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Experience St. Lawrence Task Force

Defining the Path Forward to Thriving in the 
21st Century

At the time the Experience St. Lawrence: the Task Force on Institutional Structure, Policy, and Planning was formalized and approved by the Board of Trustees in December 2019, COVID-19 had not hit the United States; Polarized political and media landscapes were just business as usual; and elevating St. Lawrence in an increasingly competitive arena of private liberal arts colleges was the primary goal of the trustees, faculty, staff, and alumni participating in the planning process.

The task force was well-positioned to capitalize on the excellent work done by previous and current Institutional Strategy and Assessment Committees (ISAC), whose focus was on academic initiatives. It was time to transition ISAC’s work into a more comprehensive assessment and reimagining of institutional structure, policy, budgeting, programs, and curricular innovations, in order for St. Lawrence to take the lead in redefining the liberal arts experience and have the financial resources to thrive as an institution. It is what President William L. Fox ’75 refers to as a “grand strategy.”

“This task force did not occur in a vacuum,” he clarifies, and as a historian, Fox believes it is important to understand the origins of work in the economic downturn over a decade ago. “The world of higher education never fully recovered from the great recession in 2008,” says Fox. “It was a global event which fractured the structure of college operations everywhere.” 

St. Lawrence was able to recover from the economic downturn over the next 10 years, according to Fox, but not entirely. “We repaired some of the damage here at St. Lawrence,” he says. “We had a strategic map, which we followed for a number of years. We grew our reputation. We grew our enrollment, and we deepened our alumni engagement.” 

Other advances involved new academic and programmatic innovations, including new programs, such as a business in the liberal arts major, a public health minor, and off-campus opportunities such as the New York City semester program and the SLU Connect networking programs across the country. 

By 2017, structural cracks in the higher education foundation were beginning to re-emerge. Scholars had been warning of a tectonic demographic shift that would impact enrollments in the 2020s. The U.S. birth rate had plummeted beginning in the early 2000s and has continued to decline through today. 

By January 2020, the task force was off and running. “And it really took off like a rocket,” says Fox. By February, the University had engaged EY-Parthenon to undertake comprehensive research and data collection of both the University’s competitors and comparative data on campus programs and administrative structure. EYP was a critical partner in identifying both external and internal factors that could enhance or inhibit innovative ideas and feasibility. 

Then the world turned upside down. Instead of coming to a halt, however, in March 2020, the work was accelerated even further due to the COVID-19 crisis, campus closures, transition to remote learning, and the potential financial impact of sustained disruption. Every month seemed to bring mounting challenges; however, Fox says he couldn’t be more pleased with the living example of St. Lawrence’s tradition of shared governance at work and the collaboration among numerous constituents that has propelled the work forward despite the upheaval. 

“The strength of St. Lawrence is its commitment to shared governance,” says Fox. “It has resulted in planning that is deeper, more imaginative, and more advanced than most of our competitive peer group.”

TO THRIVE: Building 21st Century Structures

The structure of the task force is multidimensional and enlists the expertise of Laurentians across disciplines and divisions led by co-chairs Trustee Lee Bailey ’74 and faculty member Ana Estevez, the Sarah Johnson ’82 Professor in the Sciences.

“This is really an opportunity for a fundamental shift in how we organize ourselves,” says Bailey, who believes it is important to recognize that the world has moved past the mid-19th-century, European-centric model of 35 departments and 65 majors into a true multidisciplinary approach to fulfilling the needs of the 21st-century student, campus, and community. 

Despite the many obstacles that 2020 had in store for the task force, both Bailey and Estevez are confident that although the obstacles were significant, they have not been an impediment.

“Our task has been made more difficult and increased in complexity given the ongoing impact of COVID-19,” says Estevez. “But, even before COVID, it was obvious that demographic shifts and the structural changes of colleges in the U.S. were going to require a wider and more comprehensive strategy to allow us to thrive.” 

Estevez believes St. Lawrence is in a better position than many, having launched this process prior to the COVID-19 crisis with the involvement of the campus community and alumni, but going forward, she says, “we must be prepared to move quickly and implement significant changes.” 

A PHASED APPROACH: Weaving Together All Facets of Campus

PHASE 1 began in March with the Programmatic Working Group brainstorming potential strategies, collecting ideas and feedback from campus constituents and alumni, and applying research, data analysis, and feasibility studies from EY-Parthenon to develop a series of business cases. Eleven planning groups were then formed in June 2020 to translate the programmatic business case studies into a series of proposals and business plans. Preliminary estimates suggest upfront investments of approximately $5.4 million over three years may drive an overall net positive impact of approximately $7 million annually.

“The new academic programs highlighted through this process are ones that look forward to the world our students need to be educated for,” says Karl Schonberg, vice president and dean of Academic Affairs, “not just when they graduate, but decades from now, when the habits of mind they learned in college will be shaping their lives and careers.” 

Many proposals are now ready for implementation or in the final stages of refinement. Environmental science, data science, finance, and digital media and film program proposals will be reviewed by the Academic Affairs Committee in February. The potential for online master’s programs and postbaccalaureate programs are being assessed. Proposals for a new public health major and biomedical science major are being refined and reviewed, and an aggressive retention strategy is being vetted by the retention committee and senior staff. 

