Traditions, Challenges, and Moving Ahead

I am often asked about my vision for Mary Washington, or about my agenda for the University. I don’t know that I have an “agenda,” but my vision is fairly simple, and I hope not terribly controversial: to remain consistent with the best ideals and practices of liberal learning, rooted in the classical liberal arts tradition, but facing forward in ways that connect that tradition to specifically 21st century challenges, preparing students to live and work in an increasingly globalized, diverse, technologically driven world.

I hope we will seize opportunities to connect classroom learning with the world outside the classroom. I hope we will emphasize the relationship between the pursuit of knowledge and understanding and the ideals of freedom, justice, and equality. These of course are very broad ambitions, and there are no doubt many ways to actualize them, but I hope they will serve as a starting point for our conversations about the kind of institution we want UMW to be. To that end, I want to say that the most important task I have set for myself for the year ahead is to speak with as many of you as possible so that we can begin to forge a common vision together.

But putting the “vision thing” aside, I think the greatest challenge we face is recognizing the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in. To some extent, the challenge is general, impacting just about everyone in higher education: reversing demographic trends, growing market share of proprietary institutions and on-line education providers, growing student debt burden and other financial obstacles to college, the decline in the prestige of the liberal arts, and so on. Oh yeah, and decreasing financial support for state institutions. But the challenge is also very specific to our own circumstance. I have been struck over the past several weeks by the intense and still intensifying competition that we face, both from our peers among the Virginia state institutions and from the small independent colleges with whom we also compete, especially for out-of- state students. Like many of you, I have been concerned to follow the trend lines in reviewing the relevant data.

Given these circumstances, it is critically important that we think strategically together about our future. As challenging as the Strategic Resource Reallocation initiative may be, it represents a unique opportunity to ask ourselves where we are and where are we headed. Too often, academic communities simply add programs or grow support services. Good ideas come along, they justify themselves with some market research and enthusiastic support from some constituency, and so we add them, in hopes that they will complement current offerings and make us more competitive in the long run. We review programs one at a time, only occasionally glancing in the direction of the broader environment in which they operate. Strategic Resource Reallocation represents a very important moment for UMW. We need to take stock of ourselves, in a way that is not simply business as usual.

As a veteran of two similar processes, I am encouraged by what I have seen so far, especially by the very strong role being played by faculty and staff.  This is a lot of work, and it is hard, demanding work, but I do believe it will help us address the challenges we face in ways that will strengthen the institution and better position us to recruit and retain the kind of students we know will benefit most from a Mary Washington education.

Ultimately, of course, we need to align mission, vision, and strategic resource reallocation.  We need to think together about our larger purposes and aims, but we also need to ensure that we are using our limited resources strategically.  We are too small to be everything to everyone, so we will need to make choices.   I am grateful to those of you who have already been engaged in this critically important process, especially to those of you who have been putting so much of your time and energy into Strategic Resource Reallocation this summer, and I look forward to continuing this work with you over the coming year.

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