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Two authors and two books became household words at Eastern Mennonite University this school year. One book was called Quality with Soul and was written by Robert Benne, professor of religion and director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. The other book was Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance by Robert Dickeson.
Dr. Dickeson is senior vice president for policy and organizational learning at the Lumina Foundation and president emeritus, University of Northern Colorado. One author hopeful that institutions of higher learning can maintain their theological heritage while pursuing academic rigor, the other keenly aware that many campuses fail to flourish because their mission has become too diffuse. In other words, institutions fail to prioritize among the many demands for their available financial resources. Both of these authors visited EMU in January, 2005. What was it that brought Dr. Robert Benne and Dr. Robert Dickeson to the EMU campus spring semester?
It all began in the fall of 2003. As interim president that fall, it was my job to plan the year’s agenda for the Strategic Planning Council. With a new president expected in January of 2004, I could hardly launch a major planning initiative. Thus, the council did the necessary business and then agreed to spend spring semester, when new president Loren Swartzendruber would be with us, reading and discussing two books that some of us had discovered and thought might have important implications for EMU.
One was Robert Benne’s Quality with Soul and the other one was the popular Good to Great by Jim Collins. We expected these books to stimulate our thinking about EMU’s future. We were not disappointed. We have learned much from both books. I will never again hire new employees without at least a fleeting thought about Collin’s metaphor of "getting the right people on the bus."
Benne’s book especially struck chords with us with his analysis of what it takes for an institution like EMU to maintain its religious tradition. Based on his study of six church-related colleges, Dr. Benne identified four types of institutions differentiated by the degree to which their Christian vision, versus secular sources, serves as the organizing paradigm for the school. He named these four types "orthodox, critical-mass, intentionally pluralist and accidentally pluralist."
These types exist on a continuum from very strong connections to the religious heritage (orthodox) to rather weak links to the founding denomination (accidentally pluralist). He went on to describe each type in relation to such factors as governance, support from the denomination, membership requirements, and the nature of chapel and required courses in religion.
Presumably, most schools have traveled this continuum towards secularization. Dr. Benne denies that this is an all or nothing phenomenon. Many schools have maintained some connections even though they may not achieve the ideal relationship some would hope for. Dr. Benne also argues for the possibility of reclaiming a stronger connection to the founding denomination or religious heritage.
Dr. Benne suggests that maintaining or strengthening denominational ties requires three things: a comprehensive vision of the Christian faith that permeates the university, an ethos that is established through chapel and other activities that arise out of the faith tradition, and maintenance of a critical mass of people—employees and students—from the particular denomination to embody its tradition. All three must be strong to resist the many factors that tend to pull institutions away from their founding tradition, such as the desire to appeal to a broader market in order to grow enrollment.
Where EMU finds itself in relation to Benne’s various categories quickly became a matter of debate in the spring of 2004. Ultimately, the question became, "Where do we want to be as an institution?" Discussion of these issues by the 23-member Strategic Planning Council was an interesting exercise. But what actions were called for? And what about the rest of the campus? How could we bring everyone into this discussion? Thus it was that faculty and staff, plus a few student leaders, were invited to meet on the morning of the first day of spring semester a year later on January 10, 2005.
About 175 of us showed up several hours before classes were to begin to hear Dr. Benne, as well as President Loren Swartzendruber, reflect on ideas in the book and how these dynamics are playing out at EMU. Two questions framed the morning workshop: How can EMU remain a university with a vision and practice that is solidly Anabaptist Christian in a society that pushes it toward assimilation? How can EMU remain closely tied to its Mennonite denomination as both the denomination and the institution become more diverse and live in an environment of increasing pluralism and polarization?
In his presentation, Dr. Benne suggested several challenges to maintaining the Mennonite tradition. Was Dr. Benne right when he suggested that traditions such as ours have an especially difficult time resisting secularism because we do not have a strong intellectual tradition for engaging secular claims? Are Mennonites "irretrievably oppositional, with an unreflective accommodation going on under the surface?" He also cautioned us against the "liberal Protestant temptation (in which) the peace tradition drifts into general left-wing politics with little attention to specific religious roots."
Finally, he encouraged us to avoid the "careless introduction of widely divergent visions, ethoi, and persons along with the wholesome introduction of different races and ethnic traditions," "relativism and dogmatic tolerance that comes with ideological multiculturalism," and "sensitivity to ‘offense to the other’ leading to reduction to (the) lowest common denominator."
