Elmhurst College: The State of the College

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The State of the College

Elmhurst College President S. Alan Ray delivered these remarks at the President’s Community Breakfast on March 1, 2014.

Good morning everyone, and welcome to the spring 2014 President’s Community Breakfast at Elmhurst College. This morning I want to share with you some observations on the state of the College and take a look at one vision for our future.

How we have grown under our 2009-2014 Strategic Plan
As we move through the spring of our 143rd year, Elmhurst College is completing its first-ever five-year strategic plan. Work on the plan started the day I joined the College, now approaching six years ago. It was finished nine months later, in spring 2009. After five years it is appropriate to take an admittedly selective look back at what we’ve accomplished as well as examine what remains to be done.

You may be familiar with the core values that the College raised up in its plan: intellectual excellence; community; social responsibility; stewardship; and faith, meaning and values. All of these have taken root in the minds and hearts of our students, faculty, staff, alumni and trustees. These values, and the mission and vision we’ve articulated that accompany them, are today at the center of what we call the Elmhurst Experience.

Our strategic goals build on and are informed by those intangible commitments. Many of these goals have been achieved; others are still in progress. We have grown the number of full-time faculty substantially, from 132 to 159. We have sustained a student-faculty ratio of 13:1—an enviable ratio since it allows us to ensure the close faculty-student learning and mentoring interactions for which we are well known. We have made significant improvements to our infrastructure, upgrading our wireless and cable capacities and making important renovations to the Mill Theatre and Buik Recital Hall and recently renovating the Physics Lab. We invested in new space and technologies for our football program, replaced our 11-year-old artificial turf field, and added professional stadium lighting.

Our strategic plan committed us first and foremost to the self-formation and professional preparation of our students. We have always been a school with one foot resting on the liberal arts, that broad foundation of human knowledge and creativity, and the other foot resting on the professions, educating students for jobs in business, education, nursing and the like. This is a strength and comparative advantage at a time when, nationally, pure liberal arts colleges are struggling to survive, on the one hand, and employers are eager to hire graduates with liberal education skills like oral and written communication ability, on the other. Our graduates are at home in both worlds: They leave us well prepared to succeed in graduate school or their chosen profession, and they encounter the world with a broad perspective and critical habits of thought.

It should not be surprising, then, that at a time when the popular media would tell you that going to college is a waste of time and money and students cannot expect to graduate into a solid future, Elmhurst College alumni recently reported that more than 93 percent of them had a career job or graduate school acceptance within one year of receiving their bachelor’s degree. Further, when the common wisdom says that college graduates end up with a mountain of debt—hundreds of thousands of dollars—the average Elmhurst College alumnus graduates with an average loan debt of $23,000—roughly the cost of buying a new car on credit. And a car depreciates the moment it leaves the lot, while over a lifetime, a college education has been proven to earn graduates in excess of a million dollars more than their non-college counterparts.

Our strategic plan also called for us to increase the diversity of underrepresented groups within our student body. Through careful planning we have succeeded in increasing the number of students of color on campus from 17 percent of the entering first-year class to a routine 34 percent, and we are developing new student programming to retain them. In this way, we are building an environment in which all of our students, regardless of background or attributes, can engage with each other, take social risks, and rehearse for living and succeeding in an increasingly complex world. Elmhurst College should strive to be as complex a place as the world our students will enter. If we only offer up the world they knew in high school, we are failing them.

Our strategic plan called for us to examine the role of adult education in our programming. It also called on us to engage the larger Chicagoland area, explore online technology in teaching, and establish useful partnerships. Over the years our graduate programs and adult accelerated undergraduate programs had been in slow but steady decline. At one time, Elmhurst College dominated adult education in Chicagoland. By 2011, our participation was negligible and woefully behind in online teaching technology. In response, in 2012 we reinvented ourselves and launched the School for Professional Studies. Headed by a dean whose portfolio included bringing online education to the for-profit DeVry University, the SPS, as it is known, has exceeded our expectations.

