President discusses now-official Strategic Plan and its role in shaping Western
By Jason Winders
February 06, 2014
Western President Amit Chakma knows some colleagues have trouble seeing what he sees when it comes to this university.
“Some of our colleagues believe we can be the best in the world. They are close to it; they can see it,” Chakma said. “Others have some self-doubt. They believe it can be done, perhaps, but the realities on the ground are so far from where we want to be, it’s hard to see how we get from here to there.
“I believe we can be among the great universities of the world. I believe this plan gets us closer to that.”
Chakma sat down earlier this week to discuss the now-official Strategic Plan, Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, its origin, as well as what he expects from himself and the university community as it relates to it.
At its core, the plan is about excellence on a global scale.
Chakma and his administration want to build on Western’s current commitment to teaching and research excellence, thus raising the institution’s stature internationally. The plan also reinforces a tradition of student engagement that provides “a balance of intellectual, cultural, social and leadership opportunities.” It calls for strengthening the institution’s public engagement and partnerships at local, national and international levels, as well as a diversification of its finances.
This is the university’s first new strategic plan since 2007.
“It’s always good to have a roadmap,” Chakma said. “When you come up with a strategic plan for a university, they tend to be broad, at a high level. One can debate their shelf life. Although we work in four-year time cycles for budgets, some plans are at such a high level, they can continue further on.”
Western rolled out its first-ever Strategic Plan, Leadership in Learning, in 1995. That plan was followed by Making Choices: Western’s Commitments as a Research-intensive University in 2001 and, most recently, Engaging the Future in 2007. Engaging was updated in 2010.
In October 2012, Chakma and his team sought to renew that plan yet again. But, as they say, times changed.
“As time goes by, circumstance change,” Chakma continued. “If we do these plans right, we make progress on the goals of the previous plan and then we need to focus on what needs to be done beyond those previously targeted areas. There is always something that needs to be done.”
Out of the strategic plan consultation process came an idea for a new plan – not simply a renewal or extension. That fact was a surprise, even to Chakma.
“Even without this new plan, we could have continued the journey. We had a good sense of where we were heading,” the president said. “But I found this set of exercises rewarding – you consult, you listen. The findings could be quite messy at times, all over the map. But, eventually, certain themes emerged.”
The new plan was informed by hundreds of written and oral submissions from the Western community and its partners including direct input from 65 faculty members, 50 staff members, 40 students and 15 alumni. In the end, 46 units, groups or associations from A-to-W contributed to the final document from the Aboriginal Education and Employment Council to the Writing Support Centre.
But for the end product, Chakma credited a meeting with the university’s deans as solidifying the plan’s pillars. “When I first started the process, I didn’t know what this plan would look like. Then, it started to gel coming out of the dean’s retreat; I started to see some pillars,” Chakma said.
In the end, the final 22-page plan locks in these four priorities – or pillars – for the university:
- Creating a world-class research and scholarship culture;
- Providing Canada’s best education for tomorrow’s global leaders;
- Engaging alumni, community, institutional and international partners; and
- Generating and investing new resources in support of excellence.
The document provides Chakma with a message to take across campus and around the world, he said. He does not describe it as a new way of doing business so much as new construction built on the successes of previous plans.
“The two plans need to be somehow linked. If you see a new plan that has very little linkage to the previous plan, you have a problem. You see that kind of thing in troubled organizations or organizations looking to re-invent themselves,” Chakma said. “Our previous plans – the previous three, in fact – have dealt with the quality issue, especially with regard to students. While that job is not totally done, we have made significant progress. That is a happy story, but a happy story that needs to be continued. This plan is a continuation of that.
“Also, if you look at the core functions of the university, especially teaching, the previous two plans have taken us in the right direction. They left us a number of things to do on the research and scholarship side. This new plan addresses those. But that doesn’t mean teaching is no longer important. Some confusion may exist that we are giving up on this – not so. The last thing you want to do is give up your hard-fought leadership positions.”
The details of the plan took some criticism from students and faculty at last week’s university Senate meeting. Some senators, including University of Western Ontario Faculty Association President Jeff Tennant, raised concerns about the details contained within the four pillars. Tennant questioned the process by which the university will chose its areas of strength.
The criticisms have not gone unconsidered, the president said.
“When you make choices, you are making decisions with respect to priorities. It all depends on how you want to look at it. There is no one answer to the issues we raise,” Chakma said. “Not that everybody will agree with every single sentence. If I wrote the document on my own, it would look different. If we asked 1,300 faculty members to write it, for instance, they would come up with 1,300 different documents. You want to capture some of the thinking, but it won’t hit everyone’s thinking.”
Another issue raised has been the shift in a familiar mantra for the university – ‘best student experience.’ The plan now speaks of a ‘Western experience.’ The shift – or broadening, as Chakma called it – is intentional.
“Best student experience has worked well for us,” Chakma said. “But we found it is linked to undergraduate students. We wanted to broaden it – to our graduate students, our faculty, our staff and alumni.
“We wanted to elevate the ‘best student experience’ into a ‘best alumni experience’. When you tie that together – those best student, best faculty, best staff and best alumni experiences – you get a Western Experience. We are not abandoning our best student experience; we are broadening it.”
Chakma credits the work of his predecessor, former Western President Paul Davenport, for doing the “heavy-lifting” on student quality and for setting the foundation for growth. Without that, this plan could never have set its sights higher.
“This is about a journey, one that began many years back,” Chakma said.
As far as his own legacy, and how it’s tied to the plan, he hopes to leave his successor possibilities and hope.
“I would like us to never lose sight of our fiscal strength. We are strong, but I would like us to be even stronger,” he said. “I would like part of this plan’s legacy to be an on-going capacity to invest in strategic areas. I want to leave my successor tools we don’t have at this time. Through a combination of financial tools, I would like the institution to fund initiatives without resorting to the operating budget.”
He continued, “The biggest challenge all universities face is the matter of aspirations. What is missing is a high level of expectations for ourselves. If we can raise our expectations, I think we will be successful. It’s difficult not to get bogged down by day-to-day challenges. But if we believe we are able to raise our expectations, we’ll find a way to get there.
“Are Ontario universities stronger today than 20 years ago? Yes. Ask that same question of Western. There have been ups and downs, but 20 years ago we didn’t have Robarts (Research Institute) or our HBA program or MIT. We are stronger today than 20 years ago and, I believe, will be stronger yet 20 years down the road.”
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