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Interview: President Brian Rosenberg on the Strategic Plan

At their meeting on January 16, the Macalester Board of Trustees approved the eleven priorities of the college’s Strategic Plan. The Mac Weekly sat down with President Brian Rosenberg on Wednesday to discuss his thoughts on the plan and its implementation.

TMW: I’d like to have a conversation, now that the Board of Trustees passed the plan’s priorities at their January meeting. And the plan has been some time in the making. How was it received by the Board when they began their first discussions on it?

BR: It was interesting. Their first discussions were not unlike the first discussions of every other constituency. One of the things it’s important to remember about the Board is that it’s almost all Macalester alumni, and so they’re like other groups. They have a lot of questions. They don’t agree on everything. We’ve had some really spirited debates about various aspects of the plan that weren’t unlike debates that took place in faculty meetings, on campus. And as with those others, you need to keep trying to work through them. Eventually, you reach a point where there’s a fair amount of consensus. And I think we did reach that point. What I’ve learned with our Board is that you can’t throw something at them once and expect it to be embraced. You’ve got to take them through a process. So we’ve taken them through a process over a couple of years, and by the time we had our final discussion I think the level of support was very high and the level of enthusiasm was very high. But, they asked all along the way, really good, hard, thoughtful questions. Which is what you want them to do.

Were there any issues or questions that had come up in the Board’s discussions that hadn’t come up before throughout this process?

No, I mean … they focused on exactly the same areas that other constituencies focused on. So the things that they spent the most time talking about throughout the process were not things like internationalism, which seems very little argument that thats an asset at Macalester we should continue. We talked about what it meant to focus on vocation. We talked a lot about entrepreneurship. We talked a lot about diversity. I think those areas which the campus focused on were the areas the Board focused on, and there were a variety of views around each of them. And we had to work through these things thoughtfully and be prepared to make some adjustment. Just the way we added the priority that focused on urban sustainability. You can’t just talk, you need to listen to people. And i think as a result of that, some of the things in the plan evolved.

So the priorities were passed, but that doesn’t include any specific directives, correct?

I tried to be very clear from beginning to end that what I was looking for the Board to do was approve the broad priorities, but not all of the tactics. I think, first of all, those are going to evolve. Second of all, that level of detail is best addressed by the community. We have a great Board. The Board’s responsibility is oversight, not to dig into all of the details of how we do things on campus. And the Board, they were very good about getting that difference. So, what they approved, if you go to the website, you’ll see the priorities — that’s what they approved. The rest of the tactics are now going to evolve. We didn’t ask them to approve all those details.

The eleven priorities – those remained fairly consistent throughout the process, correct?

We added one on urban sustainability. That was the single biggest change from the first iteration to the final, that additional priority. And in some of the others, we changed the wording of the priorities in areas, around entrepreneurship in particular. But with the exception of urban sustainability, the priorities pretty much stayed the same.

I did notice that the language around entrepreneurship had changed since the first draft; earlier it said that it should be a “defining characteristic of Macalester.” And now it’s phrased as more of a guiding principle going forward.

We certainly don’t want to suggest that entrepreneurship is something in which every student or department has to take an interest. We want to suggest that it’s something that we think we can do particularly well and that has applicability in a lot of departments and a lot of students, particularly if you think of it as encompassing both social entrepreneurship, business entrepreneurship, artistic entrepreneurship. If you have a broad definition, then the range of students and the range of departments that you can connect with is pretty broad. We want it to be something, and it’s my experience has been that there’s been an enormous amount of student and alumni energy about it. We want to figure out a way of harnessing all that and putting it to good use for our students without suggesting that this is something that any student has to do.

One of the concerns about the way entrepreneurship was addressed in the plan was that it would walk back on the mission of a liberal arts education.