Today the SPS offers master’s degrees, accelerated undergraduate degrees and even certificate programs geared to what today’s employers want and students need, offered in a combination of online, on-ground and hybrid formats. For Fall 2014, we are projecting a 37 percent increase in new student enrollments in our graduate programs compared to last year. This is fueled by both new program offerings—the Master’s in Applied Geospatial Science (AGS), Master’s in Data Science (MDS), Master’s in Marketing Research (MMR) and our Nursing Masters Entry program (NME)—and significant growth in several existing programs (MBA, MCIS, and MPA) through increased marketing efforts. Through the SPS we can now offer classes at the University Center of Lake County. And, through the SPS, we are actively exploring major new partnerships that can serve our educational mission.

One such partnership recently making the news is our new venture with Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare. In Fall 2014 we will open the doors to a new, 4,500-square-foot facility located on the ground level of the new Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. The facility, called the Elmhurst College Simulation Center at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, will offer state-of-the-art training for nurses and nursing students. Students will respond to simulated, electronic patients—called “Sims”—who can manifest virtually every symptom and behavior of actual patients. Training at the Hospital can be electronically transmitted to our campus, so students here can learn from what’s happening there. We broke ground with the Hospital on the Center only 10 days ago. When completed later this summer, it will be the largest such co-venture between a college and medical center between here and Indianapolis. I believe our partnership with EMH is a sign of things to come for Elmhurst College. Once again, our strategic planning has led the way.

Thanks to the Strategic Plan, the College enjoys a new capacity for alumni engagement and development. Our strategic goals included renewed stewardship, and in service to that goal, we revamped the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, bringing in new, experienced leadership and a deep bench of seasoned fundraising professionals. We reinvigorated our Alumni Council; opened alumni clubs in Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.; and invested in behind-the-scenes data management software and training.

Finally, you have no doubt become aware of the College’s commitment to bringing top-flight educational programming to campus through our annual series of thematic public lectures. Whether focused on poverty in unexpected places, interfaith dialogue, civic engagement, science and technology, or issues in education, each year’s Elmhurst College Cultural Season has become a much-anticipated and widely celebrated occasion in the life of our community and the Chicagoland area.

In sum, our first comprehensive Strategic Plan gave us a clear compass of mission, vision, core values and specific goals. I have shown you some of the results: how the plan has dramatically grown our full-time faculty, changed the makeup of our student body, guided infrastructure improvement decisions, generated a renewed commitment to adult learning and introduced systematic online education, laid the foundation for fruitful partnerships, reenergized our fundraising capacity, and raised our reputation for relevant educational programming for the community.

Some things we have done stand out to me but don’t fit so neatly into large categories. At a time when more and more students require mental health services, we stepped up and added counselors. At a college where hourly staff and non-cabinet administrators never had a strong voice, we created, just this past December, the Elmhurst College Staff Council, an elected body that sets its own agendas and will serve as a conduit for non-faculty employee views and concerns.

We reinvigorated our historical ties to the United Church of Christ and joined schools at a national level to promote interfaith dialogue and service; interfaith engagement is now a clear part of our college’s reputation.

And, we raised campus consciousness about Native Americans through faculty research and course development funding, speaking visits from the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation (my tribal affiliation) and a leading scholar of federal Indian law, and a revitalized Native American Heritage Week. Equally important, we raised the larger Chicago and national Native American consciousness about Elmhurst College through a variety of College roles and high-profile speaking and service engagements.

And, lest I forget, two years ago we went to a new high in our U.S. News & World Report ranking and have stayed there, reaching number 11 out of over 200 Midwestern schools in our category and ahead of all other colleges in our region that offer master’s degrees.

But a balanced view of the past five years requires that I note how we have yet to realize our strategic ambitions.

Challenges that remain
Our goal of building a new science center remains unmet, a function of the dramatic and unexpected recession that hit us all in 2008—the academic year when our plan was adopted. But our planning for a new science facility continues apace behind the scenes. There is no more important bricks-and-mortar project for Elmhurst College than the science center initiative, and in the coming five years we will make every effort to break ground and complete this vital facility.

While we have exceeded our goals in increasing the percentage of students from underrepresented groups among our student body, we have had less success in hiring new full-time faculty and staff of color. While not wholly lacking from our recent hires, faculty and staff of color at the College remain distinctly in the minority. Much work remains to be done here.

