The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News March 10, 2006

Back in the Day: The Strategic Plan

Oberlin’s current Strategic Plan, now in its first year of implementation, comes from a limited tradition. It is only the third serious attempt at a long-term plan, and if successfully completed, it will be only the second of its kind in Oberlin’s recent history.

The first serious attempt at a Strategic Plan in Oberlin’s recent history began in 1992, under then President S. Frederick Starr’s guidance. The plan, drafted by the Strategic Issues Steering Committee, was controversial: according to numerous Review articles from the spring and fall of 1993, students and faculty criticized it for being directionless and not involving them in the process.

“There was more administration represented than any other group,” said mathematics professor and last year’s Associate Dean Jeff Witmer, who worked at the provost’s office at the time. “I don’t think faculty or students felt that they had any level of input.”

“The ’92 plan was a huge controversial mess,” said President Nancy Dye. “I inherited it after Starr left and thought it was best to start over.”

According to Review articles that covered the issue, Starr’s plan aimed to counteract the College’s perceived declining image by increasing academic rigor at Oberlin and soliciting a more selective student body. Among other things, it called for the elimination of need-blind admissions, the creation of more merit-based scholarships, more restrictions and requirements for first-years and stricter guidelines for the Experimental College.

The plan was based on a commissioned report that described Oberlin’s condition as “a little bit alarming.” The report called for the elimination of more politicized classes, the elimination of the football team and selling 40 million dollars worth of art from the Allen Art Museum’s collection.

In the fall of 1993, the semester before Starr left Oberlin, the plan was released. Dissatisfied with its measures, members of the faculty, a trustee and a group of students each drafted an alternate version of the plan that fall. Students also staged numerous protests throughout the semester.

After Dye assumed the presidency in 1994, the plan was first delayed and then cancelled.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that the ’92 Strategic Plan didn’t have a life,” said Clayton Koppes, professor of history and former provost. “It was undertaken in the last year of the Starr presidency, and it would be unusual for a plan taken as a presidency ends to have durability.”

“The overall tenor of that plan was defeatist, it seemed to me,” Koppes said, “and it called for Oberlin to shrink inward. By contrast, successful strategic plans project a vision that inspires the community, galvanizes potential donors and lures potential students.”

Despite the controversial nature of SISC’s plan, it contained the seeds of some change that we see the results at Oberlin today. It called for new buildings for the sciences, enhanced environmental studies and international studies programs.

When Dye proposed a long-range plan “Broad Directions for Oberlin’s Future,” she was careful to distinguish it from the 1992 process, according to a Dec. 1996 Review article. The Review wrote that Dye emphasized that the goal was to develop coherent guidelines to steer college policy rather than specific strategies for the future and that unlike SISC’s plan, Dye’s process included a concerted effort to gather community input.

“I think the 96-97 Strategic Plan was actually pretty successful,” said Koppes. “Many of the things that were laid out in it were accomplished. It helped a great deal in the capital campaign that went through in the late 1990s and beyond.”

“The ’96 [plan] didn’t get a whole lot of fanfare,” said Witmer. “People were reasonably happy with it.”

Some of Broad Directions’ goals were to address changes in technology, increasing Oberlin’s sense of community and, reminiscent of last week’s controversy over Oberlin’s publicity tactics, discussion of whether or not to change the school’s slogan “Think one person can change the world? So do we.”

Although the slogan is not currently in jeopardy, at the time a change was seriously considered.

“I hate that slogan,” a member of the mathematics department said. “When first-years come to campus, they’re ready to change the world. They say ‘I’m going to change the world, why do I need quantitative proficiency?’ It’s inconsistent with our goals.”

In addition, many committee members thought that the slogan reflected too individualist a message.

“Broad Directions” solicited student involvement, but did not receive as much as it hoped for.

“My impression was that student reaction to [“Broad Directions”] was generally favorable,” said Koppes, “though I suspect the majority of students had relatively little awareness of that strategic plan or any other.”

When the plan was accepted, however, some faculty expressed concern. According to a May 1997 Review article, one faculty member said, “I’m most concerned with the underrepresentation of excellence and over-emphasis on diversity.”

Provost Al MacKay, who was employed at Oberlin in various capacities during each of these strategic plans, saw some basic values underpinning all three plans.

“Oberlin is a very ambitious institution, always stretching beyond what we can afford,” he said. “We’re challenged by not having a good match between ambitions and [financial] resources.”

The current plan is intended, at least in part, to address that.

“This plan is generally more specific than ‘Broad Directions,’” said Dye, explaining that the plan’s goal was to leverage Oberlin financially and programmatically.

MacKay said that when he agreed to be provost, he and Dye had agreed that his main goal would be to implement the current Strategic Plan.

“The great temptation is to think [the plan] is finished when it’s been approved, but you really have to work to get it implemented,” he said.

MacKay said that he was happy with student involvement in the current plan — there are six student working groups, and Student Senate has members on the planning committee.

“One aim this round is for there not to be any surprises at the end,” said MacKay. “The hope is that everyone will have some input.”


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