New strategic planning process solicits community input

At the start of this school year, Macalester launched a new strategic planning process. The plan, which is expected to be completed next October, will serve as a blueprint for Macalester’s future decision-making. Administrative leaders opted to skip the traditional appointment of a planning committee and instead begin an extensive outreach campaign to hear community feedback, a move that has met with both enthusiasm and skepticism from members of the community.

Every few years, Macalester revisits its vision in the form of a strategic plan. These plans outline several years of long-term and short-term goals. Macalester’s most recent strategic plan was developed in 2015. With the arrival of a new college president, last year would have been the normal time for a new strategic plan, but the chaos of the COVID pandemic -19 postponed the process.

“Last year’s requests were really tactical and not strategic,” said Macalester President Suzanne Rivera. “We were really figuring out how to run the campus in these really difficult conditions, how to keep everyone safe, how to limit interruptions in people’s progress towards degrees, and all of it was so difficult that we didn’t ‘ve not really had any slack in our day, or even mentally, to think about the longer term.

“Now that we are resuming campus operations in a more business-as-usual fashion…we have a little more room to think and plan for the future in a way that was not possible last year,” he said. – she continued.

Senior executives begin the strategic planning process with an unconventional first step: instead of asking a committee to begin drafting a plan, Macalester begins with a phase focused on getting input from the wider community.

Macalester has a standing Strategic Planning and Analysis (SPA) committee that supports the process, but the SPA has no substantive role in developing the strategic plan.

A major component of this is the selection of 14 to 16 “champions” – students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents who will meet with college administrators over the next few months to help set priorities for the plan. These champions will be responsible for hearing thoughts and feedback from their circles of Macalester community members and conveying them to the planning team.

Finn Odum*’21, a former student government representative from Macalester College (MCSG) who graduated last spring, is applying for the position of champion hoping it will provide a chance to connect with administrators and improve campus life for students. Odum was on MCSG during the tumultuous 2020-21 school year. They recalled struggling through tax events last year, including the deaths of two students, and wished there were more resources available for struggling students.

“We had to sit at MCSG, cry and argue, and a bereavement policy was drafted and sent to [the Educational Policy and Governance Committee], and I don’t think anything happened,” Odum said. “I guess the short version is, I want to apply because I tried everything I could to litigate at Macalester, and not much worked.”

The champion position is touted as a chance to interact with senior leadership and help shape Macalester’s next few years; Odum wants to ensure that the process and future decisions are centered on student needs.

Champions nominations were due Oct. 25. Senior executives will spend the next few weeks selecting champions, and those selected will begin their work with a kick-off meeting on November 19.

Directors involved in strategic planning seek feedback in several other places, including at Big Questions events, an open strategic planning email address, and through the strategic planning site.

Macalester’s senior executives are pinning high hopes on the planning process. It begins during a period of change at the college, between the pandemic and the departure of many senior staff in recent months.

Rivera thinks this is an opportunity to respond to some of the more common comments she hears from students. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened national attention to racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, the past year has been marked by demands from students to rethink mental health support and address the racism in college.

“I hear people loud and clear that it feels like a place where some people feel more of a sense of belonging than others,” she said. “I’m always thinking about how we can improve what we do, improve the campus culture to make it more inclusive.”

Provost Lisa Anderson-Levy, who is co-leading the planning process with Rivera, is currently focused on listening to community feedback, but she doesn’t think anything is off limits to change with this strategic plan.

“From my perspective, all existing practices and structures are on the table to be reinvented,” Anderson-Levy wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. “While that of course doesn’t mean everything will be changed, I do think we need to take a broad view and be open to who we are and how we do what we do.”

With multiple platforms and opportunities for communication between strategic planning champions and members of the Macalester community, Rivera aims to gather as much feedback as possible to identify what needs to be maintained and strengthen new areas.

However, some professors at Macalester worry about the process deviating from the usual strategic planning models. Some are concerned about the lack of clarity in the community engagement component, particularly where their feedback will go once it is heard by champions and fed back to senior management.

David Shuman, associate professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science and member of the SPA, agreed that the process is a bit unusual, with no committee involved in drafting the plan.

“What’s unknown to me – and I can see where the skepticism is coming from – is, how is this going to be used to come up with a strategic plan?” Shuman said. “It’s just a matter of how it’s going to be weighted…and who’s going to be in the room when those final decisions are made.”

Finances are also a major consideration in the strategic planning process. SPA has created an overview of the financial model outlining Macalester’s main sources of income and expenses to help those interested in better understanding the school’s finances and participating in strategic planning. The SPA hoped that the document would remain brief and readable.

“When we settle with it, there’s no way to get it on one page [that is] easily digestible [and can be read in] five minutes,” Shuman said.

To complement this information, the college organized two virtual meetings explaining the financial model on October 27 and 28. There was also an in-person meeting for students on October 28.

The school will need to consider financial feasibility in its strategic planning initiatives. Members of the Macalester community are beginning to share their hopes for the planning process and the changes they would like to see made, but Shuman explained that in some cases Macalester’s budget can make it difficult to execute on strategic plan goals.

“We’re just trying to survive…and make sure we can do as much to educate students and fulfill our mission and keep our goals and serve society and make Macalester accessible and keep going,” Shuman said.

Rivera and the rest of the planning executive hope to present an overview of Macalester’s top priorities to the board next May. Next summer, senior leaders will host a workshop on these ideas and flesh out concrete goals in support of these top priorities. The community will have another chance to comment on the plan before it goes to the board for final approval next October.

Rivera hopes community members will take the opportunity to participate in the plan.

“It’s easier to sit on the sidelines and criticize the things you don’t like; it’s harder and takes more effort to roll up your sleeves and get involved,” Rivera said. “What we’re trying to create here is an opportunity for everyone to feel a sense of ownership in terms of charting the course for Mac’s future.”

The new strategic planning model, Rivera says, has the potential to create a more inclusive and transparent process. Odum hopes that the feedback from champions and students will be taken seriously.

“I’m glad something like this is happening where they’re actively trying to engage students and alumni,” Odum said. “I really hope that…it will produce a better relationship between the administrator and the students.”

* Finn Odum ’21 was a staff writer for Mac weekly.

Louisa R. Loomis