GRAND FORKS -- University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy began his Friday presentation of the university’s strategic plan by describing the current environment of higher education.
The landscape he outlined is one undergoing an enormous amount of changes prompted by an information-rich society on the edge of even greater transitions. Bearing that in mind, he ended his discussion of the plan with a mandate for the university’s future.
“If it’s not in the plan, it’s not important,” Kennedy said.
The statement was strongly worded, but the plan itself is wide-ranging and is intended to touch every corner of campus in some way. The document is structured by seven overarching goals categorized in the broad areas of learning, engagement and discovery. The goals, as well as the broader mission and vision to maximize UND’s status as a premier flagship university and “chief opportunity engine” for students and the state, is the result of months of meetings and conversation by a 45-member committee made up of UND faculty, staff and students. Beyond those immediate members, Kennedy said approximately 800 campus stakeholders were engaged at various parts of the planning process.
The plan was shared last week in draft form at a campus forum. Kennedy’s Friday presentation in Memorial Union of the final version covered much of the same points of that earlier plan with the inclusion of a considerable amount of context. In short, Kennedy said, the future of higher education is a narrative dominated by the need to adapt.
He analyzed the landscape by first identifying a general series of threats facing the traditional model for higher ed. The theme of his list was disruptive change attributed to the permeation of the internet and communications technology.
One threat identified by Kennedy is free educational content offered online through companies like edX and Khan Academy, the former of which offers courses broadcast from elite institutions and distributes certificates of completion to those who finish the class.
Kennedy also identified as threats changes in the concept of a degree itself -- pointing out “nanodegree” options which provide specific, marketable skills and are welcomed by employers -- and the increasing presence of traditional universities expanding their footprint in the digital realm.
Kennedy said the stakes of not shifting the higher education paradigm are too high to forego change. Since 2010, he said, UND has been on a downward trajectory of credit hours delivered, a statistic that has hurt university revenue. Nationwide, university systems have struggled with issues such as fewer high school graduates, lagging revenue streams and reduced levels of state-appropriated dollars. Kennedy pointed to forecasts of widespread closures of institutions in years to come, cautioning the audience that the loss of perceived value to the school could be an insurmountable blow.
“Unlike the great flood, you’re not going to be able to rebuild from that,” he said.
To emphasize the importance of the strategic plan, Kennedy said new proposals and initiatives on campus will be vetted in the future by their ability to support objectives included in the plan.
The learning area encompasses the goals of providing a strong undergraduate liberal arts foundation, increasing retention and graduation for students from undergraduate through post-doctorate levels, and delivering more educational opportunities to students online and on campus. To accomplish those goals, the plan includes action items such as providing “high-impact practices” such as writing-intensive courses, undergraduate research and internships while developing a mandatory “first-year experience” course for new students. The action items for improving retention involve the use of data tools such as Starfish, as well as a more standardized system for student advisement including a clarified “roadmap to degree” for students. As one part of the plan to raise four-year graduation rates from 28 to 32 percent, one action item calls for decreasing the minimum number of credits to earn a degree from 125 to 120. The plan also calls for support in providing high-demand programs entirely online and reducing “barriers to admission,” a measure which would include simplifying the credit transfer process.
The discovery goal of the plan is rooted in UND’s role as a research institution. As such, it’s targeted at enhancing capabilities in that area to reach levels consistent with the highest-ranking institutions as graded by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.
The plan identifies a research funding target of $120 million to be centered on five Grand Challenges, a series of broad research areas intended to encourage collaboration among different campus sectors. Those challenges include categories such as energy security, rural health and social issues, unmanned aerial systems, big data and a more general health research area which includes biomedical sciences.
The three goals within the engagement group include fostering a campus climate of inclusion and diversity; meeting educational needs of veterans, as well as active duty and reserve military personnel and their families; and attracting support for UND through alumni engagement. Campus diversity initiatives would likely include a more specific strategic plan to be built out within student services but would generally be targeted at ensuring students from minority populations are included in broader campus goals of boosting rates of enrollment, retention and graduation. Engagement with the military community would be conducted with a goal to mark a 25 percent increase in credit hours earned by that demographic through use of online programs and designation as an “Air University” by the U.S. Air Force. The alumni portion of the main engagement goal includes increasing the percentage of alumni who make annual contributions through the foundation to 10 percent, up from a 2017 level of 8 percent.