I totally get that, but at the end of the way, that’s misleading. Entrepreneurship isn’t, for me, just about starting a business. It’s about developing a particular skillset that can be applicable in a lot of different contexts, and that maybe can be taught to a particular effect of this. The example I like to use is learning how to fail. I see this in my own children, who are 24 and 21. We do a lot of things really well at Macalester, but I’m not sure that one of the things we do really well is teach you the resilience you’re going to need when you leave this place. The students who come here are so used to succeeding. You’re high achievers, and you’ve been high achievers through your lives. And you come here, and you do well on your classes. And then you leave here, and the railroad tracks end, and there are certain obstacles you’re going to have to overcome. So one of the questions that we need to consider as educators is how can we prepare you for that pounding? And we don’t want it to be grades, because that has real-life, real-world consequences. And what activities can encourage you to succeed but teach you at the same time that you don’t always succeed, and therefore teach you things like resilience and how you come back from that, what you learn from that? And any entrepreneur, whether it’s a social entrepreneur or business entrepreneur, will tell you that part of entrepreneurship is learning how to fail. Because a lot of what you try is not going to work. If you talk to the students that did the entrepreneurship startup camp last summer, I think to a person, they’ll tell you the most interesting and most informative thing was that they learned how hard it is. But without bad consequences, you still learn a lot. And so, that’s just one example of a skill that can be really useful, and that may be taught particularly well through those initiatives.

And it seems like a lot of those initiatives discussed are things that would take place outside of the classroom, such as the Live It Fund, the new Dream It Fun. And expanding Macathon.

Those are a lot of things that might — I’m sometimes a slow learner, but one of the things that I’ve learned is that you can’t create new academic programs from the top. What I like to try to to do is create programs where you can that don’t require curricular change. And if there are faculty who become attracted to that and interested in that, the programs will follow. It’s often the student energy that leads, and then the curriculum follows. I would say that’s sort of what happened with civic engagement at Macalester. An enormous amount of student energy that eventually worked its way into curricular evolution. And maybe that’ll happen with entrepreneurship. Maybe the student energy in entrepreneurship will eventually lead to a curricular presence. But only time will tell if that happens.

Do you see that happening currently with the continued focus on interdisciplinary concentrations and problem-based learning?

Hugely. If you think about what’s been created here over the last decade, in areas like Community and Global Health, Human Rights and Humanitarianism, International Development, Environmental Studies for a long time, Urban Studies — the student energy in those areas has in turn shaped the curriculum. I know from being a faculty member for 15 years, when you see students getting really excited about these things, it communicates itself to you. First of all, you want students in your classes. And you know if there’s a lot of passion around those areas, it would be really interesting to try to tap into that. You see opportunities as you think about your departmental curriculum to connect with some of these programs. I absolutely think that these programs have affected student enrollment patterns and affected the way departments think about the hires they make. I’m in the process now of participating in the search for a new history hire, and every single person I talk with who’s a finalist for that job has mentioned the interdisciplinary programs and said it would be cool to connect with that. ‘One of the things that attracted me to this job was this program, that it would be so fun to teach a course that connected with that.’ So, absolutely. And I think a lot of that growth has been student-driven.

One of those areas that I was interested to see included in the plan was Urban Sustainability, because it wasn’t really touched upon in earlier drafts. And there was a lot of energy from students and faculty members saying we need to touch on this.

And what was really interesting about that process was the way that students and faculty responded to the challenge I put to them. My initial response was, the plan isn’t meant to describe everything we do. We have an institutional commitment to sustainability, and if you want this to be a strategic priority, what you need to articulate is what we need to do different or more or better, so that it’s not just a description of what we do now. And they did that. They did it in part by linking it to our location and saying, because of where we are, we can take a very distinctive approach to sustainability that is particularly relevant in a world that’s increasingly urban. And I think, when someone makes a really good point, you just have to acknowledge that they make a really good point. Every time I posed that challenge, the response was sort of ‘okay, we’ll do that.’ And they did it. Once they did it, like a lot of good ideas, it seemed self-evident afterward. Of course. And as I look back to the first version of the plan, not only did it miss sustainability but it didn’t have enough about our urban location. And that priority managed to combine both of those things and elevate them to the level of one of our top strategic priorities. So it was, it’s why you get feedback. Because you don’t get everything right or complete the first time.

I know you and other administrators made a strong effort to reach out to students, faculty and staff to hear their thoughts on the plan drafts and hear their input going forward. How do you feel that process went?

