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Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
July 17, 2017 Robin Burroughs Davis Colby-Sawyer College

There are two challenges for modern strategic planning, to make it inclusive and, in regards to civic engagement, to connect our students and the institution to the community and world outside of the institution. We are in a time of student protests over free speech and students feeling disenfranchised from, disillusioned by, and distrustful of the political process. It is a particularly important time to have an inclusive strategic planning process and to reemphasize our institutions’ connections with and role in the wider community.

Phyllis Mable, former president of ACPA and co-founder of the CAS used to say that in student affairs we help students find their direction in life. She would challenge our students, and us, to figure out, “Who you are, where you are going, and how you are going to get there.” It became a focus for our work, but it also encapsulates the elements of strategic planning. The institution’s mission statement is “who” the institution is and what does. The vision statement is “where” the institution will go, what will make it unique, in the future. The strategic plan is how the mission and vision will be achieved – “how” it will get there.

There are key points in an institution’s life where it is important to conduct a strategic planning process: a new president, a change in the market for our programs or graduates, or new opportunities. Strategic planning can also be a way for us to refresh our institutions and recommit to a common purpose.  Strategic planning can be a motivating experience but it can also be daunting and, depending on how aggressive the timeline and how inclusive the process is, it can take months if not years to create, be approved, and be disseminated.

The strategic planning process can also be a time where different constituent groups lobby for their priorities to be strategic priorities. How can we, as student affairs professionals, provide feedback that civic engagement should be part of the strategic plan? If the strategic planning process centers on “how the students will get there,” i.e. what the institution will do to help them achieve the mission, then these are the core questions for constituent groups: What do our students need? What do we do well that helps them and what should we do to help students meet those needs?  Likely, phrases such as linking to the work, global citizenship, multiple perspectives, and media literacy will emerge as what students need to “get there.” These are all elements of civic engagement. An institution does not have to have the words civic engagement in its strategic plan to prioritize it.

Think of civic engagement as a way for students to meet college and learning outcomes – the how - if not the outcome itself. Service, service learning, media literacy, voter literacy, community engagement all help students meet our outcomes. Further, civic engagement activities help students connect experiential learning with classroom learning. Partnering with faculty and with students to identify collaboration opportunities helps broaden the audience and participation for engagement activities.

The strategic plan should be broad enough to embrace initiatives and priorities that add value to the learning experience, indeed are the learning experience. It is important to be an engaged participant in the process and to encourage others to be as well (this is a great way for students to practice civic engagement on a local level). Once the process is complete, embrace the plan; put it front and center as a guide. Connect programmatic outcomes, goals, and objectives directly back to the strategic plan. Talk with students, explicitly, about how participating in the process as well as programs and initiatives help them meet learning outcomes. Finally, assess the effectiveness of those programs and initiatives against benchmarks identified as part of the strategic plan.    

Implementing the plan in new ways keeps the plan fresh, front and center. In Phyllis Mable’s mantra, the “who you are” and “where you are going” as an institution are likely not going to change much. The “how you are going to get there” is the opportunity for civic engagement.