Talking about where your university is going

If you have the chance to be involved in conversations about strategic planning for your institution, don’t miss the opportunity. The strategic direction will influence what your department does, not least because the priorities in your next campaign might depend on it. What better way to understand it and live it than to have contributed in some small way?

I recently participated in discussion circles convened by our acting president, a step toward developing the new strategic direction. Participants had a choice of which group to join, and I gravitated toward one table discussing the purpose of the institution and its role in society, and a second table discussing the student experience.

I haven’t been in a classroom or library in many years, I do not interact frequently with students, and I do not regularly grapple with our institution’s purpose. But I discovered I have a lot of questions about universities, and I enjoyed hearing the diverse perspectives of people from across the institution. It was time well-spent away from the desk.

At the first table, a co-participant talked about the difference between educating students for work and education them for “life.” This got me thinking about how well universities foster the development of students’ inner lives.

We no doubt do a great job promoting and enabling conversation and connection – group work and collaborative working spaces abound, as they should. But do students have time and space for study and solitary reflection, for consolidating their learning, for building a self? Is residence a place where a student can study? Is the library still a quiet place for reading and writing?

If recent graduates seem to have high expectations for compensation and rapid career advancement, offering their hard-earned degree as evidence, have universities been complicit in implying that university, although expensive, is an investment that is meant to quickly pay off monetarily? Have we unintentionally contributed to fostering a relationship mainly characterized as transactional? What does that bode for their lives as alumni? Will the societal mission of the institution matter to them? Is the expense of education and its perceived transactional nature detrimental to a sense of play and being adventuresome in learning? Is making mistakes now too expensive? Are the stakes so high that the pressure is contributing to students’ mental health issues?

My point is not that I had awesome questions, but that I was stimulated to have so many questions. You will wonder about different things.

“What is a university for?” and “What do students believe university is for?” might not sound like Advancement questions, but now I think they are.

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