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2012 Fall Issue 6 (October 26, 2012)

Students and Faculty Discuss Strategic Plan at Town Hall Meeting

October 26, 2012
By J.M. Hanley

This past Tuesday, the CSA hosted a town hall meeting on the newly-released strategic plan. Roughly a dozen students and administrators including President Poskanzer attended the discussion, which was held in the Alumni Guest House.

“I had been to the strategic plan meeting in the Chapel and after that I wanted the opportunity to learn more about it and particularly to ask Stevie P. questions about it in a more intimate environment,” said Sarah Thappa ’13, who attended the meeting. “I felt like this meeting had the most open communication of any meeting I had gone to [on the strategic plan].”

President Poskanzer introduced the plan, which details planned changes at the school over the next ten years, to the Carleton community earlier in the term.

It outlined ten priorities – the first six deemed critical, the last four considered secondary but still important – as determined by “working groups” of students, administrators, and alumni tasked with studying the college’s needs.

Proposed areas of improvement include career services, socioeconomic diversity, and inter-institutional collaboration.

After briefly reviewing the objectives described in the plan, President Poskanzer fielded questions from students on a variety of topics, which ranged from new performing arts facilities to the restructuring of the Career Center.

Other administrators in attendance, including Dean of the College Bev Nagel and Dean of Students Hudlin Wagner, occasionally augmented his responses.
While the CSA was responsible for organizing the event, it was President Poskanzer himself who suggested it, according to President Michael McClellan ’13.

“It was Steve’s idea to get students together to talk about what people thought about the strategic plan,” he said. “We met for lunch second week this term and he wanted to see if I was interested in taking the lead on that, so I said I was.”

President Poskanzer’s introduction of the plan began with an attempt to shore up general student concerns.

“We’re absolutely convinced that the core principle on which Carleton is premised, a residential liberal arts experience, is fundamental and we’re not moving away from that,” he told the audience, which was seated in round-table format.

After describing the structure and tasks of the working groups, President Poskanzer turned to the substance of the plan. He first described the socioeconomic shortcomings which the plan sought to improve.

“If you look at how our students are distributed in terms of income, we don’t look like American society. We’ve seen some real disintegration in the middle class,” he said. “We want to keep offering scholarships to lower income groups but we want to fill in the middle, so we’re going to need to put more money into financial aid.”

He then moved to the first critical priority of the strategic plan, the improvement of career advising.

“The most visible changes that will affect you is the idea that career and life planning for students will shift from a service that we give students who avail themselves of it to being an integral part of academic advising,” he said.
He proceeded to describe the specific policies which would serve this initiative.

“To help students, we’d shift how we do academic advising. In your freshman and sophomore years, you’d be assigned a liberal arts adviser,” he explained. “In your junior and senior years, you’re starting to formulate some idea of where you want to go post-Carleton. There are different questions than you’d ask in your first two years, and we think you’ll need departmental advisers.”

Another proposal, he said, would be to “develop different pathways tied to different majors.  You’d go to a website and it would say ‘here are different courses that you can take for public health.’  Or there’d be lists of alumni or even lists of extracurricular activities” based on careers.

Overall, he explained, the plan envisions a “different, more comprehensive approach to advising that links careers, academics, and lifestyle.”
President Poskanzer then briefly addressed concerns about the plan’s emphasis on online learning.

“We’re not going to become an online institution, but there are really interesting things going on in online learning,” he said. “We want to pick and choose the best of this world and weave it in.”

He then spoke about the facilities-related portions of the plan, which call for more humanities classrooms, more interdisciplinary science buildings, and the construction of a new music and drama center. 

President Poskanzer also sought to allay what has been one of the greatest student concerns regarding the new strategic plan.

“We are not abolishing Northfield Option,” he said emphatically. “The plan only calls for building more townhomes.”

His presentation concluded with a discussion of inter-collegiate collaboration which, he explained, could help the school save money.

“The last thing the economic section of the plan would tell you we need to do is to think about how we can collaborate with other colleges,” he said. “We’ve got two top-fifty liberal arts colleges in this town and we do next to nothing with them [St. Olaf].”

President Poskanzer then took questions from the audience. The first came from Thappa, a biology major, who queried him about the proposed expansion of research opportunities.

President Poskanzer acknowledged that Carleton’s small size made adding laboratory spots difficult. However, he explained, it could be accomplished by “forging stronger ties with bigger research groups at bigger institutions” so that Carleton professors could pay their own students to aid them in their research at those institutions.

Thappa also asked about strengthening the quality of student advising. One proposal, President Poskanzer explained, was to further train non-faculty staff members skilled at mentoring so that they could serve as advisers.

He also suggested that the school might do more to celebrate strong advising, for example, by establishing an award given to top advisers.  He also stressed that the strong teacher-student ties found at Carleton would make improving the advising system an easier task.

“There’s a level of faculty commitment to students here that the faculty didn’t have when I worked at Penn,” he said.

When the discussion turned to facilities, President Poskanzer explained that only another comprehensive planning process would most adequately address all physical plant-related needs.

“What we now need to do is to sit down and develop a master facilities plan for the campus.  There’s never been one,” he said.

As far as the existing plan was concerned, he said, the proposed science facilities would include more space designated for student research.  He also addressed the challenges of replacing the Music and Drama Center, which, as planned, will include establishing both an acoustically pure performance space as well as a place to seat large groups.

One proposal is to “use the chapel with some modification to meet those auditorium needs and to build a new performance hall,” he explained.

However, Poskanzer told the audience, those concerns were secondary to a more pressing facilities need.

“The one we’re likely to tackle first is classroom space,” he said.

When questioned about additional student residences, Poskanzer was clear: “We don’t have plans to expand [into Northfield],” he said.  Proposed new townhouses would likely be located “right near the other townhouses that exist now.  Think along the block near Dacie Moses.”

The night’s final topic concerned enhancing Carleton’s reputation, one of the plan’s secondary goals. 

The plan, according to President Poskanzer, would target three key groups: prospective students and those that influenced their college selection, prospective employers and graduate school faculty, and “general opinion shapers” such as political and corporate leaders.

He emphasized that, given the non-essential nature of this particular objective, costs would be weighed carefully.

“You can spend a lot of money on this if you’re not careful,” he said.
One possible cost-effective approach, he suggested, would be to better publicize notable speakers who visit campus as well as to encourage faculty to comment in news media.

Speaking of this last objective, he said, “We’ve got faculty who are knowledgeable in their domains who with the right kind of training and help could be successful.”

Student reactions to the meeting were generally positive.

“I think he’s given that summary before, so I heard that at the College Counsel meeting, but it was important for him to give everyone a level playing field to talk about the plan” said McClellan. “I think that the summary and long discussion part afterwards ended up being a good format.”
Thappa agreed on both counts.

“It was the third time I’d been to a strategic plan meeting, so I know it and I wish there was more of an open Q-and-A from the beginning, but I understand he wanted to lay it out on the table because there were a range of backgrounds,” she said. “I thought it was great that there were a wide range of majors there because we all have different questions.  It was really much more collaborative and sane and ‘let’s talk through your questions.’  That wasn’t really available with a larger audience.”

Ben Bedore ’13 also felt that the meeting had been worthwhile.
“I think President Poskanzer gave an answer to everything I asked,” he said.
President Poskanzer himself expressed appreciation for student input.

“I thought it was an excellent meeting, with thoughtful questions and good dialogue.  I think everyone went home with a better understanding of -- and I hope enthusiasm for -- ideas in the plan that will make Carleton better,” he said. “I liked that, in typical Carleton fashion, the students felt comfortable being candid and tossing any questions they had my way.”

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