Small group discussions late that morning in January made it clear that those present were committed to maintaining a strong connection to our Anabaptist Mennonite heritage. Participants also had many comments about what we need to do or not do to achieve this. Many of the comments at the tables reflected on faculty development as a critical element, especially as more faculty from other traditions join the university. As a result, the faculty have endorsed a plan to provide a more intense orientation for new faculty—one that provides mutual learning so that faculty are invited to a deeper understanding of what it means to teach at an Anabaptist university while sharing the strengths of their own tradition.
In addition, we will add a new expectation for faculty entering long-term contracts after the first six years of teaching. Faculty will be invited to read widely and prepare a paper on how pedagogy in relation to their particular discipline is shaped by teaching in an Anabaptist Mennonite university. While this is not a new conversation, we believe this more intentional effort will create a lively intellectual dialogue on our campus, one that can only make our classrooms better reflections of the traditions we cherish.
The second topic receiving renewed attention out of the Benne discussion is chapel. Chapel at EMU is invitational and has not been required in recent years. With the intense time demands of our modern world and diverse preferences in worship styles, it becomes increasingly difficult for students and employees to achieve regular attendance several times weekly. Yet, chapel is an important community-building experience. Thus, the campus is launching a discussion about how to redesign chapel so that it better serves the needs of the campus. This discussion, begun at our annual May faculty/staff workshop, will be ongoing in the next school year with both students, faculty and staff.
All this would seem to have little to do with finances. So how did the other Robert enter the picture? That too has a history. Like many institutions of higher learning, it feels as if finances at EMU become tighter every year. Student demands keep increasing. Modern computer technology, nonexistent just over ten years ago, now consumes five percent of our budget and the Information Systems Department is staffed by 16 people. The decade of the nineties saw a great deal of creativity at EMU. We added four graduate programs, an adult degree completion program, and extension sites in Lancaster, Pa., and Sarasota, Fla.
New majors, new outreach programs to the community, and new grant-funded endeavors have enriched our offerings. All this requires resources and eventually, according to Dr. Robert Dickeson, institutions need to tighten their focus. They may be able to survive by maintaining the status quo, he says, but they will not flourish unless they reallocate resources. That requires "prioritizing" programs because across the board cuts lead to mediocrity. The ‘p’ word has become common parlance at EMU this spring.
Balancing the budget in the fall of 2005 was arduous. Thus, when the annual Council of Independent Colleges meeting in November invited the undergraduate dean and provost to bring along the chief financial officer and included a half-day optional workshop on "Prioritizing Academic Programs: Where Academics and Finances Meet," we were eager to participate. At that meeting, Dr. Marie Morris, Ron Piper and I met Dr. Dickeson, who led the workshop.
During his presentation, he made it clear that he welcomed invitations to campuses. He had already worked with hundreds of institutions that have used his book to plan a prioritization project of their own. In fact, he offered to come free of charge as a consultant offered by the Lumina Foundation, an offer we delightedly pursued already that day.
Thus it was that the fourth Monday of January, three weeks after Dr. Benne’s visit, found Dr. Robert Dickeson on campus in a full schedule of meetings with board of trustee members, administrators, faculty, staff and students. His role was to help people understand how this prioritization process would work to assist the institution in better aligning programming with financial resources.
Throughout this process President Loren Swartzendruber has emphasized that we are not in a financial crisis. Rather, we are addressing long-term substantive solutions to our financial challenges in order to maintain a strong and vibrant institution for the years ahead. As Dr. Dickeson points out, institutions tend to proliferate programs over time, but seldom do the resources keep up; as a result, there is a diminution of resources for existing programs. Two quotes from Dr. Dickeson have come to characterize the situation: "Most institutions can no longer afford to be what they’ve become" and "the most likely source for needed resources is reallocation of existing resources."
EMU is not alone; most institutions of higher learning are experiencing these strains. We want to be an institution that acts in a preventative mode, not one waiting for a crisis that catches the institution unawares and calls for emergency action. Non-strategic across the board cuts usually result in such urgent situations.
The genius of Dr. Dickeson’s prioritization plan is evaluating all programs simultaneously. Only then is it possible to prioritize based on the relative value of programs. Dr. Dickeson defines a program as "any activity or collection of activities of the institution that consumes resources (dollars, people, space, equipment, time)." This includes both academic programs and all the support services in the institution. Most departments have more than one program. For example, our Physical Plant department has a program for facilities maintenance and another program to provide security.
Mission is central and that is why considering Benne’s and Dickeson’s books at the same time has been providential for EMU. Benne’s reminder of how important our heritage and its values are to us keeps first things first as we attempt to rank our programs. While mission is central, demand for and quality of the program must be considered in the value equation. All this is done through a carefully designed process that ideally takes place over a year’s time.
