Cornell College is facing a time of extraordinary opportunity for growth and development as it continues to makes its mark among the nationally recognized liberal arts colleges in America. President Les Garner’s successful 16 years of leadership, the 2010 completion of the $105 million Extraordinary Opportunities Campaign, and recent enhancements to our curricular and co-curricular programs have put the college in one of the strongest positions in its history. These accomplishments have generated important institutional momentum.
At the same time, the recessionary years following 2008 and the increasingly competitive market in American higher education present large challenges for small, modestly-funded liberal arts colleges in rural mid-America. Cornell has been one such school. We have a number of important priorities, such as adequately funding faculty and staff compensation and facilities renovations.
Over the past few years, as the college has looked to its future, a primary goal of growing the college, both in enrollment and in distinctiveness, has emerged. Cornell College has one of the smallest enrollments among its consortial and national ranking peers, and enrollment research has shown that students interested in colleges like ours are looking for institutions with enrollments of 1,400-2,000 students rather than our 1,100-1,200. Moreover, although Cornell’s unique characteristics continue to be recognized both in college guides and in prospective student interest, we would like to capitalize further on our distinctive features. Cornell faces an economic environment that continues to be unpredictable, and growth in enrollment and distinctiveness is especially challenging in today’s very competitive educational environment, with schools struggling to survive and to recruit/retain the best students, faculty, and staff. Thus, our ability to excel requires us to collectively make good institutional decisions through which we direct limited resources to our highest priorities.
We have so much to celebrate. We have experienced wonderful growth in our student body—both in numbers and diversity. We have a uniquely passionate and inspired faculty that thrives on the “pedagogical freedom” made possible only by OCAAT. We have staff who themselves state that they love Cornell because of our students and the unique learning environment. While we have urgent facilities needs, the fact remains that we have a spectacular and majestic campus located in a beautiful and vibrant small college town. We have an impressive history of academic excellence that has only grown over the last period of our history. Cornellians are unified in their commitment to student learning at the highest level. These are the strengths upon which we can build together.
In order to take optimal advantage of our current opportunities, the college is preparing to begin a year of focused strategic planning involving the entire Cornell community. A review and re-articulation of our mission statement and core values will be a part of this effort, to make sure that planning is consistent with them. The focus will be on an explicit framework for guiding college decisions over the next several years. Representation on the planning committee and its working groups will be broad, and input from students, staff, faculty, alumni, and Trustees will be pursued through surveys, focus groups, and discussion. Because decision points arrive regardless of our readiness to face them, the goal is to have a vetted plan ready to present to the Board of Trustees at their May, 2012, meeting.
This is an assertive schedule, requiring many community members to devote substantial time and energy to the project while continuing to attend to their usual responsibilities. However, strategic planning is also an opportunity for the community to reaffirm its commitment to its essence--an academic, student-focused community committed to shared governance and the strength of collective decision-making. We have had "extraordinary" gains over the last decade, and now we must solidify those gains and lay out our next steps in order to secure the college’s future.