President

President Donald R. Eastman III

Memo to the Faculty and Staff, May 2003

DATE: May 12, 2003
TO: Faculty and Staff
FROM: Donald R. Eastman III
RE: A Process for Strategic Planning at Eckerd College

Introduction

As we strive to fulfill Eckerd College's mission of becoming one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country, the College faces four interconnected institutional priorities:

I. To improve the financial position of the College through the establishment of sound management practices;
II. To enrich our academic programs;
III. To enrich the student life experience; and
IV. To develop and implement a physical master plan.

Of necessity, the first and fourth of these priorities have been our primary focus since July of 2001. It is now time to articulate the strategies we have developed for achieving those priorities and to begin to develop the strategies to achieve the other two. An outline of strategies so far and a format for communicating future strategies is attached.

Management and Planning

Students come to Eckerd College for its academic quality, its strong mentoring, its diverse population and culture, its off-beat, innovative style and its tropical location. The "value proposition" of the private liberal arts college rests on three fundamental assumptions: the close and powerful bonds between teachers and students; the value of personalized education that is as much about developing leadership and the moral imagination as it is about skills and knowledge; and the lifelong significance of being and participating in a community devoted to learning and service. Eckerd College will succeed despite changing market, economic and technological conditions to the extent that it actualizes both the fundamental tenets of the liberal arts college and the unique combination of elements that have made "the Eckerd College experience" a national phenomenon in four short decades. If it fails to do so, it is unlikely to survive the increasing competition from the often impersonal but vastly less expensive public institutions that make "getting a degree" (as opposed to "getting an education") easy and relatively cheap.

As I discussed with you at the College faculty meeting in April of 2002, strategic planning is no substitute for operational planning and sound management. It is not the job of strategic planning to address critical issues which must be areas of continued administrative attention, including the provision of appropriate numbers of faculty and staff and their compensation; appropriate and equitable workloads (an area we must address, particularly in the sciences); renovation and construction of facilities; provision of appropriate information technology support; identification of necessary action in areas that need to be strengthened or dropped; and review of the structure of our academic management. These are tasks that must go forward regardless of the findings and direction of our strategic planning effort.

Within the next few days, I will appoint several planning groups to develop strategic priorities for the College in academic programs and student life. The recommendations of these groups, to be developed in consultation with faculty and staff across the campus, will be due no later than December 1, 2003, and will be shaped into a cohesive institutional strategic plan to be reviewed and endorsed by the Faculty Coordinating Committee, Staff Council, the Collegial Chairs, and the Executive Staff, and then submitted for approval by the Board of Trustees at its Spring meeting of 2004. The Special Programs division (including PEL, ASPEC, MDI and our other lifelong learning programs) is already at work on a strategic planning effort with a plan expected this summer.

In higher education, a strategic plan must provide an agenda of priorities for institutional initiatives responding to external opportunities. There are two general goals for strategic planning. The first goal is to develop clear strategies to increase the distinctiveness of and support for our institution and its programs. A vital element of success in planning is that those who will be expected to carry out strategy must also be those who make it. The second goal is to build "prepared minds," to insure that we have a solid understanding of the business we are in, the strategy we have adopted and the assumptions behind that strategy.

Institutional Priority I: Improve the financial position of the College through sound management practices.

We have employed five primary strategies to make progress toward this primary institutional priority. They are:

  • strengthen the Board and external support;
  • improve management policies, procedures and practices;
  • build the pool of qualified applicants to increase net tuition revenue;
  • improve retention; and
  • identify strategic spending priorities.

Specific actions to actualize these strategies are outlined in the attachment. Some have been completed and many are and will be ongoing.

Two immediate significant benefits are: First, the College has moved from a $3.2 million structural deficit in FY 2001 to a balanced budget without extraordinary (i.e., other than annual fund) gifts in FY 2003. Second, the College has begun to reestablish the management credibility upon which future banking relationships, bonded indebtedness, gifts and even enrollment depend.

Institutional Priority II: Enrich the academic program.

The academic strategic planning groups will examine our strengths, opportunities, weaknesses, and challenges, given our current programs and the external environment, and make recommendations for institutional strategic priorities in the academic arena. Issues to be considered include:

1. Strategic opportunities for the development of one, two or three additional "famous for" programs. Marine Science is too small a base on which to attract applications from the number and quality of students we require; we must invest in other programs, current or new, for which there is a strong student market and in which we can develop programs with national reputations. These programs may be disciplinary, (e.g., history, physics, anthropology, art, music), interdisciplinary (e.g., environmental, chemistry, international business, diplomacy), or thematic (e.g., international, environmental).

Opportunities to work with other institutions to develop joint programs of teaching and/or research should also be examined (and such opportunities may provide keys to programs of future emphasis). This area of study should also include recommendations regarding new areas of intellectual focus which the College needs to add in order to provide a liberal arts education of the highest quality.

