HCC unveils a new blueprint or the years ahead
EDITOR' NOTE: This story appears in the Fall 2018 issue of HCC's Alumni Connection magazine, as part of a package of stories about the college's recent Strategic Planning initiative.
See also: Success for All: HCC as an HSI
BY CHRIS YURKO
As a candidate for the position of president at Holyoke Community College, Christina Royal did her homework. Before her interviews, she studied all she could about the college and combed the HCC website for information about its history, people and programs.
Among the items she reviewed was the HCC mission statement, which, she noted to herself, went on for six, packed paragraphs.
Later, during her first days as president, she revisited that mission statement on the college website, and copied and pasted it into a Word document, realizing then that it filled an entire page, single spaced.
"My first thought was, How does everybody know what the essence of the work we're doing is if the mission statement is this long?" she recently recalled.
To find out, she started asking faculty, staff and other administrators – What does the HCC mission statement say? "Nobody, not a single person," she recalls, "could recite it."
They can now.
The old mission statement – RIP – in service since 2005, checked in at 479 words. The new one is but three, and here they are:
Educate. Inspire. Connect.
"I love our mission statement," Royal said in a July interview. "It's clean, crisp. It's on point, and I think it'll resonate very well. All three words really speak to the core mission of what we do. There's a level of focus now to our mission that you don't need a whole page to say. You can say it in three words."
While the words may seem simple and obvious, they are the result of a year-long initiative unlike anything the college has gone through in recent memory. This "Strategic Planning Process" included hundreds of faculty, staff, students, alumni, trustees, and community members who engaged in various configurations for workshops, brainstorming sessions, discussions, lectures, brown bag lunches, surveys, focus groups, forums and more to produce a blueprint to guide HCC for the next four years and construct a foundation for a future beyond even that.
Besides a new mission statement, the Strategic Planning Process also produced a few things HCC has never had before: an aspirational vision statement, a values statement, and a pledge to students to deliver a transformational college experience. On top of that, the effort produced a set of four strategies and nine objectives that will guide day-to-day college operations as HCC recalibrates its priorities to address changing demographics, educational expectations, and the needs of students.
You can read all these on the Strategic Planning pages on the HCC website. Before the Fall 2018 semester, President Royal sat down for an interview to explain what the Strategic Planning Process was all about.
What is a Strategic Plan and how is it different than the typical planning the college is used to?
I would describe the process that existed before as more of an operations plan to identify the day-to-day work that has to occur in order to move forward. The difference with a strategic plan is the strategy element; it's being strategic about our future, figuring out what we want to accomplish in the next couple of years in support of our students and the communities we serve. What do we need to do? What issues do we need to address? How are our students doing and how can we position them to do better? What issues are our communities going through and what role does the college have in that process?
Why did the college need to do this now?
It was important to get started because there is an increasing level of accountability in public higher education and I didn't feel we could afford to wait. There is a changing expectation with every new person that's in office in the White House and the Dept. of Education at a national level and an increasing emphasis on outcomes and performance. When you're talking about trying to move the needle on some of these very difficult types of issues we need to start sooner rather than later. For example, if you put together a pilot to test a new initiative to help improve completion rates, you might not know the impact of that pilot for a number of years. So I think it's important that we start now, that we start to create a culture of experimentation, of being data informed in looking at what we're trying, that we look at best practices and we take into consideration our specific communities to come up with new ideas on how to move forward.
What are those "difficult types of issues"?
Student success is a top priority, and many times, fostering that success begins with our work with high schools to ensure students are prepared for college-level work and life. HCC has tremendously high-achieving students - it has given me such pride to witness their accomplishments day after day. However, we must remember we are educating students from some of the poorest communities in the entire state. While the percentage of school-aged children living in poverty in Massachusetts is about 14.5 percent, it is 42.3 percent in Springfield and 43.7 percent in Holyoke. We have a responsibility to provide the highest-quality education to all who seek it. Doing so requires a commitment to addressing equity and closing the achievement gap. These are challenges that we, as a community college, are uniquely positioned to tackle.