Our goal of increasing stewardship has only been partially met by the growth of our Office of Development and Alumni Relations. We continue to work to increase the percentage of our alumni who participate in annual giving, to reengage those alumni as new or active donors, and to increase our pool of major donor prospects. Work remains in finding and fully exploiting partnerships with corporations, especially those in the sciences.

Recent investments in faculty and other personnel have stressed our operating budget, and have caused us to devote much time and energy to finding new sustainable, significant revenue streams and identify areas where costs can be further contained or reduced. Like most schools of our type and size, we struggle to keep costs of attendance low and quality of education high. We compete fiercely with our regional peer schools for the best students, while being always mindful that tuition discounting comes at a cost to net revenues.

This is a daily battle and every College employee and trustee brings an “all-hands-on-deck” attitude to address these concerns and sustain the enormous gains we have seen in the quality of an Elmhurst education and the strength of Elmhurst’s reputation. We cannot go backwards through irresponsible cost-cutting. The old saying is true: no business ever cut its way to prosperity. It is to the future and new opportunities, therefore, that we must look in order to realize the College’s great potential.

Looking to our future: 2014-2020
In my final remarks, I would like to look ahead with you to one version of Elmhurst’s future, a future informed by our past Strategic Plan but also by our next one, now under development and scheduled to be brought to the Board of Trustees in June 2014. I have encouraged everyone at the College to envision our future 20 years from now and then imagine what we must do in the next six years to get there. Though the final plan has yet to be written, here’s where I think the College is headed from 2014 to 2020.

The health sciences and health care professions will become increasingly important to American businesses and the American public. We have a large stake in the ground already in this area with our nursing program, multiple master’s degrees in nursing, partnerships to provide joint degrees or credentials in ancillary fields like pharmacy and veterinary training, and now our partnership with Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare. I envision dedication of resources to more programs in the health sciences: occupational and physical therapy, for example, as well as cross-disciplinary programs in the business of health care, made all the more relevant by the persistence and ubiquity of the Affordable Care Act. Most of all, I foresee completion of a science facility adequate to these academic programs and to the research ambitions of our talented science faculty and their students.

I also see significant growth in the number of undergraduate students we enroll—especially, though not exclusively, through online and hybrid learning techniques and a continued expansion of our “school for busy people,” the School for Professional Studies, growing programs where we see promise and trimming programs that have run their course or failed to catch fire. I see more partnerships with health care providers but also with commercial labs and research companies; indeed, with anyone who has a hand in the development and delivery of health care. Beyond health care, we will continue to seek out mutually beneficial arrangements with other schools, not only liberal arts colleges, but professional schools as well.

We will grow other academic areas where we’re strong and that show promise for generating substantial additional net revenues. Business is clearly such an area. We must dramatically increase our MBA enrollments and create new tracks in the business major that are aligned with industry trends. We can and must do the same in emerging subfields in computer and information science, another hotbed of imagination and career opportunity for our students. The same is true in education and music, two other large departments that have historically played a major role in our success.

In this environment the liberal arts will not be neglected. We will always be dedicated to educating one person at a time, through close interaction between faculty and student. Formation of the whole person will continue to be our hallmark. Helping our students attain orientation in an increasingly complex world and a rich cultural and historical context will always be central to what sets us apart from larger institutions. And our next Strategic Plan will reflect these commitments.

I also foresee our Strategic Plan calling for ways to make our campus a stronger, more vibrant student community. We can’t forget that community takes place in space and time. With half of our population made up of commuters, we must work harder to find ways to keep our students on campus after classes and on weekends. We need more student gathering spaces on campus—cafes and affinity group meeting rooms—and we need to enhance our formal recreational opportunities, expand hours and improve facilities, and look seriously at developing intramural sports. The fun factor in going to college is important, not just from a quality-of-life perspective for our students but because doing it right will give us a competitive advantage over other schools.

Indeed, it is quite possible that Elmhurst College’s biggest impediment to achieving its potential may have little to do with academic quality (see our perennially high U.S. News ranking) but a great deal to do with, dare I say, the scarcity of fun. Perhaps it’s our Germanic roots, but we’re a very earnest place. We do “serious” well. We are less good at the sort of systematic frippery that would keep 18- to 21-year-olds on our campus on evenings and weekends. It is especially important for us to take this phenomenon seriously since half our students are commuters and that percentage is unlikely to change soon. If we wish to “keep them down on the farm” it would help to be a little more like “Par-ee” and a little less like Peoria. And we can do this.

