Strategic Plan: A Mid-Course Report

To:   Faculty and Academic Staff Members
From: Marci Sortor
August 20, 2014
Re:    Strategic Plan: a mid-course report

The Plan: a brief summary

The Board of Regents approved the Strategic Plan in May 2011.  This plan contemplates actions to strengthen a number of areas: student learning; diversity of students, staff and faculty; retention and graduation rates; employment and post graduation study; the residential experience; resources for faculty and staff recruitment and development; communication and engagement with students, parents, alumni and friends; and fiscal sustainability.  Where appropriate, the Regents established measurable goals.

To strengthen student learning, the plan calls for enhanced student access to “High Impact Practices.”  “High Impact Practices“ is a term referring to ten educational practices that studies have demonstrated to be effective in increasing student engagement and retention in higher education.  These are the sorts of practices that St. Olaf professors have long employed and in which St. Olaf invests significant resources.  The strategic plan’s call to enhance students’ access to five high impact practices in particular—advising, internships, learning communities, mentored undergraduate research, and off-campus study—is an affirmation of the value of what we do, and a commitment to build on these elements of the academic program.

High Impact Practices: early discussion and preliminary recommendations

Since the commencement of the 2011/12 academic year, discussions about how we understand High Impact Practices at St. Olaf and how we build from our existing strengths to enhance student access to them have occurred in faculty meetings, Academic Leadership meetings (this is a group of department and program chairs), CILA sessions, “Common Interest Lunches” and workshops.

Faculty and staff Study Groups met during the Fall 2011 semester to define each High Impact Practice and make recommendations regarding enhancing student access.  We have worked to implement many of the recommendations.  New partners have joined along the way, such as the Piper Center, which has been instrumental in helping the college expand the number of internships and has played an important role in helping students reflect on what they hope to achieve—academically, personally, and in terms of vocation—during their four years at St. Olaf.

Reflecting on Our Progress at Mid-Point

Using the measures set forth in the strategic plan, we have already achieved success in certain areas. These include advising, increasing the number and capacity of our learning communities through the Conversations, and increasing mentored undergraduate research opportunities through CURI and DURs.  In the case of the other practices, we are taking steps to make the support for academic and non-credit bearing internships robust and to identify what needs to be done to continue to provide off-campus study experiences that attract students and meet both their needs and our goals for student learning.

While we have accomplished much, there is still work to be done to fully implement the goals of the strategic plan and the recommendations made by the Study Groups. In this first implementation phase, we also have learned a good deal.  Midpoint in our path toward enhancing student access to these experiences, it is time to consider our achievements, review the direction we are taking, and make adjustments based on what we have learned.

To that purpose, I am asking the Associate Deans and Registrar Mary Cisar to re-convene the Study Groups (with some changes in membership).  I also ask that members of departments and academic programs consider which elements of the strategic plan most pertain to their department/program, what part their department or program plays in enhancing student access to high impact practices, and what might be done next to continue to enhance student access.

A St. Olaf Education, Inside and Outside of the Classroom

The bulk of student learning and faculty teaching takes place in the classroom.  These experiences are valuable and meaningful.  We invest heavily in them and will continue to do so.  And, a number of the High Impact Practices identified in the strategic plan are courses, such as learning communities, off-campus study, some types of mentored undergraduate research, and the new Internship Reflection Seminars.  Some of the faculty/staff Study Groups also recommended that we explore the connections between High Impact Practices and the classroom: how the classroom can incorporate some of these practices, prepare students for future experiences, and help them think further about the significance of those experiences.  These connections already exist in a number of courses and in some majors and concentrations.  Identifying where and how these happen should be part of our recognition and celebration of faculty contributions to student learning.

The accomplishments to date, reported in the links to each practice, are the measure of the vision, expertise and commitment of many.  I thank you for your contributions to continuing to provide a powerful and meaningful education to St. Olaf’s students.