Thursday, August 26, 2010

Towards the Future at YSU

Two key things stand out when talking with Dr. Cynthia Anderson about what’s happening at YSU.  The first is that for her, students really are the center of everything.  Research and community connections matter, but students are, for her, the University’s most important element, its very reason for being.  No doubt, that’s a carryover from her years as Vice President for Student Affairs, but I find it a refreshing change.  For too long, students mattered primarily as enrollment figures.  For Cindy – and yes, she insists on being called that, not Dr. Anderson or any other formal title – students matter as people, as learners, as members of the University community. 

The second thing that stands out is her ability to be at once incredibly enthusiastic and relatively practical.  That is, she doesn’t pretend that we don’t face real problems, or that addressing those problems will be difficult.   At least so far, though, she addresses the issues with confidence and optimism. 

Take, for example, her insistence that the current Strategic Planning process will generate concrete plans that will guide YSU over the next decade – rather than being the usual type of feel-good (or feel only sort of good) process that gives the illusion of widespread participation and investment.  I’ll admit that I’m skeptical, even though I’m a member of the Strategic Planning committee.  I’ve spent enough time at universities to have seen plenty of fake planning, often well-intentioned but only rarely leading to real change. 

What does it take to make Strategic Planning work?  First, I believe that strategic plans work best when they not only set goals but also identify concrete, appropriate steps toward those goals.  We need not only to identify “indicators,” as the leaders of this process have requested, but also tactics.  Setting priorities and measuring progress don’t yield change.  It’s what you do in pursuit of those priorities that generates measurable progress. 

Second, those who have the power to make decisions have to be committed to pursue the plan – not the plan they think ought to be generated but the one that actually emerges from the process.  That means that those with power must truly listen to what others have to say.  It also means developing a plan that makes clear the rationale for key decisions, including how they will benefit the institution.  Put differently, the plan has to be persuasive both to those with power and those who will be affected.

Finally, that kind of plan can only emerge if people speak up.  Many individuals on campus and in the community will be invited to meetings to discuss one or more of its four “cornerstones.”  I hope most will respond.  As I see it, if I refuse to participate in the process, I give up my right to complain about the outcome.  But you don’t have to be invited to participate.  The Strategic Planning website lists e-mail addresses for committee members, and soon the site will have tools to allow you to offer your thoughts.  It sometimes seems that everyone in the Mahoning Valley has an opinion about what YSU ought to do.  Now’s the chance to speak up.