Bold Realism

By President Shirley M. Collado, October 30, 2018
Harnessing our collective talent, resources, and energy to serve the academy and our world.

Earlier this month, I participated in a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., hosted by Excelencia in Education, an organization committed to supporting Latinx student success. I was honored to sit on the panel with two Latinx presidents: Elsa Núñez, president of Eastern Connecticut State University, who served as moderator, and fellow panelist Havidán Rodríguez, president of SUNY Albany.  

In our conversation about student success, all of us noted a growing sense of urgency around the future student demographics of our nation: who’s going to high school in what regions, how those populations are changing, and what these shifts mean for institutions of higher education in the northeast.   

But beyond these specific data points, thinking about our next generations of college students calls upon us to identify and envision the big picture of higher education in this country: to fully explore the role colleges and universities play in our public landscape and to embrace how the purpose of our work to provide transformative experiences can cultivate and empower citizens of the world.  

The recent acts of violence, intolerance, and hatred in our nation over the past few weeks, in particular, have demonstrated so clearly and so shockingly the overwhelming need for compassion, reason, and the capacity to do something inconceivably simple yet seemingly so difficult: to work through difference. Today and tomorrow’s college students need to be encouraged and supported as they join and shape our national dialogue, and we must prioritize our responsibility to give our students the tools to navigate challenge and conflict with courage, respect, understanding, and empathy. 

Make no mistake: there is a lot at stake right now for higher education, and as I engaged in dialogue with other leaders around topics like our shifting demographics and equipping students with the skills they need to thrive, we found our discussion turning from the “why” toward the “how.” This is a necessary pivot, and a timely one for Ithaca College as we embark upon our strategic planning process. Effective strategic plans must push the needle to challenge current models of what we do as institutions of higher education, to identify what works and what doesn’t—then use that knowledge to shift our existing frameworks and make powerful and productive change on our campuses and in our world.   

With these conversations and questions so fresh in my mind, I had an opportunity to sit down with the members of Ithaca College’s strategic planning steering committee during its meeting on Monday, October 15, to deliver my charge to this group.  

I have spoken before about how pivotal this planning process is, and how the future of Ithaca College, in many ways, depends upon our collaborative visioning work this year. I am passionate about our community’s planning process, and its great potential to bring all of the college’s stakeholders – on and off campus – together to draw upon our strong, adaptable history and devise a nimble and innovative plan for the next five years of this institution’s life. This moment asks our community to not only imagine Ithaca, but to craft and embody a strategic plan that will harness the talent of our people, the potential of our resources, and our collective energy in service of our institution and our students. This is vital work, done in the context of a higher education landscape that is rapidly changing, and within a national dialogue that oftentimes questions the importance and value of a college experience.  

In my charge, I asked the committee to embrace “bold realism,” to do their work from a place of passionate and daring vision deeply grounded in a heartfelt dedication to honoring the intention and expectation of our mission, vision, and values. This committee will be responsible for the realistic prioritization of the college’s goals and for making far-reaching, courageous decisions that affect every aspect of our institution. I asked the committee to ensure that they make these important decisions within the context of data-rich evidence, applicable best practices, and an acknowledgement of our community’s hopes and dreams. At the same time, they must demonstrate an unshakable commitment to forward-thinking innovation that honors our history, our present, and the promise of our future. 

I asked the committee to place at the heart of their work an unwavering commitment to activating an uncompromisingly excellent Ithaca College student experience. This is one of the most important—and challenging—aspects of strategic planning at institutions of higher education, and the irony is that many plans do not start from this place. Our process at Ithaca College must begin here, and must value and honor the personal transformation and self-actualization that our students find on this campus. Our strategic plan must acknowledge this journey by prizing our academic enterprise; by strengthening our commitment to a learning community that values full participation, wellness, wholeness, and inclusion; and by encouraging all on our campus to collectively invest in our students as today’s learners and tomorrow’s leaders. In this way, our student-centered approach is deeply faculty-centered, staff-centered, and community-centered, too.  

Our strategic planning process is not simply the production of a thoughtful wish-list. Many plans fail when they are filled with big dreams, but do not ask learning communities to reimagine how they deliver those dreams in the first place. Our process is about creating a new beginning for Ithaca College by identifying who we want to be as a learning community and shifting the ways in which we do our business to reflect that. This effort asks us to catalyze and affirm the next phase of our evolution by creating a foundation for the next five years that is firmly rooted in a collaborative process, which not only moves the needle for this institution, but does so with a reliance on and a respect for our college’s evolution and the values of shared governance and full participation.  

I know this can be a tall order for a community that has experienced recent turmoil and questions about shared governance and inclusion. I also know, to a greater degree, this kind of work is a tall order for us, as a country and as a society, in the face of so much anguish, fear, and hate.  

But I hope we can all conceptualize of our work this year in two ways. The first: as a part of our healing process as a college community, a unifying moment that ensures inclusion and collectively accountability for critical decisions that affect our future. The second: as a powerful illustration of our shared humanity as colleagues, neighbors, and friends all working toward a just society.