2. Strategic opportunities for strengthening the international dimension of the College.

3. Recommendations for strategic ways in which our curriculum and our menu of majors and pre-professional programs might more effectively respond to the role of religion in liberal education, which our heritage and history as a college related by covenant to the Presbyterian Church make a strategic opportunity.

4. Reexamination of general education at the College, focusing in particular on the first year educational experience with a view to ensuring that we provide a program that best meets the intellectual and developmental needs of first year students. This includes reviewing the Autumn Term, the content and pedagogy of the year long core sequence, and implications of the first-year program for the rest of the general education curriculum.

The special programs strategic planning group has been charged with the responsibility to examine all programs and operations within the Special Programs division to determine their relationship to the core mission of Eckerd College and their relative strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities.

This effort, with a three-year planning horizon, will include the Program for Experienced Learners, the Management Development Institute, Conferences and Summer School, ELS, and Continuing Education and Senior Education programs, including ASPEC, Senior College, Elderhostel and College Harbor. The plan will also address division marketing and outreach strategies and their relationship to the College's overall outreach, marketing and development programs.

The Special Programs plan will specify key strategies for positioning and strengthening current programs as well as identify and prioritize any new programs and growth opportunities for the division.

Institutional Priority III: Enrich the student life experience.

The student life strategic planning group will do the following:

1. Building on a vital internal strength of the College, one not shared by most contemporary institutions of higher education, recommend ways in which student life and culture can foster increased student engagement with faculty beyond the classroom.
2. Recommend ways in which the overall residential experience at Eckerd College can be improved to make us more effective and distinctive.
3. Recommend ways in which the "student life" experience of the PEL student can be made a marketing advantage for the College.
4. Recommend programmatic improvements in specific residential areas, including dining, dorm life, social activities, intellectual life, campus ministry, waterfront programs, and athletics, that give us a strategic advantage over other institutions.
5. Recommend what the Eckerd experience ought to offer and expect in the areas of service, civic engagement and vocation.

Institutional Priority IV: Implement the Campus Master Plan.

The Eckerd College community has worked together thoughtfully and expeditiously to develop with the Ayers/Saint/Gross campus architects firm a bold and imaginative master plan which articulates our ambitions and dreams for the College in the context of the built and natural environment. Making this plan a reality is one of the key elements in moving the College to the forefront of national liberal arts colleges. The strategies for doing so are, in draft form, itemized in the matrix.

Process

The six appointed groups, one for each of the academic areas of focus, one for Special Programs and one for Student Life, will be asked to recommend strategic initiatives that will improve the College's financial or reputational position. The groups will be given an operational budget and be responsible for convening an institutional conversation about the key issues and opportunities for which they are responsible. The groups will carry these conversations across the College, including breakfast sessions, luncheons, evening gatherings, and meetings with consultants and trustees.

While the tactical steps, the "how" of doing things, as opposed to the strategic "what" ought to be done, of particular strategic initiatives are not the goal of the planning exercise, the College's Institutional Strategic Advisory Group, which will also be appointed in the next few days ã will assess the tactical and budgetary feasibility of each of the recommended strategic initiatives, perhaps explore others that went unnoticed by the planning groups, and develop the resulting initiatives into a draft of a coherent institutional strategic plan.

Each of our planning groups will be asked to carry out its deliberations within the context of the core mission (draft attached) and core values of Eckerd College. I have articulated our values as residential, global, environmental, spiritual and personal. An additional value ascribed to the institution since its earliest years is "innovative." Each of the planning groups will need to assess the continuing validity of these institutional values.

As you know, we have engaged a national marketing and communications firm, Thinkframe, to conduct research on our students and markets and to propose communication strategies for improving our recruitment, enrollment and retention efforts. The analyses Thinkframe will provide will be useful in our efforts to think strategically in each of these areas. It is vital that we base our proposals and plans on real data and solid research, not simply on opinions, hunches, ambitions, affections, or loyalties. We need to remember that strategic thinking matches real internal strength with real external demand, so while we must be imaginative, we must also be disciplined in how we direct our imaginations.

As you also know, this College has spent a great deal of time and effort in analyzing itself, including its responses to the SACS reaccreditation study of 2000, the financial problems which emerged that same year, and the considerable self-analysis any thoughtful college engages in during a presidential search process. We have also focused and refined our thinking about our institution's size, programs and physical needs in the process of developing the superb Campus Master Plan in association with Ayers/Saint/Gross. That planning process was, in effect, the first step of our overall strategic planning process for the College. We have those experiences for both context and content. This is not a school that needs to reexamine its mission; what it needs is to rethink the most effective ways (intellectually and financially) to fulfill its mission.

The timetable for our planning, then, need not be lengthy or onerous, just as the plans which will serve as a compass, not a roadmap should be sharp, clear and brief. It is my hope that each of you will find opportunities to be engaged in this institution-wide exercise in collegially charting our future.

Best wishes.