affordable. Like other colleges in the Upper Midwest, we must also cope with a decline in the number of high school graduates in our core recruiting markets, a decline that exceeds all other regions in the U.S.
Concordia has kept tuition lower than our competitors. As a result, we have lagged behind in generating revenue to invest in programs and facilities. At the same time, we are better positioned to address parent concerns about affordability. In that context, what all institutions - public and private - must be prepared to do in this new era is make their case on value and to invest in ways that deliver it.
For Concordia, that means investing in programs and in the people who make the difference in the students' experience. Put another way, we must further hone our distinctive strengths in order to attract talented students who bring contagious energy and passion. They, in turn, will enhance other students' experience and aspirations. That's a familiar formula for Concordia. We are just updating it for the needs and desires of this new generation of students.
In addition to the initiatives already in progress, this next phase of planning will focus on infrastructure for programs - specifically the sciences and business - and on career development. In the sciences, we are looking to construct and remodel facilities to support new teaching strategies that engage students at a higher level.
In business, we are creating a top-flight undergraduate School of Business that effectively blends Concordia's liberal arts, global outlook and emphasis on ethical leadership with MBA-like professional preparation. The career planning and placement program will be redesigned as a carefully sequenced set of experiences that will prepare all students to select and thrive in careers that match their strengths and express their vocation.
In addition to these specific initiatives, we will continue to develop across-the-curriculum programs, such as LeadNow, that provide structured experiences in which students hone leadership skills that set them apart in whatever occupations they choose. And we will complete the formation of a new unit, as yet unnamed, that brings together all of our programs that address our mission as a college of the church for greater and broader impact.
The success of all of these initiatives ultimately depends on Concordia's most important resource - people. They are the key elements in what sometimes has been called the Concordia equation. We must continue to strengthen our processes for evaluating and rewarding faculty and staff and the resources that we invest in them.
All of these initiatives come with a price tag. Thus, we need to enhance our capacity for acquiring funds. However, we must also recognize that if these initiatives are imperative for securing our future, we need to identify ways to accomplish them even if that means choosing not to do other things. In the past, most colleges have simply added programs on to an existing base. Because we can't assume that we'll have that luxury in the foreseeable future, we will have to make difficult decisions about what matters most. That will not be easy to do. It will test our resolve.
The most challenging aspect of the next five-year plan will be creating the strategic financial plan when we can't make confident assumptions about long-term enrollment or about donor willingness to give. In fact, prudent planning requires us to assume that we must recruit students who are likely to graduate within four years, even if that means somewhat smaller freshmen classes. Likewise, we have to assume that, no matter how well intentioned, donors may not have the capacity to give on our timeline. This will call for more creativity on our part to harness their intention and provide ways for donors to make and fulfill commitments.
In the end, thankfully, this is not about building a new Concordia, it is about taking the strengths that have made us so successful in the past to a new level of excellence. It will take all of the discipline and passion we can muster, and it will take the active engagement of a much broader range of alumni, donors and friends that we have heretofore enlisted.
We were fortunate in that we made the moves to jump-start this plan at the time we did. Now, during this last year of the current five-year plan, we can take some time to engage more constituents and to listen to a broader range of perspectives. I will be visiting many more groups and individuals in the coming months and years. I look forward to sharing ideas and exploring strategies with all of you.
Concordia's success has always been deeply grounded in the Christian faith and in prairie values. What sets us apart is our faithfulness to our mission, the quality of the educational experience and the impact it has on students' lives. That is the firm foundation that will see us through. When you add to that the inspiration of our students, and the commitment of our faculty, staff and supporters - the college is primed for a promising future.
Photos: Sheldon Green/Crystal Mohr/Chris Shinn