Picture of poster board with handwritten notes from listening tour.
During the president’s Listening, Learning and Building Community Tour sessions, table groups were given a broad topic area and asked to brainstorm ideas about how to address issues, create change, promote community and celebrate the areas where Berea was already doing well. Photo by Crystal Wylie’ 05

On the heels of the months-long    Listening, Learning and Building Community Tour, President Cheryl Nixon’s goal was to act immediately and move forward on the ideas, concerns, hopes and challenges the tour elicited.

“We are shifting to a spring strategic planning process,” Nixon explained in her January 2024 report to the Board of Trustees. “Input from the tour will be integrated with results from the Campus Climate Survey, Student Satisfaction Survey and similar reports, allowing us to move forward with a campus
community-affirming, student-centered strategic framework this spring.”

The tour produced more than 80 pages of notes that held countless perspectives across a spectrum of topics and encompassed the voices of students, staff, faculty and administrators. In large group discussions, participants focused on areas of Berea Beloved, Out-of-the-Box Berea, Even-Better Berea and Brave Berea. These groups were asked to list their thoughts about and interactions with the College from several angles, thinking through its strengths, areas for growth and possibilities for the future.

Large- and small-group tour-session feedback was compiled into what Dr. Nixon called packets that spoke to specific areas and issues. These 12 packets were the first attempt to begin making sense of several months’ worth of tour feedback. The packets were shared with the entire campus community to ensure transparency and to allow everyone to be on the same page as Nixon began moving toward creating a strategic plan for the College that reflected the hopes, needs and concerns of the entire community.

Though this extensive feedback was shared with the entire campus, the bulk task of sorting, sifting and plan-making initially was given to the Strategic Planning Council (SPC), a diverse group of elected faculty and staff that conducts continuous planning for institutional change based on the mission of the College. The Council, chaired by Rob Smith, associate professor of psychology and director of academic assessment, took a deep dive, reading each packet and pulling out the top or most-repeated concerns, needs and desires and categorizing them into what Nixon called “buckets” that the College would focus on to create a strategic plan. The phrasing of “buckets” was used to keep ideas open-ended, without limiting SPC’s thinking of campus input in pre-determined ways, such as “goals” or “values.”

The “bucket” framework is Nixon’s simple and direct approach to strategic planning that has become the norm across much of higher ed.

“Higher education has shifted to a more flexible, short-term and ‘broad strokes’ approach to strategic planning, and we will adopt that approach—making it uniquely Berean,” she said. “The Strategic Planning Council will lead this work, with much continued outreach to campus.”

The tour feedback was filtered into one of four buckets: Students, Campus, Finances and the Great Commitments. These were revised and more fully developed to become draft “aspirations”:

• Student Experience: Belonging in a Beloved Community

• Campus Community & Beyond:  Berea Balance

• Infrastructure & Resources: Financial Freedom

• The Great Commitments: Our Foundation

These are very broad starting points, but then each bucket was further narrowed into several tailored areas. Within the “Student Experience” aspiration, there are focus areas for students’ dreams, needs and support and for academics and work. Within the “Campus Community & Beyond” aspiration, focus areas include campus culture, work-life balance and “even-better Berea” which looks at areas where Berea can continue to improve for staff and faculty. The “Infrastructure & Resources” aspiration emphasizes strengthening our unique “no tuition and no/low loan” financial model for students and maintaining our careful stewardship of our endowment. This bucket contains goals related to not just the endowment, but also enrollment and recruitment, Nixon specified. The final Great Commitments bucket includes areas related to Berea’s mission and assets and the idea of “Brave Berea” (read more about Brave Berea on page 20).

The SPC compiled all the opinions and feedback that was shared and put them into a straightforward Strategic Framework. The Framework was shared with campus in April, and it will continue to be honed, encouraging both the SPC and the campus community to see the process of strategic planning as generative and energizing—the Framework is a way of moving vision into action.

Nixon also implemented Town Hall discussions from late February through April to allow the campus community to be part of the strategy-building process, and keep everyone “rowing in the same direction,” she said.

“Not every concern leads to new initiatives because much of the work is already underway,” Nixon added. “We have a lot of work underway addressing many of the concerns brought forth in the packets. As we create space with clear lists and initiatives and who is responsible for working toward them, people will realize they don’t have to keep worrying about those things that are being addressed immediately.” Nixon continues, “The draft Strategic Framework has been circulated to campus, attempting to capture our current great work, while also assuring everyone that criticisms and concerns will be addressed—and that aspirational ideas will be realized.”

An emphasis of the Strategic Framework is to put “Students First.”
To demonstrate that student-centered initiatives are a top priority, the campus has already put into action several ideas that were articulated in the Listening Tour. These projects include expanding access to healthcare, dental care and counseling services; improving health insurance coverage; providing new student engagement staffing, activities and resources; developing gender-
inclusive housing; and creating new transportation services (see page 36). Nixon convened groups of students to provide feedback on what they valued about Berea and what they wanted to improve.

“All of our strategic planning efforts must focus on improving the student experience,” she stressed. “That is why we are here—to serve our students!”

Energy, excitement and transparency surround this strategic planning process as Nixon strives to ensure each stake-holder feels seen, heard and understood as the entire community works to strengthen the College and propel it into a productive, solid and ever-improving future.

Author

Abbie Darst '03 is an article writing, husband loving, kid raising, cheer coaching, God serving, busy woman. Whether it's been in sports, law enforcement or higher education, Abbie has dedicated her career to telling stories that speak of mission, passion and the best parts of human experience. She's been telling Berea's amazing stories since 2017.

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