Emerging Themes

Photo of President Helm“I like to have a plan,” said Mr. Palliser. “And so do I,” said his wife – “if only for the sake of not keeping it.” “There’s nothing I hate so much as not carrying out my intentions,” said Mr. Palliser.1

I am pleased to report that Trollope’s little scene of domestic tension has not, at least so far, been replayed within the Muhlenberg family during the year since we began planning the College’s future. Trustees, faculty, alumni, students, parents all seem to agree on the importance of having a plan – and no one to date has suggested that, when finished, its function is to be ignored. Now, thanks to the hard work and thoughtful advice of many, many members of our community, we are in the homestretch of the strategic planning process. A first draft should be completed early in the fall semester. More community discussion will ensue, and finally, the plan will be approved by the Board of Trustees no later than January 2005.

Much remains to be done – and there will still be spirited debate about many of the strategic initiatives that have been proposed. But even at this stage, I think it is safe to say that there is strong consensus about certain features and implications of the emerging plan, and it is not premature to share some of these publicly.

First, the College intends to cleave to its mission of residential undergraduate liberal arts education. Indeed, we will substantially strengthen our national reputation for intellectual rigor in liberal arts and pre-professional studies, while emphasizing the importance of character and ethical decision-making and the obligation of graduates to lead lives of leadership and service. In other words, we are going to be an even better and stronger version of the College we have always been – we are not going to reinvent ourselves, pursue the latest educational fads, or deviate from the values that have shaped our character and guided us for over 150 years.

Second, we believe we have reached our optimal size in terms of enrollment. The 1990s saw considerable enrollment growth, with the additional tuition revenues funding a boom in construction and staffing. We probably cannot increase our enrollments further without compromising the quality of the classroom experience, overtaxing our facilities and straining relationships with our neighbors. This decision, when finalized, will produce some interesting ripple effects throughout the institution. Unlike the 1990s, when the number of majors increased in virtually all departments, the increased popularity of some majors will, in the future, result in shifting enrollment patterns in other departments. We will need to be alert to these shifts and agile in our response to them. Equally important, we will need to seek alternative sources of revenue to fund the renovations, facilities and staff that will be required to generate continued institutional momentum. That revenue is most likely to come from fund raising. Incurable optimist that I am, I look at Muhlenberg’s relatively unimpressive alumni giving rate (approximately 33%) and see huge growth potential (many liberal arts colleges enjoy participation rates of 45% to 55%). Having met hundreds of enthusiastic alumni, I sense a deep reservoir of affection and loyalty to this place, and see no reason why we can’t do a much better job of communicating our message: we need your support if your Muhlenberg degree is to continue to grow in value. We need you to make Muhlenberg a philanthropic priority in your life.

Third, we must address the facilities gap in the sciences at Muhlenberg. Our reputation for pre-health education is, deservedly, one of our crown jewels. The science faculty are unequalled as teachers, scholars and mentors to our students. But we are losing good science students who find our science laboratories and classrooms outdated compared to those offered by the other colleges they visit. We would be irresponsible to ignore this threat.

Fourth, we must explore a new approach to the liberal arts – one that links theory and practice and that significantly expands student opportunities for research, for fieldwork, for service learning, experiential learning and internships, and for foreign study. I addressed this development in my essay “Gods in the Kitchen” in the previous issue of Muhlenberg magazine. There is tremendous potential here, and Muhlenberg is poised to capitalize on it.

Fifth, we must continue to enhance the quality of student life, not only in terms of co-curricular and extra-curricular programs but also in terms of the physical condition of our cherished campus. We have already made a huge investment in new athletic facilities (the magnificent 40,000 square foot addition to Life Sports Center will open this fall), which will be accompanied by other staffing and training initiatives in our athletic program. We hope to strengthen Greek life as a system that builds character and develops leadership. We must ensure that our residential facilities are of high quality, while preserving the diversity of housing options that students find so attractive. We must strengthen student support services as well as the facilities that house them. We need to implement a plan to care for and, when appropriate, replace the grand old trees on our campus, to restore green space whenever possible at the campus core, and to move parking and service facilities to the periphery.

These are not the only initiatives we are considering – not by a long shot. There are many important “tactical” initiatives that emerged during the planning process that have or will be implemented. Many ideas remain to be weighed — the plan is far from completed. There may be significant changes, even in those areas that I have mentioned.

Of course it is important to remember that good strategic plans are never carved in stone. Mrs. Palliser might have done well to remind her husband of Publius Syrus’ maxim in 42 B.C. “It is a bad plan that admits of no modification,” or to quote the distinguished Jedi Master Yoda’s remark “Impossible to see the future is.”2 The Board’s approval of the strategic plan in January will mark the beginning of a continuous process of review and adjustment, as the future gradually reveals itself. We must be prepared to respond creatively, nimbly and generously.

 

Dr. Peyton R. Helm
President
Muhlenberg College

 

1 Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?, Vol. 2, ch. lxviii.
2 Publius Syrus, Maxim 469; Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

 
The Last Word

 

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