In fall meetings Oct. 8–9, the Bethel College Board of Directors unanimously approved a strategic plan that has been in development since 2014 and is designed to carry the college through 2022.“The board is appreciative of the hard work of the Strategic Planning Task Force and is excited about new initiatives on the horizon for the college,” board chair Heather Esau Zerger ’96 said. President Perry D. White sat down with Context staff to give his thoughts on Bethel’s strategic plan, which has been titled “Extending Our Heritage, Expanding Our Impact.”
- Context: Why does Bethel need a strategic plan?
President Perry D. White: These are treacherous times in higher education, especially for private colleges. Tremendous increases in federal regulations along with calls for colleges to make education more affordable and with easily assessed outcomes—not to mention, in Bethel’s case, a state that may seek to remove tax-exempt status for education—made Moody’s Investor Service recently project the number of college closures to triple in the next few years. This environment makes aggressive and innovative organizational planning necessary not only to survive but to thrive.
To address the challenges before us—and prepare for those we can’t foresee—a fully inclusive, well-thought-out and transparent strategic plan is vital to Bethel’s future. It is important that ownership of such a plan and its initiatives is wide and deep among our staff, faculty, administrative team, alumni and board.
- Context: What role did Credo play in developing the strategic plan?
PDW: To assist in this extremely complex process, we explored a number of professional consultants who specialize in this work. Ultimately, we selected and worked with Credo Higher Education. Credo specializes in small, church-affiliated institutions and has worked with 221 of the more than 300 such schools around the country.
Aside from facilitating the actual work of collecting the thoughts, ideas and dreams of the Bethel community, Credo staff have provided insight based in national trends, and will guide and monitor, through a software program, the first 14 months of plan implementation.
- Context: Who was involved in developing the strategic plan? How did you solicit their input, and how did that input go into shaping the plan?
PDW: The beauty of this plan is that it represents the vision, hopes and dreams for Bethel from the full spectrum of our constituency. Students, staff, faculty, alumni, the greater Newton community leadership and the Board of Directors all contributed equally to the plan through printed documents, meetings and group brainstorming sessions, which resulted in more than 3,000 items for consideration—although there were consistent themes that emerged from each of those groups.
It was the work of the Strategic Planning Task Force to sort, interpret and re-articulate those initiatives into an actionable planning document. The group of volunteers comprising three board members, the President’s Cabinet, three faculty representatives, three staff representatives and two student representatives worked through the spring semester and reconvened to continue working through the early fall semester.
- Context: What are the strategic plan’s strengths?
PDW: The strength of the plan rests in its transparency, shared responsibilities and flexibility to respond to changes in the educational environment. It represents an opportunity to “get all of our ships to sail the same direction, with a clearly understood destination in mind.”
I am most excited by the commitment to cultivate intentional partnerships outside the current institutional footprint, by re-engaging more deeply with our alumni base, the church and our community. I am also pleased by the way the planning process has engendered dialogue, as Bethel seeks innovative and effective ways to more fully address the needs of today’s students.
A second strength of the plan is the focus on achieving “Margin for Mission.” One of the central elements of Credo’s work in strategic planning is to load initiatives up front that can generate revenue, which is then reinvested to support more programmatic development. In this day and age of ever-tightening budgets, and increased regulation, we must find ways to support current and future academic programming in order to continue to provide the best possible service for our students.
Third, and something we truly appreciated about the Credo approach, the plan clearly identifies specific measurements of success. Metrics and data to be monitored throughout the process are keys to successful plan implementation. With Credo’s help, the Strategic Planning Task Force has taken the time to visualize what success looks like for each objective and each initiative within those objectives.
- Context: What does the strategic plan mean for Bethel’s future?
PDW: Building on the sound base of our tremendous history of success, the plan seeks to shape an even more robust Bethel College of the future, expanding our impact to better serve our students and society at large. The initial stages of our work led to the articulation of four themes that focus on the cultivation of: A Thriving College; A Vibrant & Vital Campus; A High Impact College; and A Dynamic Student Experience.
- Context: How will this plan affect students, now and in the future?
PDW: One hallmark of the Bethel experience is the rigorous instruction our students receive, that is central to our graduates’ success. However, the challenge for today’s colleges is to meet students where they are when they arrive on campus and help them attain the necessary skills to achieve—not only vocationally, but also to pursue that “well-lived life.”
Through the expansion of curricular and co-curricular opportunities, a commitment to active learning, expanded internship programming and intentional connections to real-world experiences, I believe Bethel can evolve as an institution, by playing on some of its greatest inherent strengths and offering students an even more robust and intentional educational experience.
- Context: What are the next steps?
PDW: As I mentioned earlier, one strength of this plan is the flexibility to take advantage of previously unseen or unrecognized opportunities as they may arise. In the coming months and years, Bethel staff will continue to engage alumni and friends around the subject and objectives of the strategic plan.
I believe we must see this strategic plan as an outline for discussion rather than a static or fixed map. There is much to like in our plan, but the educational landscape is shifting so rapidly that the academy must learn to adapt and respond more quickly to the changing needs of our students and society.
Continued conversation and communication is vitally important. We count on our alumni and friends to keep their ears to the ground and share any thoughts and ideas for ways we might better serve our students.