The presidents and chancellor, academic deans and provosts, student affairs deans, and principal business officers of the five colleges met at Mount Holyoke on December 8, 2009 for an intensive strategic planning session focused on a vision for the consortium in 2020. They focused their discussions on three key areas:
- Optimizing the student and faculty experience;
- Improving services, creating efficiencies and streamlining;
- Articulating the added value of the five-college experience
A prominent theme of their discussions was the urgent need to make the student and faculty experience “friction-free” across the five colleges. There was widespread support for “seamless” course planning and registration across the institutions, for clarity and coherence in major requirements, and for truly coordinated online schedules of classes and catalog listings through which the academic disciplinary offerings across all institutions could be readily accessed by students and advisors. The group emphasized the need for better coordination of the upper-division courses and seminars in all departments, particularly those with small enrollments in upper level courses, in order to continue to offer a rich student experience while reducing redundancy. (Some departments and disciplines already do this well; their successful practices should be analyzed and shared for the benefit of others.) Joint curricular planning could allow counterpart departments and interdisciplinary programs to develop different paths in a major for students intending to pursue certain professional or academic careers (such as a coordinated Five College track for those going to graduate school) and could facilitate the development of four-year and five-year BA-MA programs between the colleges and the university. Some undergraduate majors could be developed solely as five college majors; five-college masters degree programs could also be created.
The group endorsed the concept of a shared five-college intellectual and/or social experience for students in the first year or second year, such as a first-year or sophomore seminar, a common reading, or a shared theme for co-curricular programs each year, and noted that faculty members, too, could benefit by being part of a cross-institution cohort from outset of their careers and having opportunities for professional networking with Five College colleagues. There was support for using a five-college approach to meeting the needs of emeriti faculty, whether in terms of office space, programming or maintaining and fostering intellectual/scholarly community.
Closing distance using technology and improved transportation was identified as an important priority. Some short-term recommendations included installing wireless access on the inter-campus buses, so that ride time could be productive, and engaging a transportation consultant to review whether the PVTA-based model is being optimized. Teaching arrangements in which the faculty member (versus the students) moved from campus to campus should be explored, as well as courses that blend in-person and video-assisted teaching.
In discussing possible efficiencies and streamlining, the group noted the importance of clarifying those functions that are integral to an institution’s mission and distinctive identity and those that are not. Potential areas for shared services could include information technology; support and maintenance of technical equipment and instrumentation; food sourcing and dining services; compliance, particularly research compliance; disability services; student health and counseling; religious life; and library services and acquisitions. A suggestion was made to review the comprehensive business efficiency studies undertaken recently by a number of leading universities to see whether the five colleges would find value in the efficiencies recommended for them or whether there would be value in commissioning a macro-level business efficiency study across the campuses of the consortium. As one participant noted, with thoughtful long-term planning there is potential to share almost all administrative or back-office functions without sacrificing distinctiveness. “Design systems for far enough out that you can envision them as one. The more specialized the focus, the more it makes sense to cooperate.”
Participants identified the variety of institutions – a (public) research university with an honors college and four (private) liberal arts colleges, one of which began as an experimental college -- as a distinctive asset. Each model offers value to the faculty members and students of the other institutions. Moreover, the combined entity, which some have described as a “Valley University,” comparable in some aspects to Oxford University with its distinct member colleges (or Oxford and Cambridge, often termed “Oxbridge”), offers the potential for wide recognition and international influence. Closer to home, ideas were offered about increasing the visibility of the consortium in the major cities of western Mass. and to visitors from around the world accessing the Valley via Hartford/Springfield.
To realize the full potential of five-college collaboration, as one participant noted, “we need to ask the five college question more frequently – in every decision we make.” One element of such collaborative decision-making could be a form of five-college trusteeship, engaging several members from each of the member institutions’ boards in regular Five College meetings.
In addition to the initiatives noted above, the group advocated the following projects be undertaken by task forces or study groups in the near-term to advance the vision outlined above:
- A study of transit options and how to optimize them;
- Uniform course registration policies;
- A five-college unified catalog;
- A plan for pooling resources in advance for future shared faculty positions;
- Five College departmental retreats (academic and administrative), to build investment in collaboration at the departmental level;
- Selective use of consultants to help us envision unified systems and administrative operations;
- Prominent Web presence for the Five College calendar from each campus’ Web site; creation of a Five Colleges Facebook presence to promote events;
- Selection of a common theme across the institutions that would link a year of exhibits, common readings, major speakers, Fine Arts Center programming and more.