Focusing Our Future: Strategic Plan Created for WCU

Last month, the WCU Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed the 2020 Plan, a strategic plan document designed to set the direction and goals of Western Carolina University over the next decade.

Titled “2020 Vision: Focusing Our Future,” the plan was drafted by the 2020 Commission, a 36-member committee that was chosen by Chancellor Belcher from a shortlist of candidates from each college within the university.

On choosing the members of the Commission, Chancellor Belcher said, “In the long run, it was mostly up to me. I took advice from different people within the campus community, but I also set some parameters for selecting the members. I wanted to make sure that it was extremely representative, not only people from WCU, but also people from outside the institution. We selected students, faculty and staff from WCU and also involved 10 external members from the community. Seven were alum; one is very involved in athletics. We also involved several people from Southern Community College, including the new president. Working with community colleges is important to our future as wide variety of people have a vested interest WCU.

“When choosing members from WCU, I wanted to make sure that all the colleges were represented,” continued Belcher. “We asked the colleges to come up with a shortlist of nominees, and then I chose from that list. That allowed me to make sure that the group was as diverse as I could make it. I wanted to have a gender balance and make certain that we had senior faculty and also relatively new faculty. I needed the most diverse set of perspectives as possible. If you get people that are all alike you end up with a narrow viewed type of document.”

The chosen members of the 2020 Commission were honored to have an opportunity to help define the future of the university.

Mimi Fenton, professor of English and recently appointed interim dean of the graduate school, said, “I was so honored to have been elected by my colleagues to represent the College of Arts and Sciences, and then subsequently to have been appointed by the Chancellor to serve on the Commission. It was a tremendous privilege to be serving with some of the finest and most accomplished faculty and staff of the university, and some of the most accomplished and committed members of our local community. It was a remarkably collegial, professional and committed team of people, and I continue to feel honored to have worked with them.”

Leah Hampton, associate director of the Writing and Learning Commons, said, “I was intimidated, but genuinely honored to be part of the Commission. We were warned ahead of time that this would be a hard-working committee, and I went in ready to roll my sleeves up. Everyone did the same, and I think we all made a true effort to reach consensus and really listen to one other.

“I think the 2020 members were really good representatives of their respective constituencies,” said Hampton. “Each talked passionately about the issues they cared about, and each tried to see the bigger picture of how those issues affect the entire campus and its students. I was really impressed with everyone’s sense of humor as well; we had some really witty and savvy exchanges about the realities of higher education. I was pleasantly surprised at how much we all agreed on the fundamentals; even if we disagreed on smaller issues, we all share similar values and a genuine love for this institution. That made our job a lot easier.”

The 2020 Plan was divided into six subcommittees: Enrich the Total Student Experience, Fulfill the Educational Needs of the State and Region, Enhance Our Community Partnerships, Invest in Our People, Garner Support for Our Vision and Invest in Our Core Resources.

Each of these subcommittees was tasked with targeting a specific aspect of the strategic plan and defining how WCU will address it through various initiatives. Towards the beginning of the school year, these initiatives will be represented by a champion of champions that will invest their time into seeing that the goals of the plan are met.

On the champions, Chancellor Belcher said, “If you don’t name a specific person, you are not going to be successful. The champions will be responsible to see us through in the various initiatives. We haven’t chosen yet, but somewhere in the document we want to promote study abroad opportunities for all students and the interaction between international students on campus and the rest of the student population that are important in a growing global society. For this initiative, we will likely name either one person or a couple of people from study abroad as one of the champions.”

The process of creating the 2020 Plan involved hard work and dedication from all of the members of the commission. Also, it required a love for the university and an interest in making it better.

Fenton, regarding the process of molding the plan, said, “The process was lead by the steady and very competent hand of Dr. Melissa Wargo, and we had regularly scheduled meetings as a whole group, as well as several public forums throughout the region in the fall of 2011.

“In January 2012, we broke into six sub-committees, to which many, many people throughout the university also served,” Fenton explained. “The sub-committees convened regularly, and in mid-March, turned in the drafts of their reports to the main commission. We all worked on many drafts of it, polishing and refining it, and being sure to represent accurately the work of the sub-committees.

In April, the draft was presented in a forum open to the public for discussion and debate, continued Fenton. Once feedback was received, the Commission reconvened to discuss the criticism or praise for the draft. Other feedback came from online resources. All drafts were posted online so that anyone could comment their ideas and opinions about the document.

“The final version represents, therefore, nine solid months of work, with the input of hundreds of people throughout the university and community and region,” said Fenton.

Jim Miller, associate vice chancellor for development, said, “As a member of the 2020 Commission, I had no sense that there were preconceived, specific priorities expected as outcomes of the process. I believe that the Commission was genuinely open to receiving input from all WCU constituents – among them, faculty, staff, students, alumni and members of the surrounding communities. The valuable feedback from these important groups led to many open discussions among the Commission members and the campus community. There was a healthy amount of “give and take” in the process, but in the end we had general consensus that all views were given due consideration.”

For many students, the idea of creating a strategic plan for a university may seem like tasks better left to administrative minds. Dr. Melissa Wargo, assistant vice chancellor for institutional planning and effectiveness and also the chair of the 2020 Commission, provided a simpler overview of the 2020 Plan.

“The 2020 Plan is about establishing key directions and goals for WCU, identifying where we want to be in the future, and laying out a road map of how to get there. This is a very typical process that all universities go through periodically. WCU will face a number of opportunities and challenges in the coming years and the plan will provide focus and a framework to how we respond to those challenges and opportunities. In a nutshell, our future will be what we make it,” said Wargo.

Chancellor Belcher admitted that the document has goals that will be a stretch for WCU to accomplishment but said that if the goals were easy that we would not be going very far as an institution. One of the aspects of the 2020 Plan that makes it so versatile is that it will be a living document.

“I’ve dealt with strategic plans, and they are always best when they are working documents. In a few years there might be a very good opportunity for the university that we couldn’t have foreseen,” said Belcher. “By the same token, circumstances for the university may change, and we may look back and realize that something may not make as much sense as it does now. It has to be a living document.

“It’s an ambitious document, it’s one that we need to do, and it’s a document that we need to succeed in achieving in order to offer the best educational experience for our students,” said Belcher.

Implementation of the initiatives from the 2020 Plan have already begun, according to Dr. Wargo.

“This summer, we are formulating an implementation plan that will attach timelines, resources and responsible parties to each direction, goal and initiative in the plan. Over the next academic year, each major division and unit of the University will develop its own strategic plan that will map to the 2020 plan,” said Wargo.

The complete text of the 2020 Plan is available on the WCU website and includes a mission statement, subcommittee reports and easily-navigable sections that will help readers better understand what the future holds for Western Carolina University.