Waco-Tribune Herald: Baylor's next strategic plan offers aspirations, not goals

May 11, 2012

Baylor 2012: A Decade of Change by the Waco Tribune-Herald

Article reprinted with the permission of The Waco Tribune-Herald.

By CINDY V. CULP

Friday May 11, 2012

This is the last of a six-part series examining the successes and failures of Baylor University's 10-year growth and visioning plan known as Baylor 2012.

When Baylor University regents will meet today, they officially retire the Baylor 2012 plan that has guided -- and sometimes divided -- the university during the past decade.

The new strategic plan the regents are expected to adopt does not yet have a name. It also is comparatively scant on details.

But many people involved with the university seem confident the plan has the right mix of proven approaches and new ideas. They relish its ambition while also appreciating its practicality.

The new strategic plan Baylor's regents are expected to adopt does not yet have a name. It is also scant on details, compared to Baylor 2012.

Duane A. Laverty / Waco Tribune-HeraldWhat seems to matter just as much as the content, though, is that the plan was a group effort. Some at the university viewed Baylor 2012 as a dogmatic directive handed down by administrators without adequate input from the faculty or alumni.

In contrast, the new document has been shaped by all corners of the "Baylor family" since the strategic planning process began in fall 2010. Multiple forums were held on campus in which faculty, staff and students gave input. Town hall meetings designed for alumni and other supporters were held across Texas and other states. People also could submit comments online.

That feedback was analyzed, categorized and reported back to Baylor Provost Elizabeth Davis, who was in charge of developing the plan.

Although not everything mentioned during the input periods made its way into the plan, a lot did, she said.

"One of my favorite comments from the feedback session was, 'I can see you took my input seriously,' " Davis said. "People could see not only their ideas but their words strung together."

The plan has six "aspirational statements" that set out broad objectives such as recruiting talented faculty and students. Within each is a bullet-point list of more detailed goals. But many are still fairly vague.

For example, Baylor 2012 said the school should have at least 10 doctoral programs in the social sciences and humanities, including a new doctorate in philosophy. It called for the university to increase the total number of Ph.D. programs from 14 to at least 20.

The new strategic plan simply says the university should "approve new graduate programs that strategically build on existing strengths within departments and schools."

The only more precise guidance is that health sciences programs should be emphasized and more funding given to science and engineering.

That difference is intentional, Davis said. Although the new plan specifies some focus areas -- many of which build on the foundation laid by Baylor 2012 -- officials want the new plan to be flexible so Baylor can take advantage of opportunities as they arise. That could be in the form of faculty hires who happen to come with a particular expertise, she said.

"To say exactly how it will be done presumes we know exactly who the next hires will be and we do not," Davis said.

The plan's fluidity is also an acknowledgement that many of the goals are dependent on Baylor receiving donations to fund them.

The university does not have the ability to take on a large level of debt like it did to finance Baylor 2012, said Reagan Ramsower, Baylor's vice president for finance and administration. It also can't raise tuition much more and remain competitive, Davis said.

"We cannot be subtle in saying we will have to achieve this next vision through the philanthropy of others," Davis said.

Mitchell Neubert, a business professor who served as co-chair of a feedback review group, said the No. 1 message people expressed is a wish for Baylor to retain its Christian identity.

Many also said they want Baylor to continue offering a "high-touch" academic experience that includes excellent classroom teaching and out-of-class student mentoring by faculty, he said.

Baylor's impact

Another theme that emerged was people's desire for Baylor to have more of an impact in the Waco community, in Texas and beyond, Neubert said. They want Baylor graduates to be involved in leading national and international discussions and to help craft solutions to the world's most pressing problems, he said.

Also notable was what was missing from people's comments.

"There really wasn't a lot of critical feedback, which was encouraging," he said.

Neubert attributed that to the inclusive nature of the strategic planning process. Hopefully, it will translate into greater buy-in of the plan, he said.

"Even if you don't get exactly what you want, you were at least included," Neubert said.

Numerous people on and off campus said another thing the plan has in its favor is that it is being introduced under the leadership of Ken Starr. Since he became Baylor's president in June 2010, he has been widely viewed as a uniter. Many who criticized Baylor's direction during the past decade praise his leadership.

Jeffrey Hamilton, chairman of Baylor's history department, is one of many people who said Starr's presence on campus has had a calming effect. That alone, he said, undoubtedly headed off some suspicion about the strategic planning process. Plus, faculty have been impressed with Starr's ability to recognize Baylor's strengths and find ways to augment them, he said.

"I just feel this is as healthy as Baylor has been in my 16 years here," Hamilton said. "I think the sense at this point is we've separated the wheat from the chaff on (Baylor) 2012 and rather than reinvent the wheel, we are continuing what was positive about 2012 and refining it."

Read other Waco Tribune-Herald stories on Baylor 2012.