emarkable and gratifying” is how Mary C. Lynn describes Skidmore’s strategic planning so far. The professor of American studies and author of the Skidmore history Make No Small Plans is impressed by the “remarkable amount of agreement on our strengths. And it’s very gratifying,” she adds, “that we clearly are being asked to preserve and build upon those strengths.”
Lynn’s positive vibes are founded on this fall’s broad-based community feedback—the first phase of the planning initiative—which revealed substantial consensus on the qualities valued most at Skidmore, qualities said to constitute the “soul” of the college: close faculty-student relationships and great teaching; the liberal arts curriculum; an inclusive, open-minded community; and a strong sense of place, especially the natural campus setting.
By far the dominant theme was the centrality of the faculty-student relationship. According to one faculty member at a campus roundtable discussion, “What we do best is put teacher and student together to read, write, and discuss the ideas of our disciplines.” Added a graduate, “The accessibility and outright desire of professors to connect with and assist students is the single most outstanding feature of the college.”
Participants also generally concurred on areas in need of improvement: first and foremost, setting priorities and allocating resources accordingly. Said one participant, “We don’t say no very well. We want to be everything to all people. I worry that we spread ourselves too thin.” The solution, according to another: “There should be fewer priorities and a clearer self-concept, and this should be honestly communicated to the community.” Others called for stronger student identification with the larger campus community, more diversity, and better preparation for the “real world,” while growing the endowment to support these ambitions.
A full report (see www.skidmore.edu/planning; give the username “distillation” and password “strategy”) was produced this January by the Institutional Planning Committee’s distillation subcommittee, chaired by Lynn and John Berman, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. Based on the report, three core areas have been identified by IPC as the focus for the next round of community discussions. Those areas, outlined in a letter from Skidmore president Jamienne S. Studley to the college community, are close interactions between faculty and students, the spirit of community and diversity, and linkages between the living and learning elements of the student experience.
History professor Tadahisa Kuroda is also gratified by the “wide agreement on fundamental values.” But he’s concerned about the potential difficulties in “translating those values into an operating, efficient, thriving institution.” He says that he isn’t surprised that “setting priorities and learning to say no” tops the list of things Skidmore needs to improve. In fact, he accepted a seat on the distillation subcommittee to try to make sense out of the competing demands faculty face in juggling teaching, scholarship, advising, and community-building responsibilities.
Thomas “Pat” Oles, dean of student affairs and fellow subcommittee member, takes the issue further: “It would be nice if we knew what to do first and what to drop. Next spring would I be better off teaching my Liberal Studies class or helping to raise money for a new residence hall?”
It’s hard to argue with Oles’s desire for clear institutional priorities. Yet at the same time he’d hate to see Skidmore dramatically reduce the scope of its programs. Says Oles, “We attract students to the fine and performing arts, to our business program, to compete in athletics. Spread those opportunities out over 2,000-plus students and you are going to be spread pretty widely. But that creates a fantastic energy. We ought to celebrate this.”
Certainly many respondents, while agreeing on core values, differed in their emphases and assessments. These “tensions” among competing wants, needs, and perspectives are captured in the committee’s report under “Search for Equilibrium” and include teaching vs. scholarship, nurturing vs. challenging, “my project” vs. “no new buildings,” and democracy vs. efficiency.
For institutional research associate Joseph Stankovich, “The emergence of tensions in the data was a healthy development. It reminds all of us that choices have to be made and that those choices are limited by our resources.” But Michael Casey, vice president for advancement, observes, “Skidmore has made a number of difficult but ultimately positive decisions in the past—from coeducation to moving the campus. I’m confident that we can and will make positive decisions again this time.”
As for timing, says Studley, “We intend to draft a clear set of priorities, goals, and objectives by summer’s end. We’ll then present them to the community for further refinement. We’ll listen carefully and move purposefully toward confirmation of a plan.” She adds, “This will require collaboration, creativity, and discipline, but given the progress we’ve made thus far under IPC’s leadership, I’m confident we will meet our targets.”
Kuroda says, “I trust that President Studley and the trustees will arrive at a plan that will be good for the institution. Of course, ultimately the numerous hopes and aspirations expressed by the Skidmore community have to be played out within real constraints and with live players. It’s going to be a challenge.”
No doubt, admits Lynn. But she takes comfort in the fact that “the president at Skidmore, more than at some larger institutions, needs to place a premium on listening and building consensus, and Jamie Studley listens well.” (For her part, Studley smiles and quips, “One would do well to heed the words of Skidmore’s historian when planning its future.”)
Declares Studley, “I am confident that we will face difficult choices as we seek balance and fulfill our dreams. I am also confident that we will successfully negotiate these choices, as we have done in the past, and that Skidmore will become even stronger.”
146 faculty, 144 staffers, 111 alumni, 61 students, 26 trustees, and others joined roundtable discussions on or off campus
747 alumni, 248 parents, 64 students, 52 faculty, 38 staffers, and others submitted surveys by mail or computer
|“Process is a big part of our message. This is the first time in some years that the Skidmore community has been asked in a broad way for advice. And we’re willing to ask any question about any subject: size, location, focus of programs, commitment to diversity.”|
—Michael Casey, vice president for advancement; IPC
|“To me the major message is: slow down, we’re moving too fast. Take the time to appreciate who we are and how much has been accomplished in such a short period of time. Give it time to work together and mature.”|
—Keith Kirshner ’02, SGA vice president; distillation subcommittee
|“The results were very consistent with what we knew about the institution; there were no shockers. If the messages had been really new and different, I might have called into question our methods and research.”|
—Ann Henderson, registrar and director of institutional research; distillation subcommittee
|“The ‘searches for equilibrium’ were especially stimulating. For example, should students feel they belong to the Skidmore community as a total entity? or to interlinked smaller communities defined by majors, clubs, and specific interests?”|
—John Berman, vice president for academic affairs; IPC and distillation subcommittee
|“I was struck by how much agreement there is about what really matters, which is the quality of relationships: teacher to student, student to student, and others. Relationships generally are the heart of the Skidmore experience.”|
—Pat Oles, dean of students; IPC and distillation subcommittee