Another issue is financial sustainability. State funding doesn't cover as much of our budget as it did in previous years. Pell funding also doesn't cover as much of the cost of education as compared to past years. We need to be better advocates for communicating the importance and value of education to our society as a whole and the specific importance and value to our local communities. We also have to address affordability, because many of our students do not have financial means, even though we are a very affordable option in the Pioneer Valley.
And enrollment has been declining.
Higher education has always had a counter-cyclical relationship to the economy, so when the economy is strong, people are able to readily obtain higher paying jobs. When the economy turns downward, the job market becomes tighter and those lacking skills or experience look to higher education to enhance their portfolio and gain job skills. Right now, our economy is doing relatively well, which translates for us into declining enrollment. However, my larger concern is looking at retention, or ensuring that every single one of our current and future students can be successful and graduate.
Let's get back to the new mission statement. Three words?
The steering committee and the board of trustees did a fabulous job providing drafts that captured the essence of what HCC represents, and students, faculty and staff gave us great feedback. We went through several iterations because the early language was not exactly what we wanted. With further refinement we finally landed on the words that resonate most. When you engage that many people, some amazing insights emerge, and when you discover the language that really speaks to you, it seems so obvious, but let's not forget the year's work it took to get there.
Why is that mission statement so important?
The demographics of our students are so different today than they were 15 years ago. I believe we have a team that is very student centered, but for us to really make progress on some of these persistent and challenging issues there has to be a level of focus within the institution. That focus starts at the top with the mission statement. Let's look at those three words.
"Educate." Our first priority is education. It's important that we know our ultimate goal is to provide education, training, and academic credentials that lead to jobs. As a liberal arts institution, we also teach students to become better citizens who contribute to their communities.
The second is "Inspire." We serve thousands of individuals at varying stages of work and life. Some of them are struggling with day-to-day issues like poverty and food and housing insecurity and others are looking for a good foundation for their first two years in order to transfer to the college of their choice. We meet students where they are, but to get through college, every single person needs inspiration. They need guidance, they need coaching, they need support. Inspiration is really important.
And the last piece, "Connect," was an interesting one that I think emerged in this process in a number of ways, especially in thinking about our role as a connector within the community. Our job isn't necessarily to directly and solely solve all of the challenges students face. They are going to come to us with academic issues, which we are going to work to resolve. But they are going to come to us with a lot of non-academic issues as well, and those non-academic issues might be things best addressed by community organizations, such as helping to resolve food insecurity and housing insecurity, and child care and transportation. How do we get people connected to other people in support of lifting up this community? How do we connect students to other institutions for continued education or to employers for career opportunities? How do we connect high achieving students to the internships and experiential learning opportunities that will prepare them to transfer to top-ranking universities in our region and beyond?
HCC now has a vision statement: "Holyoke Community College aspires to be a college of academic excellence known for helping students overcome barriers to success." Can you explain how that came about?
The mission statement really focuses on our reason for existence. This represents who we are and what we do. Our vision statement speaks to what we want to work toward in the future. The mission statement reflects present day. The vision statement reflects the future.
The college did not have a vision statement, so this was a new exercise for us. The purpose of the vision statement is to help propel HCC forward; it's providing some guidance on a future direction but it also speaks to some things that are out of reach now but are aspirational and possible with a long-term strategy.
The first part of our vision statement has to do with aspiring to be a college of academic excellence. That piece really speaks to our commitment to being the best educational institution we can be and focusing on the richness of the learning experiences our faculty and staff cultivate for students.
The second piece of our vision statement has to do with being known for helping students overcome barriers to success. There was a little bit of debate about this during the plan's development, because talking about barriers in a vision statement seemed a bit contradictory, that we should be focusing on positive aspirations. But when we talk about the idea of being a college that is known for helping students overcome barriers, it specifically creates a huge opportunity for us to be a college actually known for coming up with solutions to the most stubborn and persistent issues our students are experiencing and that community colleges across the nation are experiencing.
It's an intentionally bold statement. There was a lot of thought that went into its development and what we will need to do to move our college and our communities forward. Helping our students overcome barriers to success is one of those elements.
HCC has never had a values statement. Why does the college need one?