What major institutional changes lie ahead?

Transfer students—always a strong part of our undergraduate class—will increase in number as we sweep away internal barriers to admission and timely degree completion, build degree partnerships with more community colleges, and market more effectively to prospective transfer students.

International students represent a virtually untapped market for the College. And here we have so much to offer and to gain. I predict that by 2020 we will have made great strides toward internationalizing the campus. Students from countries including China, India, Saudi Arabia and South Korea should comprise 10 percent of our entering undergraduate class. Significantly more domestic undergraduates will participate in study away, and do so in non-English-speaking countries. Indeed, our notion of diversity must and will expand to world-wide, multicultural dimensions.

We will change in ways we cannot fully know today. The growth of our faculty and academic programs, and the complexity of our external arrangements with third parties may lead us to create other schools. Joining the SPS may be schools for nursing and health sciences, or education or business or music. Irrespective of such internal administrative changes, we may find that calling ourselves a university better describes our present and future and makes us a more appealing destination for students, especially international students for whom “college” is associated with high school, and “university” with higher education.

But as we know today, and will no doubt attest in 2020, growth for its own sake is a luxury higher education can no longer afford. Just piling the academic program blocks higher and higher is unacceptable. So with any expansion of faculty and programs and administration must come a critical eye to appraise what is no longer needed. We must share a collective willingness to systematically identify and disencumber ourselves not only of dated academic programs, but inefficient administrative and faculty ways of doing things. This, I predict, will be even more difficult for our campus. Every institution is path dependent to some degree, but academic institutions seem to have a unique affinity for perpetuating both excellence and inefficiency, for fostering devotion to time-honored tradition and engendering fear of change. Let’s be clear, however: It is simply our lot to live in a time of fundamental change, and Elmhurst is a college, not an ostrich farm.

Therefore, as we move on from 2014 to 2020 and beyond, I believe we as a community must embrace an ethic of innovation if we are to thrive. An ethic of innovation says “It’s good to stay alert and question the status quo because if I don’t, I may become somebody’s lunch,” and, “It’s good to make reasonable changes, even radical ones, even painful ones, if my long-term well-being and that of those I care about depends on it.” Or, as I said in my very first remarks to the campus almost six years ago: “Let there be no sacred cows.” Long-lasting change, even for the better, cannot be imposed from the top. Still less should it be the rat’s frantic response to a sinking ship. Living out an ethic of innovation takes keen self-awareness, imagination, resourcefulness, collective action and courage. It requires a tolerance for ambiguity and the willingness to take reasonable risks. None of these traits, I note, are typically associated with institutions of higher education! But they must become so if we in higher education are to respond resourcefully and productively to what I think lies ahead for us all.

If you are not part of higher education but you feel a twinge of recognition in response to my remarks, then you see how wide-spread the era of change actually is. This is not a phenomenon limited to colleges and universities. It extends to businesses of every type, to governments and civic associations, to retirees and to children. It pertains to businesspeople who aren’t sure that their products are still relevant to consumers; to government leaders worried that Illinois will never come back from the dead; to post-Boomers worried about Social Security; and even to young people who have to select career paths. Since change is ubiquitous, the ethic of innovation applies to everyone. In an era of radical instability, what’s your strategic plan?

Of preparation, luck and grit
But inevitable change also brings the prospect of new beginnings. Change can be a harbinger of hope. In closing, I want to offer some words I shared at the groundbreaking last month for the Elmhurst College Simulation Center at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. Louis Pasteur said, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” At Elmhurst College, we’re in the business of preparing minds, so our students may be among the lucky ones. If your mind is prepared for the future, you may be lucky, too. I also offer you the words of the neuroscientist and psychologist, Angela Lee Duckworth, whose work centers on the relationship between persistence and success. In a recent TED talk, Dr. Duckworth said, “Grit is sticking with your future—day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years—and working really hard to make that future a reality.” With a prepared mind, luck and grit on our side, how can we fail?

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