Willamette University

Anatomy of a Strategic Plan

Let’s remember that a university’s strategic plan doesn’t exist to hold down a bookshelf. It’s for, about and created by real people in a constant state of action. The plan is a living document.

Consider this a classroom-inspired cheat sheet. It’s a nod to the holistic approach of the plan, the integration of Willamette’s functional areas and a commitment to the health of the entire system.


The Brain

Identity and Priorities

What’s especially important about Willamette’s new strategic plan is that, while acknowledging the changes and challenges of higher education today, it embraces the university’s existing identity — its intellectual character; its mission and motto; its long-held, must-be-present-to-win version of a campus community — rather than imposing drastic changes in focus, mission or pedagogy.

Willamette’s long-term success requires the university to become, as President Thorsett likes to put it, “a better and more authentic version of itself.” This leads us to the plan’s central goal: to become the Northwest's leading institution for rigorous, personalized liberal arts and graduate professional education, attractive to students and faculty from across the country and around the world.

The (Open) Arms

“The Big W”

The plan exemplifies an institution whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as President Thorsett explained to the board of trustees in February 2013:

“It is an assumption of this strategic plan that each school strengthens and is also strengthened by its affiliation with ‘the big W.’ Curricula and student experiences, faculty scholarship and external visibility of each part of the university benefit from low barriers between the units and the strong coherence of our strategic planning.”

The Legs

Metrics and Accountability

The plan will help us advance over the next decade because it includes numerous benchmarks and measurable outcomes associated with each objective. To name just a few, we’ll measure progress in incoming class profiles, student retention and graduation rates, post-Willamette career and graduate school pursuits, alumni engagement with the university and average student debt at graduation.

The Heart

The Motto and Traditions

Willamette has always attracted students, faculty and staff who care — about public service, about their neighbors and about people across the world. These traditions of doing good and turning knowledge into action — together with the university motto, Not Unto Ourselves Alone Are We Born — will continue to inform our strategic decisions, ensuring that the Willamette of 2023 shares DNA with the Willamette of 1963.

The Guts

The Four Objectives

The plan’s goal is achieved via four objectives that guide decision-making across all of Willamette’s schools:

Deliver the highest-quality student experiences, expanding opportunities for all students. We must ensure that all students can access the most powerful academic and co-curricular activities — particularly those that incorporate close faculty and student collaboration — as well as developmentally appropriate advising and mentoring throughout their educational experiences. Students should graduate on time, with a clear and considered plan for their post-Willamette pursuits.

Expand access for bright, talented students who will contribute to a diverse Willamette community. To ensure access and lessen student debt we must consider strategically the application of financial aid while increasing support for endowed scholarships.

Demonstrate lifelong value. Supporting and promoting the achievements of alumni, students and faculty demonstrates the value of a Willamette degree and fosters connections across our community. Part of this effort includes refining the Willamette University brand and supporting it with a comprehensive marketing plan.

Cultivate an authentic engagement with place. We can distinguish Willamette by exploring and invoking the character of the Northwest and expanding partnerships with regional government, businesses and nonprofits. This includes Willamette’s enduring commitment to sustainability in its broadest sense.

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“Strategic planning goes off the rails in one of two directions. Some plans try too hard for consensus, and become simply statements of mom and apple pie sentiments with which nobody strongly disagrees. Other plans fail in the opposite direction. Rather than including only principles that everyone agrees with, they include everything that anyone agrees with, and become unfiltered laundry lists of every choice that a campus might make. I believe that [this plan] avoids both of those problems.

“It has pushed to a level of detail where real choices are required and has articulated specific decisions and priorities...I think most people on campus will embrace the overall direction we’ve articulated.”

— President Steve Thorsett to the Willamette University Board of Trustees, Feb. 22, 2013

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