By Brian Rosenberg

Among many people, the phrase “strategic planning” inspires roughly the same level of enthusiasm as does the phrase “driver’s license renewal.” This is unsurprising. Too often strategic planning exercises are slow, overly complicated, and unfocused, and their results cautious and vague, sacrificing clarity and boldness for broad palatability. Such exercises can consume an institution’s most precious resource—time—and yield few meaningful results.

This need not be the case. Properly conceived, strategic planning is a chance for the members of an organization to sharpen their understanding of that organization’s mission and to adopt the right strategies for carrying it forward. It’s a chance to strengthen and excite a community by identifying and supporting the best ideas its members have to offer. It’s a chance to address challenges before they become crises and to turn opportunities into advantages.

Here, in my view, are the wrong reasons for the Macalester community to embark on a new round of strategic planning: because we haven’t done so in a while; because we’ve recently completed a major capital campaign; because we’re only a few years away from our next accreditation review. All of these things are true and typically cited as bases for strategic planning, but if they are the chief drivers of our work the process is likely to be mechanical and the outcome unsatisfactory.

Here are the right reasons: because to thrive as a college we need to become better as a college; because we’re in the midst of a period of dramatic challenges and changes to higher education and particularly to high-cost residential liberal arts colleges; because we must figure out a way to make difficult choices informed by a shared sense of mission and purpose; because it will benefit our society if Macalester and places like it succeed in educating young people at the highest level. These are the drivers that have the potential to make strategic planning meaningful and truly important.

Because Macalester is by virtually any measure a strong institution, our planning can move forward with a sense of confidence in the college’s future. It should also, however, move forward with a sense of urgency, given some clear signs that the world within which we will operate will afford little room for error. This year, for the first time on record, the discount rate for the entire student body will exceed 50 percent. This suggests a level of financial need and price sensitivity among prospective students and their families that we have not previously seen. Almost daily, stories appear in the popular and academic press about the growing problem of student debt, the growing influence of “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) developed by top-tier universities, and the broad defunding of higher education at the state level. Were our confidence to become complacency, we would be making a serious mistake.

This spring we will begin a process of strategic planning at Macalester. Though the structure of that process hasn’t been determined, it seems only fair for me to articulate its basic parameters. I expect it to proceed at a pace that is not rushed but expeditious. I expect it to allow for extensive community discussion and input, but also for a group of manageable size to discuss difficult issues extensively and in confidence. I expect it to result in a plan for moving forward that can be broadly embraced but that is focused on a finite set of critical issues and includes tough choices.

Among the questions such a process must seriously consider are these: What changes to our practices and priorities seem most likely to place Macalester on a sustainable economic path? How can and should technology alter the way we do our work? What set of curricular and co-curricular programs will best prepare students for personal, economic, and civic success? How should our mission as a globally focused institution and our location as an urban college affect the choices we make?

I would encourage all who care about the college to pay careful attention as this planning process unfolds and to engage with it when opportunities present themselves. This is important.

We have volumes of information about what Macalester is today. The central question before us now is both basic and enormously complex: What at heart do we want Macalester to be tomorrow?

Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester, writes a regular column for Macalester Today. He can be reached at

February 1 2013

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