If you are like most students, you haven’t thought much about Lesley University’s Strategic Plan. I admit that I didn’t either. I had heard a little about “Lesley 2030”: we received some emails, and there was an exhibit or two; but if you had asked me what it was exactly, I couldn’t have told you. The Strategic Plan became a lot more interesting to me after I read about Mt. Ida shutting down. I wondered what the administration at Lesley was doing to plan for the future of our university. On May 3rd, 2018, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. MaryPat Lohse, Lesley’s Vice President for Strategy and Implementation, to ask her some questions about Lesley 2030.
Dr. Lohse has been at Lesley for just under ten years with a focus on strategic planning; most recently, that means the “Lesley’s 2030” initiative. As she described it, “It’s a long-term strategic plan initiative for the university that we actually launched in the fall of 2017. Really, we’ve envisioned it as a community-wide process through which the Lesley community, faculty, staff, students, friends of the university, alumni, really everyone who is connected and interested in the university’s future could engage in envisioning to imagine what the university might look like in the year 2030.”
Dr. Lohse said that, in reality, Lesley 2030 is a long-term plan with three to four year shorter goals interspersed. “This particular planning initiative is really focused on the long-term. Past plans that we’ve done had a much shorter time horizon, so they’ve been like a three to four-year window. There are a lot of strategic objectives the university is working on that are already in process, that will feed into the strategic plan… The long-term goals tend to be the types of goals that need more lead time, need more time to develop and build.” And as an example of what is being done in the short-term, Dr. Lohse referred to the diversity work that the University is doing. For instance, Lesley just named a new Chief Diversity Officer, Lilu Barbosa. “Things that are already underway… like much of the diversity and inclusion work that’s been going on, we’ll sync that up with the strategic planning work,” Dr. Lohse said.
Through emails and exhibits, the Lesley 2030 planning team has received comments from some students about this plan. But they would like to hear from more of us. To get more students involved, “we’ve done open sessions, and sessions specifically for students. We had an exhibit up in the Marran Theater gallery and then we moved it around campus . . . we actually had some nice turnouts at those sessions for both undergrad and grad students . . . There were places you could write on the brown paper on the wall, and comment boxes, and things like that. We did do an electronic survey to students. We’ve had a email@example.com email address, so we’re trying multiple opportunities for folks to be able to engage.” Dr. Lohse also said that if clubs, organizations, or groups were interested and wanted to get involved, she was open to coming and speaking about it. Feedback is one of the most important areas in this plan, she told me.
During our talk, I asked about additions and modernization of various departments, expanding course offerings, and improving our athletic department. She explained that the plan was a little too premature for anyone to be picking priorities. She explained that there are different steps to this process: the vision, the strategy, and the implementation, saying that there is a visible difference in what gets done at each step. “I think that what you’ll see is the difference between the vision, which is sort of long-term: what do we aspire to be; what do we want to look like, etc. And then the strategy: how do we think we would get there; what steps do we need to take. And then the actual implementation; like okay, how do we do this.” Dr. Lohse said that she knew this answer wasn’t completely satisfying, but there are a lot of pieces involved that may be more sorted later in the plan.
Mount Ida and Wheelock, where Dr. Lohse worked, also came up in conversation. I asked if Lesley 2030 had been at all adapted to avoid situations like that happening here, and what precautions are in place so that Lesley won’t fall into the same circumstances as those colleges. Dr. Lohse said, “The strategic plan doesn’t explicitly say how to not become Mount Ida or Wheelock, but ideally, strategic planning helps position us to be proactive rather than reactive, so we don’t find ourselves in that position.” She went on to explain that this initiative is aimed to help Lesley thrive and sustain itself. And while there are some similarities between Lesley, Wheelock, and Mount Ida, ultimately, our profile is very different. “We’re a different size, different program portfolio, different endowment, different type of students that we support. Yes, there are some parallels, but others not so much.” That being said, Dr. Lohse also made the point that she didn’t want what she was saying to be construed as Lesley has been doing something right, and Wheelock and Mount Ida did something wrong. There is no formulaic way to run a college. She said instead that generally, “It’s a challenging environment for higher education. While it’s great that Lesley is doing so well, it is disappointing to see places where people were being educated [going] under.”
When I directed the interview more at her personally, I asked what attracted her to Lesley. “As an institutional size, [Lesley] appealed to me, but really the mission and the people and the passion that the faculty and staff and students have for the work that they’re doing here is really compelling and drew me to Lesley.” We discussed what her biggest challenges and greatest joys were, and she wanted to start with the joys. “We’ve got commencement coming up and so every year it’s just so nice to see. This is why we’re here. And to see the joy on the faces of students and their families that work so, so hard to get their degrees – it’s not an understatement to say it’s transformative. To be able to witness that is really, really special. So that’s always a joy. I love the Threshold graduation ceremony, for me that really feels like a tear-jerker, there’s a lot of emotion. It’s a really special ceremony.” She also mentioned that being able to work with the people here was a joyful experience for her.
When it came to the challenges, Dr. Lohse referred to the hard times that higher education, and all education, is experiencing. “I’ve been in higher ed for 22, 23 years now, so I’ve seen a number of changes. I think on a macro level, to me, it’s been really disappointing to see the national climate and conversation around not just higher education, but education as well,” she said. “Its importance and its role in a lot of the budget cuts and a lot of the changes in funding and regulations and things like that that make it more challenging to operate is really disappointing. I think it does a disservice to our students and I think it does a real disservice to our country as well.” But she said that overall, the challenges are “more than offset by the benefits and the joys and the more fun aspects of it.”
To find out more about the strategic plan, you can use this link: https://lesley.edu/about/lesley-2030. Dr. Lohse also encourages students to send in ideas and comments, at firstname.lastname@example.org. She told me that in the fall semester, “…we should have a much clearer articulation . . . of what we think the university will look like, and really quite a bit of work done, I hope, on the strategy pieces as well. I think we’ll take all of this feedback and all of this generative work that we’ve been doing over these last number of months and use the summer to really shape it. And then – not that it’s finished – but bring it out to the community to get people to react to it, give us feedback, and kind of poke at it, stress test it, help us make it better and stronger and get it where it needs to be. To have student involvement in that phase, and in all of the phases, but that phase I would call out because we’re coming up on it, would be really great… The reason Lesley is here is to support our students; and pulling that student voice into the plan is really, really important for us.”