“These programs ensure that our unchanging liberal arts mission of helping students to think broadly and deeply continues to speak directly to the challenges and opportunities of the future and the skills our students will need in order to lead in every field,” adds Schonberg.

Bailey agrees with Schonberg that the liberal arts tradition is the key. “We are not reinventing ourselves but focusing on what we do very well and capitalizing on it as we adapt to a changing world, changing workforce, and a changing economy,” says Bailey. “Repeating the essential link between the liberal arts and the demands of a career-oriented, multidisciplinary education is essential to the success of this task force and the future of St. Lawrence.”

Accelerated results from Phase 1 also include career services programming which emerged as a priority through alumni focus groups and input from multiple generations of Laurentians working across industries and disciplines. “The alumni played an extremely valuable role, not only in emphasizing a career-oriented experience and good analytical skills, but most importantly, both of these alongside the liberal arts,” says Bailey.

Alumni have already responded with significant investment. Through a generous gift of $3 million from Hilary Ayn Valentine ’89 (learn more on p. 34) to support the Center for Career Excellence, new programming is being piloted and the infusion of funds will allow for an expansion of career immersion opportunities, increased mentorships and internships, and bridge undergraduate and alumni networking programming which will have an immediate impact on current students as well as in recruitment and retention. 

The University is also considering a proposal for how a consolidated academic structure might be organized. A new 21st-century structure would help guide the strategic direction of the University’s academic programs and staffing and maintain a University Academic Plan.

PHASE 2, which began in June 2020, included a comprehensive review of St. Lawrence’s administrative structure to identify opportunities for cost savings, revenue gains, and performance improvements which will drive efficiency over time. These opportunities may have the potential to realize an overall net impact of $5.2 million annually after an up-front investment in year one of approximately $1.5 million.

With an emphasis on campus systems technology upgrades, recruiting and retaining the best talent, and institutional reorganizations to fit contemporary best practices, the Phase 2 assessment is looking at both the macro and micro opportunities. 

If you talk to Steve Hietsch, vice president for Finance and Administration, he would be the first to tell you that it’s complicated and the higher education market is competitive. 

“The financial challenges are not just at St. Lawrence, but throughout the higher education industry,” says Hietsch. “Any organization is only as good as its people, and that starts with hiring the best people that you can, creating an environment where people can grow and develop, and having systems in place that lead to better performance.” Hietsch concludes, “The more we can develop a high-performing organization, the more successful we are going to be.”

The campus is already capitalizing on administrative restructuring strategies, including the adoption of an enrollment management model which allows a comprehensive approach to the recruitment and retention of students. In October 2020, Florence Hines assumed the role of vice president for Enrollment Management and dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. In addition, Hines now oversees Athletics and Recreation and the Center for Career Excellence.

“Recruited athletes accounted for more than 40 percent of the fall 2020 incoming class,” says Fox. “We believe that aligning the recruiting that our coaches do more closely with the admissions efforts will yield even better results.” Other examples of overlapping recruitment and programming strategies include the addition of e-sports as a varsity sport and adding club hockey and club skiing teams—sports which fit with the St. Lawrence brand and geography and have positive recruitment potential. Career-focused programming will also be a parallel effort in recruitment and retention.

The task force was also unanimous in its analysis and recommendation to implement a centralized IT structure with a single chief information officer (CIO) to report to Hietsch as he adopts the role of chief business officer and incorporates facilities operations and the entire information technology division under his purview to better align St. Lawrence’s resources and contain our expenses.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to look at technology in new and innovative ways,” Fox says, “and this model will serve St. Lawrence well in the future. Facilities and the capital projects are two of the largest cost centers in our administrative operations. Better alignment between the finance area and facilities will provide opportunities for more efficiencies in our operations.”

The academic program development, campus life, athletics, and career services programming, as well as the administrative analysis, are all still works in progress. “Each and every one of these initiatives is probably different from one another, particularly on the administrative side,” says Hietsch, who believes the task force process has been helpful in evaluating all of the strategies, creating timelines, and analyzing financial cost benefit with a critical lens from internal stakeholders and neutral third-party assessments. 

“Some ideas need additional analysis,” says Hietsch, “and those that need additional analysis are going to take more time. Remember, we’re still navigating the pandemic while we’re trying to transform the organization, and people only have so much bandwidth.” 

The immediate needs of the campus to successfully weather the pandemic is always front and center in the work of the task force. “It is the impetus that’s driving us forward and giving us the sense of urgency that we need to move as quickly as we can on these things,” says Hietsch, “but at the same time, we want to do a good and thorough job, taking all other factors into account, which might be pulling us in different directions.” 

“We have a chance to emerge from these uncertain times as a better, more collaborative institution,” says Bailey. “And every Laurentian has a role to play in the University’s future.”

Fox agrees. “This really shows the tremendous strength of our community and our commitment to the traditions of shared governance,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we are still early in the game, and the potential is immense.”