A mission statement provides clarity on who we are; the vision statement represents where we're headed; values are more about the college culture. Values represent us as a people. The three words of kindness, inclusion and trust represent our foundation. Kindness is a reflection of the care and empathy that we want to underlie our work. Trust is necessary in order to work effectively as an institution. Inclusion is already a part of who we are when we think about diversity and equity. Those values serve as the bedrock for innovation and collaboration, how we want to take our work to the next level. We want to be creative, and we want to work more effectively together.
Why was a pledge to students, a student experience statement, something important to articulate?
The student experience statement is a reflection of students' being part of the strategic planning process, and a big part of that process, both as an input and an output. We need to understand what students think of HCC. What is the experience they're having and what do they want to have? What could we do differently to improve their current experience? What would they change? So, through the student experience workshops - we had two of them with different groups of students and employees coming together - we built models of what a student experience looks like now and what the ideal experience might look like. What I thought was fascinating was the intersection of how our employees look at how we serve and support students and what students experience when receiving those services and supports. Through that, there were a couple of things that were important to everyone and those are defined in our student experience statement.
The process resulted in the creation of four priorities that form the essence of the strategic plan: teaching and learning; equity, inclusion & student success; workforce development & transfer; and sustainability. Is that enough?
In a word: Yes. As you go through a strategic planning process, the first and most important things to determine are: how are we doing today, what emerging issues and trends are going to affect how we do our work tomorrow, and what do we need to do to move the dial on some of the key areas of accountability at the state and federal level. It's very difficult to take year-long conversations, SWOT surveys, environmental scans, input and source documents, and student success data and distill it down to a few key priorities. But that's part of the process, and I think what we have now is exactly what we need for where we are today.
How do the mission, vision, values and student experience statements translate into action in terms of day-to-day operations?
The four strategies of our strategic plan are focused at the broadest level of the institution. The nine objectives add another layer of understanding about what those strategies represent. But for a lot of people the work resides at the level below the strategic plan. So we are now working on action plans that will enable supervisors to provide guidance to their staffs on the type of work that we'll be engaged in, particularly when it comes to annual planning. That's where it will start to become much more tangible for people. But I will say that, beyond the actual day-to-day work, people need to embrace the plan as our core work, and we need to stay focused on those areas identified as our priorities, and that if we do those things well, the college is going to be significantly better off in four years than when we started this plan.
Why only four years?
Four years is not a long time, but I do feel this will give us an opportunity to start to benchmark to see how we're making progress. Originally we were looking at a three-year plan, but we have to align the strategic plan to the budget and to our other plans, such as our IT plan, facilities plan, student success plan, academic plan, and ultimately with accreditation. Our accreditation visit is in 2020, so it was important for us to be able to go through that visit and then be able to get the feedback from our accreditors so we can start work on the next plan.
So after four years HCC will need to do this all again?
I think we will be in a much better place in four years to refresh this work as we continue. This felt like a very intense process, because it's the first time the college has gone through it in recent history. As people now have skillsets and an understanding and the experience of going through a strategic planning process they will continue to foster that mindset, then when we actually get to the point of needing to refresh our plan it's not going to feel like such a new process to them; it's going to feel like an extension of the strategy and planning work we're already doing.
When you first came on board you said one of your priorities was to guide HCC through a strategic planning process. Now that you've done that, how do you feel about it?
I'm really, really happy with the product that we have developed in this process, but I think that what I'm most impressed with is how the process brought us together as a campus community. We have people who are dedicated and committed to putting students first, and I see that every day. It's been really impressive watching the campus community come together and watching the community at large support us through this process. I've heard a tremendous amount of positive feedback about the college and people are very excited about the direction we're going in.
Any other thoughts about the process or the plan?
I believe education is the solution to most problems in our society, and it takes a village to raise a student. What I'm most proud of about HCC, and what I think will serve as a catalyst for our success with this plan, is that we take our middle name seriously. Partnership is baked into the DNA of Holyoke Community College; we recognize the value of community in addressing issues and creating opportunities for area residents to be successful.
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Thumbnail) President Christina Royal talks to HCC student Haley Woods, a member of the Strategic Planning Committee. (Above) HCC unveiled its new mission, vision, values and student experience statements at a Future Walk last spring.