Dean's Notes: Reflections on the MSU Strategic Plan

As a member of MSU’s DEI and Strategic Plan Steering Committees, I had the opportunity to observe the passion and thoughtfulness of our colleagues and their relentless advocacy for the values of access, affordability, diversity, equity, inclusion, and excellence. Serving with our colleagues on the two committees was an honor and privilege. In this blog, I share some reflections on what I learned during the process.

In a vast and complex institution like MSU, with many stakeholders and competing priorities, developing a strategic plan is a formidable challenge even in the best of times. Amid a pandemic, and during a period of racial reckoning and ongoing political tensions, creating a strategic plan that echoes the hopes of a community yearning for culture change is a Herculean task.

Yet with a fine blend of expertise, patience, and diplomacy, the co-chairs of MSU’s planning effort, Vennie Gore and Joseph Salem, steered our planning committee through presentations, discussions, and listening sessions over an 18-month span to deliver a plan with directions for the future.

Similarly, co-chairs of the Diversity Equity and Inclusion steering committee, Wanda Lipscomb and Luis Garcia, and co-chairs of the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct expert advisory group, Rebecca Campbell and Andrea Munford, have exercised skillful leadership and delivered actionable plans that will be consequential to our future. Together with the DEI and RVSM plans, the strategic plan offers a vision for the next decade at MSU.

Compass Rather Than a Roadmap

A strategic plan has many objectives. It can serve as a clear pathway to a destination. It could offer recommendations for investment and disinvestment, propose novel ideals, advocate for radical transformation, surface research priorities and grand challenges, and emphasize reputational aspirations. Early in the process, I believed that our plan would follow this traditional route.

The listening sessions, however, revealed that our community had different expectations. They were interested in a strategic plan that is a compass rather than a roadmap. And given the breadth of our institution, a compass is a better navigational aid that allows for creative interpretation by colleges, departments, and administrative units.

I attended many listening sessions as a member of the DEI committee. The more I listened, the clearer it became that this plan ought to be more about values. It had to be an inclusive and collective expression of aspirations, emotions, ideas, and hopes of a community recovering from an institutional crisis and hungry for culture change. In short, the plan is a compass for our future and a written expression of our shared understanding of who we are, and what we stand for.

In his breakthrough TED talk, Simon Sinek points out that organizations create transformation by first addressing the why, before the what and the how. This strategic plan does just that by beginning with purpose. It reaffirms our access, empowerment, and DEI ideals as the central mission of our institution and exhorts collaboration, equity, excellence, integrity, and respect as the lenses through which we examine our actions and priorities. In essence, this value-driven, people-centric focus of the plan is a reinterpretation of our land-grant ideals for the 21st century.

21st Century Land Grant Mission

When we talk about our land-grant origin, it is used as a figure of speech to refer to our ideals of access, empowerment, advancement of knowledge, and translational research for the betterment of society. However, the pride and ideals implied in this symbolic positive reference are discordant with the truth that the granted land was forcibly acquired from Native Americans.

In fact, our university stands on grounds that were once occupied by the Anishinaabeg people, and given the harsh reality of this history, the plan suggests that we celebrate the ideals of the land-grant mission but rethink our use of the phrase “pioneer land-grant,” because of what it connotes.

Another theme of our discussions on the land-grant mission was a desire to reinterpret land-grant values for the 21st century. I believe that the six major objectives in the plan offer a contemporary view of land-grant values.

Framing the first objective as student success is a subtle but substantive shift. It affirms that the responsibility of our university is not just to educate students but to offer a holistic experience for success in careers and in life.

We have moved past practices of imparting knowledge with a sink-or-swim approach. We must continue to strengthen our efforts to train the whole person, which includes understanding and grappling with values, ethics, social interactions, diversity, and wellness.

With the erosion of trust in social institutions and inadequate preparation in high school, universities have no choice but to fill important gaps in skills and emotional development to ensure the success of our students, which is a 21st century mandate.

In a similar vein, the success of staff and faculty is framed as an institutional responsibility. The institution’s obligations must be matched by individuals vested with the power to mentor and ensure the success of the next generation of scholars and students with a nurturant spirit.

Access to first-generation students and students from lower-income families has been central to our identity. The 21st century interpretation adds emphasis to draw students from underrepresented historically marginalized groups. And the strategic and DEI plans go beyond diversity to creating equity, justice, and a sense of belonging. The RVSM plan, too, is intentional in promoting a proactive approach to gender relations on campus that is based on prevention, empathy, and a transformative culture.

The university is a microcosm where we deal not just with educational problems, but societal problems. And universities have long been fertile ground for protests and social movements, and we must be prepared to support and help our students as they wrestle with the challenges of social change and social justice.

The areas of innovation and global impact, sustainable health, and sustainability and entrepreneurship focus our attention on the two biggest challenges of our generation – healthy people and a healthy planet. But by no means do these two areas represent the depth and nuance of the diversity of intellectual strengths on our campus.

While STEM is critical to the 21st century land-grant vision, science and technology alone cannot create transformation without the support of the arts, humanities, social sciences, communication, education, and other disciplines. The plan recognizes that the vexing problems that confront humanity reside in the chasm between scientific understanding and human will. Resistance to wearing a mask or getting a vaccine during a pandemic underscores the importance of a transdisciplinary and humanistic approach to grand challenges.

Implementation and the Future

Noticeably missing from the plan are grand challenges. Except for sustainable health, other areas for selective investment are left to emerge through discussion and persuasion.

So now the difficult work begins. It is important to create transparent processes and the right social architecture to facilitate the next phase of conversations. The discussion about the future of our university now shifts to the broader community, with vigorous participation from faculty, students and staff.

The current plan is very much a work in progress, to be filled in by the MSU community. Though the ideals and values articulated in the plan can serve as a compass to chart our future, it requires adventurous and creative minds to animate the journey.

The leadership challenge is to distill conversations into ideas and aspirations into objectives that contribute to the broader goals highlighted in the strategic plan. For colleges and departments that already have their own strategic plans, mapping existing goals and objectives to the university plan will require some creativity. But given the encompassing scope of the plan, mapping objectives can be accomplished with minor revisions.

Ultimately, the success of this plan rests on the trust we have in one another. Trust is a scarce commodity these days. As trust in institutions plummets globally, we are no exception. Immediate concerns surrounding the pandemic, political polarization, gender and race relations, and the trauma from our recent past intertwine to create unique challenges for our campus.

At the same time, the pride in our ideals, the strength of our social capital, and the spirit of Spartans Will are our unique strengths, and with the hope offered by a new plan and new leadership, we can forge a bright future.

By Dean Prabu David