Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats Focus Area
There was ready and open discussion about WCU’s strengths and weaknesses. The recent construction, renovations, and the redesign of the core of campus with its pedestrian focus has resulted in an esthetically appealing and enjoyable environment for students, faculty and staff. It has contributed to a sense of real community and improved morale. Being part of a community that cares is a strength. WCU has hardworking and caring faculty and staff who help create great students -- students are our “product.” Some felt that there are opportunities for creating an even closer knit community that need to be explored, ones that keep the student centered-focus.
On the other hand, the recent major changes in leadership across campus and a lack of leadership transparency has many faculty and staff feeling uneasy and without clear direction or leadership. New leadership and clear, common direction (e.g., outcomes of the 2020 Commission effort) are opportunities to address this.
The location of WCU, with access to many outdoor activities was seen as a strength and as a weakness. Some students miss having ready/easy access to services or businesses that they are accustomed to using, e.g., a shopping mall. Some parents may see and prefer the less urban location of the university, but their students aren’t satisfied and they don’t stay. They either leave campus on weekends, which results in a weaker sense of belonging and community, or they don’t adjust and withdraw from the university.
The lack of public transportation options is seen as a significant weakness for students without their own transportation, in particular our international students. They have to rely on others whenever they need or want to go off-campus. All agreed that the issues related to access to off-campus services, shopping, and work/internship opportunities negatively impact recruitment and retention of students, and are viewed negatively by some organizations that WCU wants to partner with, e.g., exchange agreements with international universities.
Location also impacts WCU’s ability to offer students adequate opportunities for professional/degree related experience prior to graduation. WCU students are graduating unprepared to compete with others. There are internship/cooperative education options for many programs, but there very few local or more easily accessible opportunities. Other campuses have this, e.g., UNC-C or UNC-CH, which gives them an advantage in recruiting and retaining students and faculty. The group saw this more as a challenge rather than a weakness. One suggestion was to explore more opportunities for interdisciplinary or cross-departmental experiences. Also, students may not know about and make use of the career counseling and services available to them. It needs to be an integral part of their university experience from the very start.
WCU’s smaller instructor-to-student ratio helps to foster closer student community and relationships, and attract faculty and students. However, WCU’s ability to deliver that “promise” is eroding as a result of recent budget cuts. Faculty positions have been cut, class sizes have increased, and students are feeling like they’ve been misled. Similarly, WCU’s tuition and fees are the best value for any of the in-state schools, but this is also a weaknesss. The university’s many years of conservative and controlled growth of tuition and fees has resulted in missed opportunities and put WCU behind other schools with respect to services and programs available. In the current budget and legislative environment, trying to catch up is problematic.
WCU’s distance education programs are seen as a strong part of the university that extends community beyond the geographic constraints of place. Degree opportunities are offered to members of the military, at distant locations, e.g., Hickory, and online. Distance education contributes to WCU’s enrollment, recognition, and engagement with a larger community. However, the university has a resident-based instruction focus for many of its processes and initiatives that don’t fully support or capitalize on the benefits that distance education provides. Distance education funding is an issue that needs to be fixed. For example, non-credit continuing education offerings are helping pay for distance credit instruction.
There was general agreement that faculty and staff often don’t have access to the information or resources they need to do their jobs. For example, the business processes needed to manage budgets and procure services aren’t clear or even available. The budget cuts have made it difficult to get the resources needed for programs and outreach/community efforts.
Priorities and Vision Focus Area
The current budget situation was seen as the first priority that needs to be addressed.
Recruitment and retention of students and faculty continue to be major priorities. Some felt that a more selective admissions process was needed to improve student retention, insuring a better upfront match of students with WCU’s opportunities and services. Faculty and staff have a role to play in making sure they know about services available to students and promoting them. For example, faculty need to understand and help support student use of the eBriefcase portfolio. (Confusion about the QEP may be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.) Providing activities, both on and off campus, for students, faculty and staff is another area tied to retention. Future employment opportunities for students is a major retention priority.
WCU needs to insure access to WCU’s resources by its wider community and advertise/communicate the WCU message (when it is defined). For example, the message that we offer a smaller instructor-to-student ratio is important and needs to be supported. Larger classes and an unhealthy transition from students to numbers (quality vs. quantity) needs to be weighed against what we say we do best. There should be a “right” number for WCU as opposed to sheer growth.
Of course this impacts how WCU is budgeted by the state, so alternative ways to fund WCU programs and initiatives are needed. For example, alumni support needs to be enhanced. This will require an analysis of why they don’t continue to relate to and support WCU; are they dissatisfied with their product, i.e., a prepared/educated student? Is that tied to the type or quality of programs offered? WCU needs to do a program review to hone in on and enhance successful majors instead of developing more with a high risk of failure. As part of this review, WCU should look at using more interdisciplinary programs and resources and listen to what students say they need and want.
This all should tie back to the “right” number/identity of WCU students. Then once students are here, WCU needs to enhance support provided to them, such as learning communities, transition courses, and learning options (e.g., in person, online).
WCU in the Region Focus Area
Much of the discussion centered around WCU’s relationship with the local community. There is a lack of support for WCU-community relationships, on both sides. Perhaps WCU should designate a single person to take control of this. WCU has been successful in some areas of community outreach and engagement. For example, the activities of the Mountain Heritage Center and the annual Mountain Heritage Day. WCU also has initiatives to tie in major academic resources with community enhancement.
However, some saw a continuing disconnect between WCU and the local community, and pointed to arrogance on the side of the university. Community events need to be advertised more on campus, and WCU needs to attract the community to more campus events. The interests of the local community need to take a major role in campus events. WCU needs to develop a “caring” outlook for the community, as well as faculty and staff who are community ambassadors for the university. A suggestion made was to provide “local” perks for community members, such as discounted tickets for events. Stronger communication and a commitment by WCU to follow through on initiatives (i.e., support our relationships, honor our agreements) would help.
The economic impact of the university on the region is important. WCU is a major employer and student revenue is significant. The millennial campus initiative offers great potential for community gain in addition to the university’s growth. For example, the new Health & Human Science building will offer clinical services for the community that will create new jobs, revenue, and work/internship opportunities for faculty and students. WCU should look at how it can offer services to adults in the community. For example, offer interdisciplinary degrees for those who want further education, and provide distance/graduate-level options with flexible schedules and hours.
WCU has great potential! The attendees were quite positive, yet ready for a change. They expressed their willingness to aid the university in any way to obtain positive results from this initiative. Their hope was that this strategic planning initiative for the 2020 Commission will actually produce visible changes within the university.