The Context for Planning
In our recent history, and especially over the preceding 15 years, Skidmore has developed from a college whose financial survival literally hung in the balance to one that successfully completed a new campus, made the transition to coeducation and through the successful Journey Campaign (completed in 1998) continued on course toward acquiring the resources necessary to join the ranks of the nation's best liberal arts colleges. Since 1993, our endowment has increased nearly fourfold. Our campus is beautiful and attractive, both to prospective students (and their parents) and to those who live and work here. Our 650-acre North Woods represents a wonderful and still largely untapped resource for fitness, recreation and learning. By virtue of its distinctive cultural, educational, social and recreational resources, Saratoga Springs provides a superb setting for the college.
Over the past 40 years, we have advanced from a school whose admissions were once driven primarily by student choice to one that, in recent admissions cycles, has selected a new entering class from more than 6,000 applicants. Prospective students who even 10 years ago might not have considered Skidmore now make us their first choice.4 These students come to Skidmore in large part because we have attracted a superb faculty that in its teaching, research and creative work compares favorably with the best in the country. In bringing distinction and rigor to its work, the faculty has considerably elevated both academic standards and our expectations for the entire Skidmore community. For its part, the Skidmore faculty has recently reported finding our entering students better prepared and seeking a higher level of academic challenge. In 2000 we opened the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, which has attained national recognition as a venue and for its programs. Most important of all, we have progressed from a school whose self-image was bounded by a sense of limitation to a self-assured college that views its distinctive identity, achievements and contributions to the lives of our alumni with a sense of justifiable pride.
At the same time, we acknowledge a number of sometimes daunting hurdles that we must surmount in the near future if we are to realize our ambitions:
- the need for a clear articulation of our distinctive institutional identity—both to support our internal planning and to project to external constituencies;
- recent student survey data and retention figures (especially from the second to the third year) that suggest we are not engaging enough of our students at the beginning of their academic careers;
- our endowment, which remains modest in relation to the holdings of our peer schools, despite its recent impressive growth;
- the likelihood of substantial increases in basic costs such as insurance (health care, property, liability), energy and financial aid, over the coming years, combined with the prospect of uncertain financial markets and increased external pressure to hold down tuition increases;
- the need to raise the prominence of the natural sciences at Skidmore and provide support to this area of the College commensurate with our expectations for all our academic programs—to increase the balance of our liberal arts curriculum and to address issues of scientific literacy among all our students;
- national trends in the demographics of traditional-age students that have been favorable for a number of years but will begin to level off in 2008;5 we need to understand and, if necessary, account for ways in which this development might affect us;
- the imperative to invest substantially (perhaps as much as $100M) in renovating our physical plant and constructing needed new facilities;
- the prospect of having to replace nearly one-third of our faculty (and a substantial number of administrators and staff members, as well) over the period of this plan due to retirements;
- our desire to improve our performance in dealing with the many complicated issues falling under the heading of diversity;
- the increasingly competitive environment of elite national liberal arts colleges in which we contend for students, faculty, staff, resources, and recognition; and
- a national context in which liberal education in general and elite liberal arts colleges in particular need to be defended against deep-seated skepticism regarding our value and, most certainly, our cost.
These and other challenges will test our judgment, our imagination and our collective resolve. At the same time, having developed from institutional adolescence to the brink of maturity, we now find ourselves at a transition point—a juncture at which our significant forward momentum allows us to view the college with fresh eyes and take charge of our destiny in unprecedented ways.
Many of these challenges, however, also represent opportunities. Indeed, we are positioned today to entertain a set of questions that would have been quite unimaginable even a few years ago:
- How might we extend the expectations explicit in our Mission Statement and implicit in the statement that creative thought matters to all our students?
- How can we prepare all Skidmore students to function effectively in the multicultural, increasingly interconnected world they will encounter upon graduation?
- How can we challenge every Skidmore student to become the "informed, responsible citizen" referenced in our Mission Statement?
- What can we do to take a leadership role in the national conversation within American Higher Education about the value and efficacy of liberal education—especially as it relates to the capacity of the American people to engage deeply and creatively the issues that confront us today, issues pertaining not just to the future of this country but to the future of the world?
- And last, what must we do to hold ourselves accountable for attaining these results and measure our success accordingly?
We can maintain our current positive trajectory through the coming years only to the extent that we effectively manage new demands on our finances and on our most precious resources: our time and our energy. We must establish clear strategic priorities, understand both their direct and indirect costs and make the difficult choices that will be required to realize them.
This plan establishes an overarching framework for making the necessary choices—for deciding, as a college, that while many objectives are important, some must take pride of place. It identifies four ambitious goals, together with the priority initiatives required to achieve them. Completing these Initiatives will entail specific action steps 6 that will be identified in action agendas that will be developed annually by the administration in collaboration with the Institutional Planning and Policy Council (IPPC). The Plan references other documents (such as the "Residential Life Plan," the "Comprehensive Compensation Framework") that address specific objectives in greater detail.
A useful heuristic in planning is to identify available resources and ask where those resources should be invested first. Each year's budget represents a de facto answer to that question. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that such choices consistently reflect the goals and Initiatives set forth in this plan.
To attain our objectives, however, we must overcome the natural tendency to look immediately to increased revenues to fund each new initiative. A hallmark of effective planning is the willingness to interrogate current practices, asking whether existing resources might be redirected to better purpose. Most organizations, and certainly most colleges and universities, devote the largest percentage of their time, energy and budget to support ongoing activities that can appear to be nondiscretionary8—such as the costs of energy, liability insurance and financial aid, or staffing a set of required courses. But in fact each of our actions involves choice at some level. We could lower our thermostats in winter, accept more risk, change our financial aid policies (and thus admit different students), or redesign our curriculum. More generally, to fund a recurring budget item or devote effort to a familiar task is to decide not to direct those funds or effort somewhere else. By highlighting this process here, we are not signaling the onset of a new wholesale review of programs aimed at cost cutting. At the same time, it is the responsibility of every area within the college—and, indeed, of every individual who works here—to identify creative ways to deploy our assets most effectively.
If it is to be worth our time and effort, this planning process must not only enable us to address our challenges, it ultimately must inspire us to unprecedented achievements—new levels of excellence—in pursuit of Skidmore's distinctive educational mission. To recommit ourselves to our distinctive mission, we begin by reviewing and reaffirming those core values that make us the college that we are today and that will continue to guide us into the future.
4 . This progress is represented both objectively and subjectively. Objective indicators include the increased numbers of applicants, greater selectivity and higher SAT scores for admitted and matriculated students. Subjective indicators include the fact that Skidmore was identified as the first choice of 65% of first-year students entering in fall 2003, as compared to 58% in 1999; 72% of these entering students expect to be satisfied with the college, as compared to 68% in a national norm group. Statistics come from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) survey of entering students, which is administered every four years.
5 . This picture is complex. The number of high school graduates nationally will peak in 2008 and then decline over the next 10 years to 2018. Two of the top five states from which Skidmore attracts students (New York, Massachusetts) will experience projected decreases of up to 10%. However, the three remaining states in this group will see increases of up to 33% (New Jersey) and 10% (Connecticut and California).