Mapping the Future

Strategic Planning for the Saint Mary's of Tomorrow

Strategic PlanWhen the Christian Brothers—a bunch of enterprising New Yorkers of Irish descent—landed in San Francisco, they quickly set out to read the signs of the times and bring to the 19th-century West Coast and Saint Mary’s College a rich educational tradition that reaches back to 17th-century France, said Brother Charles Hilken, professor of history and chair of the Bishop John S. Cummins Institute for Catholic Thought, Culture and Action. “And that’s exactly what we are doing today.”

Granted, San Francisco today is vastly different from the brawling, raw outpost of 1868, but it is also surprisingly similar. The Pacific frontier was marked by cultural change and tremendous challenge—also true for our 21st-century world that changes with maddening speed and complexity. All the more reason to read the signs of the times and plan carefully for the future.

Hence, the strategic planning process introduced by President James Donahue in 2013. “We are building on the strong foundation of the College’s profoundly relevant mission, which is to introduce students into the world of knowledge, guided by liberal arts learning, Lasallian values rooted in the life and work of Saint John Baptist de La Salle, and our Catholic heritage,” he said. “We are staying true to this mission. We will make sure our students are well prepared to engage with the world, through rewarding employment, but also in terms of living purposeful, meaningful lives.”

The challenge is to evolve in a way that is consistent with the mission while meeting the needs of students today, Donahue said. So, together, the community of faculty, trustees, Christian Brothers, alumni, staff, and students developed key goals to guide the College’s progress for the next five years.

Strong Academics

Chief among them is raising the academic profile of the College— by promoting the centrality of the liberal arts and by investing in our faculty, said Provost Bethami Dobkin. “Significant research tells us that the greatest impact on the transformation of a student is a faculty mentor.”

That teacher-student relationship is at the heart of the education we provide, said Donahue. “The knowledge created in that context—in Collegiate Seminar and in January Term, for example—is unique and distinctive.” Under the new strategic plan, the College will explore creative ways to enhance the learning relationship, using technology without losing that distinctive core.

“We’ve made quite a mark in the world of online learning with some of our graduate and professional programs, blending online components with face-to-face learning and still maintaining quality,” said Dobkin. “Now we’re trying to do this at the undergraduate level.”

Teaching comes first at Saint Mary’s, Dobkin said. But while faculty are also expected to actively create knowledge in their own disciplines, “we haven’t given them enough support to do that,” she said. This year saw the first round of SMC research grants promoting faculty scholarship, Dobkin said, adding that this activity is highly beneficial to students. “One of the best things for students is being part of faculty research projects.” The strategic plan includes goals to create more high-impact educational opportunities like these for students.

Strategic PlanFaithful to Mission

Along with raising the academic profile of the College, said Brother Charles, there also is a heightened attention to mission. “We want to call faculty and students to a deeper awareness of the spiritual dimensions of the educational enterprise, to an awareness of vocation and purpose in life and also the interconnectedness of all knowledge.”

The strategic plan provides for retreat opportunities for faculty, staff, and administrators to reflect on their own sense of personal calling in light of the College’s mission. The strategic planning process also highlighted the need to balance humility and modesty with proud promotion of our accomplishments. “We need to tell the stories of students and alumni who embody the success of our mission,” said Donahue. “We need to show the research and achievement of our faculty. When you are competing for highly qualified students, research opportunities, and support, modesty is a limited virtue.”

The strategic plan calls for the College to get the word out and claim its competitiveness.

Built into the plan is a call to raise the academic profile of the College in a way that is consistent with our mission, Dobkin said. “We can provide an elite education without becoming elitist—without chasing after test scores and grade point averages, or rationing education only to the wealthy. We’ll keep admissions standards high enough to help predict success,” Dobkin said. “And we will continue to provide as much financial aid as we can.”

Keeping college affordable for promising students is an important element of the strategic plan. “We have to make sure students and families understand that the education we provide is worth the investment,” Donahue said, “and help students make prudent judgments about what constitutes a reasonable amount of debt.” This fall, Saint Mary’s will be making available to its students and alumni a free financial literacy program in an effort to help educate them and provide tools to manage finances and loan repayment. “So far, many SMC students appear to be managing their debt well,” said Peter Michell, SMC’s vice president for finance. “And SMC alums have had a low default rate, even during the recession.”

Inspired Giving

Strategic PlanMore than 70 percent of Saint Mary’s students receive need-based financial aid today, said Lisa Moore ’96, vice president for advancement. “We are fortunate to be able to help make college education possible for students who might not otherwise have the opportunity. Could we do more? Of course. But that’s going to require alumni investing in the endowment, bringing it to a more robust level.”

Strengthening philanthropy is a priority in the strategic plan, with funding for a new library and learning commons accounting for two-thirds of the $60 million fundraising goal. “That facility represents the academic heart of Saint Mary’s,” Moore said. “It’s where students and faculty continue the work of the classroom—a laboratory for learning and collaboration, equipped with the technology students need now and ready for technology that doesn’t yet exist.” Dobkin, who describes the proposed new library as an extension of the Seminar experience, also uses a current label—makerspaces—to describe the anticipated media labs and collaborative hotspots.

“This is how the world works today,” Moore said, “teams and collaboration. We need to prepare students for that reality.”

Center For Learning

A common misperception about libraries is that the Internet can provide everything today’s digitally savvy student needs. “Couldn’t be further from the truth,” Moore said. In the ocean of data available, a student’s ability to do effective research relies not only on access to technology and the specialized databases and resources only an academic library can provide but also on the skills of information experts who help students “cut through the clutter,” as Dobkin put it. “Our librarians are fabulous instructors, as well as resource providers,” she said.

Having the right facilities for the campus overall is also a key part of the strategic plan. The campus master plan includes adding technically advanced classrooms, increased office space for faculty, and updates to existing buildings.

“These aren’t luxuries,” Moore said. “These facilities are essential for the teaching, learning, and creative activity that define the Saint Mary’s experience.”

Currently, professors share offices, making it difficult to do research, conference, and collaborate with students. Many faculty offices are on the Rheem campus two miles away, making contact with students difficult. Work got underway this summer on 20 new faculty offices in the top level of the old campus power plant. When the proposed new library is built, it will set off a cascade of further developments, including the renovation of the old library building into a home for the School of Economics and Business Administration and other academic offices.

“The strategic plan really helps us prioritize how we use the College’s resources,” said Michell. “A lot of good ideas came out of this experience. This road map is extraordinarily helpful in identifying the steps we need to take to secure the future of Saint Mary’s, with concrete goals and key performance indicators to show that we are making progress.”

Strategic PlanInvesting In Hope

One important measure of progress, said Brother Charles, is that students leave here with hope for their future. “Current students have received a terrible message from society during the economic downturn—that there will be no jobs for them,” he said. “We have to help them envision a new world, create new jobs, and be the makers of the future.”

It all goes back to our powerful mission and our commitments to each other, said Donahue. “We will provide students with the skills and tools they need to live fully realized lives and develop as whole persons in society—mind, body, heart, and soul.”

There is ample reason for hope, said Brother Charles. “Here in this valley, there has been a spirit and a vision that are larger than any of us. Since 1928 good things have happened here and will continue to happen. Men and women who pass through these doors become better agents of change for a better world.”

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