I think it went pretty well. I think it’s always challenging because students in particular are so busy. They have so many things they’re doing that you’re always only going to hear from a small percentage. It’s kind of hard to get a sense of what I would describe as where the student center is on some of these issues. You tend to hear from people who are most passionately about a particular issue. Which is fine. But it doesn’t always reflect, and I know from talking to MCSG leadership that this is their great challenge too – trying to get a sense of what the students think, or the faculty thinks, or the alumni think, is really a challenge. So I think the discussions we had were good, the feedback that we got was good. Sometimes, it was intense and I think as a result the plan was better. My sense, based on what some faculty said to me, was that they were really pleased by some of the changes that were made. As a response to conversations we had, we changed the way we talk about the theater project, for instance. You are never going to achieve perfection, and you always of course have to strike this balance between listening and moving forward. And that’s what we try to do – not rush this through and provide opportunities to listen, but at a certain point, you just have to get in the bus and move, recognizing that things are going to continue and evolve. You’ve got to get beyond the planning process and have some priorities, and then begin to work through implementing those priorities.

One priority in the plan that’s had a lot of discussion is admissions practices, especially as they relate to diversity. The plan clearly said we should consider looking at [becoming] test optional, and partnering with Posse and Questbridge. Do you see these as real possibilities going forward?

I do. Now that we’ve approved the priorities, we really need to seriously take a look at these things. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not a fan of standardized testing. It’s not that I think it tells you nothing, but the extent to which it correlates with socioeconomic status and the extent to which it doesn’t correlate as well as high school performance with college performance – it really troubles me. And I think if you’re going to be serious about diversifying the student body, you’ve got to be willing a) to take some risks, and b) to change what you’re doing a little bit. And I think it’s unquestionable that standardized testing gives an extra leg up to the students that have lots of legs up. I would like to see us move to some version of a test-optional policy. Part of the challenge is that there are different versions of that. If you look at the schools that have gone test optional, they do it in different ways. So we need to think through what the implications would be for us, and if we do it, exactly how we define that. But I think it’s a discussion we absolutely need to have.

As do I believe that the discussion about programs like Posse and Questbridge — that’s another discussion that we need to have. I’ve never been a huge fan of those programs, and the reason is that I’ve been a little troubled by the way that students in those programs are treated differently than students who are not. That’s not tended to be the Macalester ethos, so if you’re a student in the Posse program you get x, if you’re not in the Posse program you don’t. So that’s kind of bothered me. But, at the end of the day, they have had success in enrolling underserved students in colleges, and they have had success in getting them to graduate. And you can’t dispute that. And so, I think Posse and Questbridge are very different programs with different approaches. We need to take a look at both and get a sense of whether one or the other fits better with Macalester. But I keep saying the same thing – if we just keep doing the same things, we’re going to get the same results. Because I don’t think that the extent that we haven’t had as much success as we like, it’s not because we haven’t been trying hard. Clearly, you need to get beyond trying hard and say, what are the actual policy changes you could make, whether it’s recruiting students or recruiting faculty, that would make a difference. It’s not just elbow grease. It’s got to be more than that. I think, whether it’s programs like that, or on the faculty side, targeted hires – I think we need to look at changing the actual practices and not just saying we’re going to try hard to increase the diversity on campus.

Targeted hires was another – I know MCSG passed a resolution calling for targeted hires.

And I think that resolution made a difference. I thought the MCSG resolution was thoughtful, and benefited a lot from the fact that they talked with the Provost about it. There isn’t a huge difference between that and the plan, other than the number [of hires]. I think, perhaps some students don’t realize how challenging even getting to what the plan advocates will be. It’s not something that the administration can do without faculty support. We need to get faculty support. It’s challenging because it means tradeoffs. We’re not talking about just making the faculty bigger, because we just can’t keep adding expenses and adding expenses. We’re talking about making choices. In other words, we’re going to make this a priority – diversifying the faculty – which makes we might not be able to hire in some other area. And are you willing to make that choice? My view is we should be. But I’ve got to be able to, and the Provost has got to be able to, and faculty leadership has got to be able to convince the faculty that that makes sense.

Now that all these priorities are passed, the next phase is implementation. How do we get all these tactics to be a reality at Macalester? There’ s a lot of different elements to the plan, a lot of different elements to approach it from — but has there been any discussion about what the next couple of years would look like for Macalester?

