The Board of Visitors discussed strategic planning and the future of the College of William and Mary at its regularly scheduled meetings Wednesday and Thursday this week.
College President Taylor Reveley noted that money was to be a key part of the plan.
“The new financial model has to be on the list of strategic objectives,” he said.
BOV Rector Michael Powell ’85 said strategic initiatives are “one of the most important things we’ll ever do.”
BOV member Jeffrey Trammell agreed.
“This is an exciting part of our board meeting because we are undertaking something new here, something much needed,” he said. “We all have felt a sense of the need for a strategic plan, one that will be updated, but in this initial phase we’ve forged consensus out of our goals and objectives and sort of all the steps are going to take us to the greater excellence to which we all aspire.”
Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Jim Golden addressed the board to explain the process.
“What is our mission for William and Mary?” he said. “That is the theme of today’s session.”
Golden presented the board with a list of 14 challenges that he said came from various meetings with students, faculty, staff, alumni and other groups affiliated with the College.
The list includes items that stipulated a more international focus, developing a stronger research model,committing to intellectual freedom and diversity, creating a strong sense of community, upgrading institutional support and creating a better financial model.
“These are all things we would like to do, but we need to focus,” Golden said. “We have limited resources, both in terms of dollars, but also in terms of time, in leadership, in communications, and we need to focus on the things that are most important to implementing our vision.”
The BOV spent a great deal of time in meetings discussing the initiatives. Their suggestions about which are the most important and should become part of the College’s long-term strategic plans will continue to contribute to the strategic planning process, which should produce a final document at the end of the spring semester.
Powell warned against restating current goals.
“I think there will be a tendency to simply, in new prose, say what we’ve always said. And maybe that will be the conclusion; maybe after hard pressure testing, the vision’s fine, who we are is fine, our history’s fine,” he said. “What would really be exciting is to be aggressive and even sacrilegious if necessary to really think about fresh ways to conceptualize William and Mary.”
BOV member Janet Brashear ’82 agreed.
“The danger in strategy is you look backward when you should be looking forward,” she said. “And if you’re not forward-looking you become irrelevant over time.”
BOV Secretary Suzann Matthews ’71 suggested emphasizing the College’s storied history in a new context.
“We are the fifth-oldest English-speaking university in the world,” she said. “Those five are Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrew’s, Harvard and William and Mary. Okay, that’s a nice peer group.”
Powell noted that a global context would bring freshness to the College’s history.
“I’ve always felt that we’ve struggled with our history story in the context exclusively of American history,” he said, emphasizing Thomas Jefferson and the longtime struggle between the College, which educated Jefferson, and the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded. “In many ways, let’s face it, they won that battle. I feel like we’re always playing ‘also-ran’ against U.Va. for that part of our history.”
BOV member Robert Scott J.D. ’86 — attending his first BOV meeting since his appointment this summer — argued that such lofty goals must be grounded in finances.
“One of the things we want to be is: We want to be a world-class university, we want to be the best liberal arts college in the world, and we don’t have any money,” Scott said. “You can try to play with that, but it seems to me in the current environment, in order to be forward and creative and thoughtful, we’re going to have to be willing to say what we are and what we aren’t.”
BOV member John Charles Thomas warned that discussions about abstract goals could end up failing.
“I just wonder whether, if you start with we want to be: The best liberal arts college in the country or the grooviest or the most preeminent, I just wonder if that discussion ever gets you anywhere because everybody wants to be the best,” he said.
Responding to questions about the quality of institutional support, Vice President for Administration Anna Martin passionately pled with the board to consider the College’s aging infrastructure. As an example, Martin used the College’s 20-year-old telephone system.
“The original manufacturer discontinued maintenance several years ago. We are serviced by a third-party contractor that has an inventory of, quote, ‘vintage spare parts,’” she said. “We are told it is one of only three left running in the country. Component failures become more frequent, and we don’t know how long we can continue to operate.”
The board’s conversations about strategic planning continued last night during a board dinner and again this morning at the main board meeting. Today they must choose six to eight goals for the College to focus on.
According to Golden, the College’s deans, vice presidents and program heads will work on detailed plans for the board’s choices in the next few months and will return with more concrete plans to the BOV meeting in February.
Before the board meetings began Wednesday afternoon, Powell and other BOV members met with representatives from the Student Assembly, including SA President Valerie Hopkins ’09, to discuss increasing communication between the board and students.
“The Rector said, you know, you can talk to 10 groups, you can talk to 20 groups, you can talk to hundreds of students or you can talk to 50 students, and you know how can you really be sure you have harnessed and understood what is the student opinion, if there even is one [singular] student opinion,” Hopkins said.
Powell said the meeting was productive.
“There was nothing decided as much as just talking about a lot of ideas about the ways particularly with, you know, how to use technology a lot more effectively,” Powell told The Flat Hat. “Students live in a different kind of communication cosmos, if you will, than the average board member does.”
Powell noted to the Board early on that microphones in the room were recording the meeting for a possible podcast. Powell later told The Flat Hat podcasting was one idea that had emerged from discussions with students and again at Wednesday’s meeting.
“I should say I would credit students because I met with students in September, and they threw out some ideas that were similar: video streaming, podcast, a blog,” he said. “Being a technology person myself, I have interests in how we can institutionalize those kinds of tools.”
Powell said that the conversation between students and the board is always ongoing.
“It’s a challenge. We’re 17 people and there’s 7,700 students,” he said. “And students are only one constituency of many.”