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Asking the hard questions

Asking the hard questions

by Deborah Rieselman

"Will we chart our future, or will we drift into it?"

The question was obviously rhetorical. None of the 50 University of Cincinnati leaders to whom it was posed would have argued for drifting. Nevertheless, many knew that, at times, parts of the institution had become adept at it.

President Nancy Zimpher identified the situation immediately upon her arrival in October 2003 and started laying the foundation for what she calls a Comprehensive Academic Planning Process. In December, she initiated the process with a "listening session" for UC's leaders to discuss the concept, but she announced her goal soon after her arrival in October.

"I have learned that vision trumps everything," she commented at her first address to the entire faculty in October. "I know that organizations are most effective when a well-articulated and ambitious vision of the future exists, reflecting the rich traditions of the past, as well as our aspirations for the future. With the Campus Master Plan as a model, we must frame our ambitions and aspiration to become truly premier and world class."

In terms of making the physical campus world class, it's hard to overlook the success that came when the administration coordinated campus construction within the guidance of an overall plan. "The lessons learned during the development of the Campus Master Plan," says vice president of finance Dale McGirr, "demonstrate that more can be accomplished by planning together, rather than separately. It is helpful to have a set of unchanging or slowly evolving principles in the plan, as well as a dynamic section reflecting emerging issues."

The process may seem like nothing new for an institution that is forever planning, but never before has UC done it so globally and comprehensively in regard to academia. Rather than critiquing individual programs, this study will look at UC's unique characteristics, rankings, aspirations and new definitions of excellence, then chart a course based upon desired outcomes.

"What kind of students do we want to produce?" asks Kristi Nelson, vice provost of academic planning. "When they leave here, what would be the distinctive features of a UC graduate? How do we create programs that produce that kind of graduate? That is what we are talking about."

No one disputes that it was time for taking such a view. "It's long overdue," says Richard Karp, Faculty Senate chair and biology professor. "It's the only way to intelligently plan to use our resources in the most advantageous way to improve the institution and the quality of education we deliver."

Expanding steadily since 1819, the university had virtually grown at odds with itself. Individual components had advanced in nationally recognized ways, while functioning within a structure that, at times, had been left to evolve.

Historically, UC had been harvesting from the city's garden of colleges, selecting the choicest fruit and plopping it in a basket -- a law school here, a nursing school there, a music conservatory nestled in between. The university isn't so much a cultivated crop, as it is a fine collection of exotic flora.

Consequently, cultivation techniques were not standardized. Individual colleges easily clung to their own traditions. Faculty and staff, in many cases, fought for what was best for their programs, but not the entire system. Some alumni saw themselves as graduates from a college or program, but not from UC as a whole.

The institution unwittingly perpetuated that "silo" mentality by restricting freshman admission into individual colleges. In contrast, freshmen at some universities can apply for general admission, then decide in which college to focus their studies.

"We've been trying to topple those silos already," provost Tony Perzigian says. But correcting global problems is complicated, and change painful. So campus visionaries are taking deliberate and careful steps as they lay the framework for UC's academic plan.

In deciding where UC is going and how it will get there, Provost Tony Perzigian and vice provost of academic planning Kristi Nelson consider the impact of rankings on campus. "Rankings influence perceptions and choices, affect enrollment and fund raising," Perzigian says. "UC's ranking needs to reflect its actual caliber." photo/Dottie Stover

In deciding where UC is going and how it will get there, Provost Tony Perzigian and vice provost of academic planning Kristi Nelson consider the impact of rankings on campus. Photo/Dottie Stover

At present, UC stakeholders in the academic planning process are simply confronting demanding questions:

  • How do we become more selective, as national rankings mandate, and boost enrollment at the same time?
  • Can we be a research extensive university while upholding a public responsibility for providing open access?
  • How do we responsively teach technical skills needed for today's work force and still prepare students for jobs of tomorrow by developing critical-thinking skills?
  • How do we find someone with whom to benchmark when we're unique?

"Every university would argue that they're unique," vice provost Kristi Nelson says, "but we are." "There's no creature like UC out there," agrees Perzigian, noting UC's strong individual collegiate structures, an expansive co-op program, comprehensive research endeavors, dwindling state support and an admissions spectrum from highly selective to open access, all on the main campus specifically.

Defining the university when each college is so different will be a "challenge," and incorporating it all into a single master plan is hugely ambitious, both concede. "It's not going to be done in May," Perzigian says, "but some of the ground rules and key components will be articulated."

While the plan is being conceived, President Nancy Zimpher has made it clear that the final product will enhance three areas -- student experiences, research capacity and relationships within the community. Fortunately, all fields are ones in which the university had already started making some headway.

The most obvious advancement has been in research -- with the Medical Center showing a 22 percent increase in funding in 2003 and 239 percent in the last 10 years. Health affairs provost Jane Henney is challenging the medical campus to double funding to $358 million by 2006.

"The academic plan gives us a great opportunity to start charting our course for the future," Henney says. "The Millennium Plan, initiated a little over a year ago, is the cornerstone of the planning process on the East Campus. Its goal is to double our research budget and increase our faculty, especially with some strategic hires in programmatic areas that would help put Greater Cincinnati on the map in terms of becoming nationally known."

Furthermore, the Medical Center and Main Campus are both actively building bridges between campuses and with surrounding communities, a move frequently welcomed by all involved. President Zimpher notes the public's "profound expectations ... to commit this institution to the region's economic, social, cultural, educational and artistic future."

The third focus, student experience, may be the one in greatest need of attention. Zimpher talks about improving diversity, boosting retention, increasing graduation rates and providing better services.

In the latter, "we've failed miserably concerning some students," provost Tony Perzigian says. He emphasizes the need to eliminate transfer problems between colleges, to ensure capable advising staffs are in place and to implement procedures that cultivate well-rounded students.

"That means," vice provost Kristi Nelson adds, "making sure we are educating and developing individuals who can relate what they do in classrooms to how they conduct their lives in more diverse and broad ways -- how they get involved in campus activities, the community of friends they develop, how they get engaged in social responsibility."

It is sometimes opined of the academy that when all gets said and done, more gets said than done. That will, I predict, not be the case here. I believe we can be inclusive of the various interests and constituencies on this campus and in the community, then align these diverse interests in a coherent vision of our future.

-- UC President Nancy Zimpher

Still, change does not produce immediate improvements, and those in the initial listening session prepared themselves for that inevitable transition period known as the "Pit of Despair." Changes with bricks and mortar are quite noticeable, they admit. Strategic plans do not have such immediate visible results.

Regardless, talk in hallways and around water coolers these days detects a general enthusiasm across campus. "There's a sense of excitement over the opportunity to engage in the planning process," Henney says, "not just for the deans and faculty members, but also for staff who appreciate the opportunities they have to participate. The president has made it clear that while it's an academic plan, you have to have staff support to implement many of the changes."

"Because of President Zimpher's attitude, people are excited," professor Richard Karp says. "They believe this is going to happen.

"She's very decisive. This isn't just a bullet on some list that will be ignored. She's made it very clear this is her top priority. She's off and running, which is great."

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