Yeah, and one of the things I’ve told the Board and everybody else is that these things are going to probably move ahead at different paces. The things that can be done administratively and with student energy will probably move fastest. The things that will involve curricular change, or the faculty governance process, will move more slowly. Because that’s just the way that this process works. I would say that in areas like, you know, if you just take entrepreneurship, diversity and vocation, even since the plan was passed — in entrepreneurship we’ve had the first entrepreneurship summit and we have two more — one scheduled in Silicon Valley and one in New York with alumni. On vocation, we’ve started a search already for a new Director of the Career Development Center. In diversity, we’ve got a $100,000 planning grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation to work on faculty diversity training and piloting a bridge program for underserved students. So those are things we can do fast. Much faster than, say, a new academic program – or thinking about how we’re going to hire faculty. These things aren’t all going to happen at the same rate. But the important thing for us to do is to track progress on all of them so it doesn’t just become something that sits on a shelf. I’d like to make regular reports, whether it’s at a board meeting or a faculty meeting or another context, about how we’re making progress on these priorities. If they change, how they changed, and why. I’d like to think that, say, in a two-year period, you’ll see some progress on all of them, but it’s not just going to all proceed at the same rate.

Do you imagine students will be kept in the loop on progress as well?

Yeah. I think the things that involve students most directly will be the things that they see and feel most directly, so that – let’s say there ends up being a dramatic reorganization of the CDC. Students will feel that. Some areas students will notice pretty directly, others might be providing for student government the same updates I provide to the Board about essentially having a dashboard where we measure how we’re making progress on the Strategic Plan.

And the potential three-year residency requirement, I imagine that’s another place where students would see some effects.

Yeah, and that one’s going to take a while. That remains purely theoretical unless we have more beds. What that has to shape, in my view, are conversations about, if we want to add housing, what kind? How do we add housing in a way so that students will look at that and say, “I want to live in that?” My ultimate goal is not to say to anybody, you have to do something you don’t want to do. My ultimate goal is to have more housing options that make students say, “That would be a really cool place to live.” Imagine more housing like the Grand Cambridge Apartments that were theme-organized. Sort of living-learning communities. Juniors would say, ‘That would be a really cool place to live.’ That’s my goal.
The residency requirement would only happen, could only happen, after we had those plans in place and the actual beds in place. So, that’s a good example of something that’s going to take a while. But if you don’t start the conversations, you never get there. I think, if you take the residency requirement out of the picture, I don’t think there’s a lot of disagreement about the fact that it would be really nice to have more diversified housing options. If you can do that, and students would want to live in them, then you can take a look and say, ‘does it make sense to have a three-year residency requirement?’ But we’re not there yet.

I imagine a lot of the components of the plan have a financial side, and the college will need resources to bring them to fruition.

They feed into one another. First, you have to establish your priorities as an institution. And that allows you to decide where you want to go out and try to raise money or generate support so you can make those priorities a reality. You don’t want to raise the money first and then figure out your priorities – you want to figure out your priorities first and then try to raise money to support them.

In the eyes of the average student, as different components of this plan are implemented, how would you see their day-to-day experience at Macalester change?

You always want it to get better. If you say to me, five or ten years from now, how would the Macalester experience be different than it is now? I’d like to think that we’d be a more diverse community than we are now. I’d like to think that we’d be known as a place that did a really good job of connecting a great liberal arts education with the lives students are going to lead when they graduate. And that includes jobs. We’d be a really good place at attracting and nurturing students who want to think outside the box and want to create things. We’d have a curriculum that was really distinctive in some of those issue or problem-focused components. So I think all these things are building upon strengths we have, but we want to take them further. I want to be entrepreneurial as a college, in the sense that I want us to be creative and not be overly cautious, and therefore try to create the best possible experience we have for students. I think we can be a traditional liberal arts college and still be really innovative. I don’t want to do crazy things, but I’d love for us to be on the cutting edge of innovating at a high-quality liberal arts college. We can keep what we really value – the community we create here – but we can still be innovative as opposed to complacent. Which I see at a lot of other schools.

March 13, 2015

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