In February we established a steering committee to provide leadership for our year-long project. The committee, chaired by President Swartzendruber, is made up of 13 persons who include five faculty, three staff members and four cabinet members in addition to the president. As provost, I was asked to be on the committee to carry out the staff work. We determined that persons occupying key roles would need to be included on the committee, that is, the vice president for finance, Ron Piper; the director of information systems, Jack Rutt; and the director of institutional research, Karen Miller; along with undergraduate dean Marie Morris who carries responsibility for a major portion of the institution’s programs. The faculty members include David Brubaker, Spencer Cowles, Nancy Heisey, Deidre Smeltzer and Lester Zook. Finally Ervin Stutzman, Cabinet member and dean of the seminary, and director of housing Ellen Miller complete the committee.
When the steering committee met in February, we established the following goal: To lead the university process to identify programs for the future that are sustainable financially and driven by the mission of the institution. It is expected that some programs will be dropped, some will be made more efficient, some will be enriched, and some may be added.
Throughout spring semester this committee has met weekly to design the systems for evaluating all programs in the university. That meant identifying the criteria for evaluation, creating measures for each criterion, designing a report format so that department personnel could speak to each measure and finally creating a continuum or rubric from exceptional to weak so that each program could be rated on the measures. The process will involve both quantitative and qualitative methodologies.
As I write this report, many faculty and staff throughout the university are writing reports on their programs to meet the May 31 deadline. Programs are being evaluated on nine criteria: mission, external demand, internal demand, quality of program inputs and processes, quality of program outcomes, productivity, cost effectiveness, opportunities, and other factors.
Each criterion except mission is essentially worth ten points. A possible twenty points for mission takes seriously the centrality of mission for decision making.
A great amount of data have been compiled by our institutional research and effectiveness office personnel, along with others around the institution, and placed online for persons writing the reports. The information systems staff has worked overtime to create web-based systems for writing and evaluating reports. During the summer the committee members will read the over 200 reports and rate them on the rubrics that we have created. By September the committee will be making recommendations that we hope will reach the Board of Trustees in their November meeting. Our timetable is ambitious but we are committed to meet it, given the need to plan for implementation of the recommendations expected to result from the process.
President Swartzendruber has made it clear that we will not allow students to be hurt by this process. If programs are to be phased out, this will need to happen over time or alternative arrangements made so that students can complete their programs.
Throughout this process there have been many efforts to create as much transparency as possible. Feedback loops have been integrated into the timetable so that the counsel of faculty and staff is invited at critical junctures. A website, open only to the campus, contains committee agendas and minutes, as well as all the forms and materials that have been created. We also have tried to keep students informed. Some of you may have already read about prioritization in the student newspaper.
Our next steps will require a great deal of courage to make the hard decisions. This is especially difficult for an institution like EMU where we value community and truly care for each other. This often means we do everything possible not to prioritize or show preferences. Always in this prioritization process we need to remember the goal—to strengthen EMU so we can better serve our people. We recognize that there will be some pain as we make recommendations for change. We know that alumni are among our publics who care what programs we offer. Our goal is to act sensitively and provide support as we implement the changes.
The prioritization project at EMU is embedded in the religious heritage that defines the institution. Thus, we began this project in chapel by commissioning the Prioritization Steering Committee. The litany of commissioning came from the Mennonite Hymnal: A Worship Book, #725:
God of Guidance
quicken your Holy Spirit
in our hearts and minds
so we may follow what is right.
Give us direction so we may know
Which way to choose
and which to refuse;
Which course to claim
and which to reject;
Which action to take
and which to avoid.
Enlighten our minds,
purify our heart,
strengthen our wills,
and lead us to live as faithful followers of Jesus
all the days of our lives. AMEN
Good words for a group of persons deeply committed to EMU and serious about their responsibility in this project. From day one we were reminded that our job was not to look out for our own departments but to work for the health of the whole institution.
In addition to the commissioning ceremony, some members of the EMU community have offered to pray daily for this important work. EMU is truly a community that exemplifies our statement of values: "Together we worship God, seek truth and care for each other."
The prioritization process has been designed as a one-time process. On the other hand, we set a goal of adopting a plan for continuing evaluation and prioritization that strengthens the institution. Exactly what this will look like is not clear at this point. But in the end we hope to benefit in an ongoing way from the systems we have created. Further, we expect to share our work with others, perhaps at national meetings like the one where we met Dr. Dickeson. But all that is in the future. We have yet to see how all this comes out but we are confident in our process.
Two authors and two books making a difference in EMU’s future. EMU, an institution that exists to serve the Mennonite Church and the world. Our goal is to make sure that EMU is still doing that in 2010, doing it as our vision statement mandates—with academic excellence, creative process, professional competence, and passionate Christian faith.
— Beryl Brubaker, provost