Q&A with Dean Forman

Dean Forman discusses in greater depth the purpose of the strategic planning process, and his vision and expectations for a plan that will shape Emory College's goals and ambitions for the future.

You have identified the development of the strategic plan as one of Emory College's top priorities this year. Why is the college undergoing the strategic process now, and why is it so important?

Strategic planning for a place like Emory is crucial. It was only 35 years ago, about one full generation ago, that we were, in essence, an excellent liberal arts college. We then began the dramatic, and quite remarkable, climb into the ranks of the tier-one research universities. We are now a world-class research university, but nonetheless our trajectory has not reached its conclusion. So it is important for us, with some regularity, to assess how far we’ve come, reaffirm our commitment to an even more exciting future, and come to some agreement about where we’re heading.

‘Why now?’ is a really important question. We were going through a decades long period of explosive growth that came to a crashing halt in 2008, as it did everywhere. We quickly went through a period of financial contraction – carried out in a way so as to minimize the impact on our academic programs – which stabilized us, but we were still at a plateau that required reorganization and reallocation for any further investment. We came through that difficult time in remarkably good shape, and with every reason to be excited about our future. So now, after a period of hard work on the part of many, addressing those short term challenges, we are at a moment when we can look to the future thoughtfully, strategically, and with a great sense of ambition. We have a responsibility to take advantage of this moment.

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How do you think the development and implementation of the plan will impact the college, both in the short term and in the long term?

The bottom line is this: being truly ambitious is hard, and even a bit scary. If everything you do succeeds, you probably aren’t reaching far enough. If you really test your limits, you will sometimes fail, and have set backs and disappointments. And so it’s easy for everyone to do things that are a little more comfortable, and maybe with a higher chance of success.

The most powerful thing that can come from the strategic plan is a very forceful statement about what our aspirations are so that we can use this document to remind each other of our goals and purpose. In the future, when I push a department to be more ambitious, or when faculty push me to be more ambitious, it will not be just me or the faculty member, but a reminder of our collective sense of what we’re trying to build here. A strategic plan can be a very powerful way to not just have an exciting conversation, but to keep the institution on track, even in the face of inevitable setbacks.

Ultimately, a decade or more from now, no one will remember a setback or disappointment that occurred along the way, but what they will notice is the progress we made because of the commitment to the exciting vision for our future.

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Should we be restraining the recommendations of the strategic planning process to be within the envelope of existing resources?

I don’t think so. We’re not just making decisions for this year or next year. We have to really decide what we want to be, and if we don’t have the resources to do that then one of the things we need to do is generate those resources. But it’s a lot easier to generate those resources when you have a clear, compelling, exciting vision, which is driving the request.

I expect the strategic planning will identify things we can do tomorrow, things we can do next year, things we can do that may take time, and then things that may have to wait until we get the resources. It may not just be money, it could be other kinds of resources, but nonetheless knowing that that’s what we’re aiming for can still drive a lot of the work we do in supporting the College.

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What role do faculty play in this process?

There’s nothing of real substance related to our academic mission that does not have faculty at its core. I’m excited by the idea of having the faculty play the central role in defining our future. I have been energized by the work with the faculty that we have already begun, including the four faculty working groups and the engagement of the Faculty Senate. Throughout the process there will be more opportunities for faculty in both large and small settings to engage in conversation.

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How do you see students and other constituents getting involved with this process?

Students will have opportunities to participate, most significantly on the subject of the undergraduate experience, but not limited to that.

There’s no doubt that students are often the most ambitious members of our community. They’re the ones who go back to their hometowns or wherever they choose to settle down, and they really want Emory to be known in those communities, wherever they are, as a great institution, the home of exciting work, producing leaders. Students are often the ones pushing most forcefully for us to reach for something much bigger than what we currently are.

Staff also play a crucial role. I will have my annual staff town hall early in the spring that will focus on strategic planning, and there will be other opportunities for staff to participate in this process. I’ve already begun the process of talking with alumni, who will have a voice in this as well.

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What is your ultimate vision for the strategic plan?

The final plan should provide guidance at several levels. First, the strategic plan is a statement of our ambitions. It should be bold and aspirational, but that isn’t enough. The strategic plan also requires us to take a really serious look at ourselves to identify with some precision where we are falling short of our ambitions. Then, at the next level, it provides clear guidance on what we can do to begin making up that gap, including identifying policies and practices that are getting in the way of our progress.

Then, finally, we need to be able to verify that our sense of self, where we believe we are at the moment, is accurate, and determine how we will measure our progress toward our goals. It’s too easy in a place like Emory, where there are great stories being generated every day, to start relying on anecdotes. Those individual stories really are in many ways the reason why we do this work, but we need to make sure, whether we are talking about undergraduate education or research faculty, that we have evidence that both allows us to reliably assess our progress and helps us all to make more strategic decisions as we move forward.

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Are you expecting that there will be some clear metrics defined in the strategic plan for how we measure ourselves?

We will have to identify ways to test ourselves, and measure our progress. I am certainly not suggesting that we should rely on what have become the usual, easily available metrics. I’ve come to use the word “evidence” rather than metric to emphasize that we should think really creatively about what information really matters to us.

Again, we should not be limiting ourselves to the standard rankings and metrics, even though they may provide some information. Relying on what other people are already measuring about us takes us in a certain direction, and not necessarily a direction that is consistent with our best interests and is most exciting and rewarding for our faculty and students.

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