"What do we hold dear?"
"What do we hold dear?" asked Caryn Chaden, associate provost for student success and accreditation, at the opening town hall forum soliciting input from the university community on elements of DePaul's next strategic plan. "Given that this is the first planning cycle DePaul has conducted in the context of declining enrollments, what are the things we must preserve for the future as DePaul sets its strategic direction for the next six years?"
Mission was a popular response as questions arose about how DePaul will continue to serve low-income students when enrollments are softening and budgets are tightened. Sitting near the front of the room, Delaney Morrison, the Student Government Association senator for Mission and Values, stood up and faced the crowd.
"As a student, the mission was a big draw. A concern of mine is that something I love could fade away if it is not proactively protected," she said.
Several people noted that mission is understood differently across the university. Mission can be seen in terms of how many low-income, first-generation, under-represented minority or Chicago students we enroll. It might be measured by how well those students succeed, or the degree to which alumni have a passion for making the world a better place, serving the poor or working to support social justice. Mission also may be ensuring the legacy of St. Vincent de Paul remains strong even as the Vincentians shrink in number. It was acknowledged that balancing mission with the long-term institutional sustainability of DePaul is something that needs to be addressed in the next plan.
Creating a strong community of support for and among students, as well as among colleges and departments university-wide was another topic raised. "How do we build community?" one attendee asked. "Where do we build community? How do young people today build community?"
Several speakers echoed the sentiment and nuanced it, wondering if declining enrollment might challenge the collegiality that exists among the 10 colleges. Another recommendation was to ensure that the incentive structure discourages financial hoarding and incents putting the university's economic health first.
Some participants posed solutions to these concerns: "We need to look across units to see how we can work more collaboratively so we can become more nimble and make quicker adjustments to market opportunities."
Raising DePaul's overall academic quality received universal nods throughout the Lincoln Park room, while speakers at the Loop took the idea a step further by spotlighting departments such as the library and Information Services that are asked to support curricular innovation but do not always receive additional funds when new programs are launched. As new curricula and programs are considered, DePaul needs to provide innovation funding not only to academic departments, but to the support units that work with them.
Another suggestion was to restructure the curriculum so students can apply what they learn, like digital cinema students do at Cinespace. In this scenario, technology could be used to deliver the knowledge students need and classroom time could be structured experientially, allowing professors to focus classroom activities on real-world problem-solving.
Increasing multicultural content across the curriculum and the availability of courses students need, rethinking teaching spaces to be more flexible when not in use and creating more space for students to gather in their departments to create community were cited as areas for improvement. A concern about space usage was that DePaul provides innovative spaces, yet does not always have the staff to support them fully.
Issues surrounding faculty development ranged from giving contingent faculty more job security to the implications of a declining number of assistant professors. There also was an acknowledgement that faculty workload has materially changed.
Climate issues exist at DePaul and across the nation. They affect not just students, but also faculty and staff. Recommendations in response included increasing faculty diversity by setting aside funds to attract top-notch faculty and compete better within smaller pools of candidates, and that DePaul become the pipeline for developing its own diverse faculty for the future. Other ideas were to teach students how to work through sensitive topics without becoming polarized and teaching students how to navigate justice, prejudice and be aware of their own behavior.
The demographic decline in 18-year-olds prompted suggestions to attract more students from around the world, serve more adult students and offer more degree programs available online, including undergraduate degrees.
"Online education may be most convenient for some students, but it may not be the best approach for every student," a Loop attendee cautioned.
Another attendee acknowledged that DePaul's approach to online learning thus far has been to increase the flexibility of course offerings for current students, rather than developing online curricula for a new audience. It was suggested that the next plan include developing a number of graduate online degree programs in select academic areas where DePaul has strength and there is market opportunity - and where the university could complete nationally and internationally - but that this would require a significant investment to be successful.
Several attendees noted that DePaul's work is not done after a student enrolls. "Getting students here isn't enough. We have to retain and graduate them," one said.
The audience at each event understood that when budgets are tight, the university must prioritize. One department head described recent budget cuts as "too patchy," adding that he "would rather sacrifice a limb than continue to bleed through my fingernails." The plan needs to be about making clear, strategic bets in select areas and finding ways to shift resource allocation to support innovation.
The next Town Halls are scheduled for Nov. 15 at 10 a.m., in DePaul Center Room 8005; and Nov. 16 at 3:30 p.m. in Cortelyou Commons.