By Edward A. Parrish
Accompanying essays by Allison Chisolm, Elizabeth Walker and Michael W. Dorsey
Photographs by Patrick O'Connor
Over the past year, the WPI community has been developing a new strategic plan and assembling a common vision of the University's future.
hat will WPI be like in the early 21st century? This is a question that's been on the minds of many members of the University community over the past few years. It's not a matter of idle curiosity. There is a sense that the world is changing in dramatic ways, that the changes are creating extraordinary opportunities for WPI, and that the time to act on those opportunities has arrived. In short, as a community we have come to the consensus that the time may be ripe for another major stride in our journey.
What changes have led us to this conclusion?
The explosion of information technology and the ever accelerating pace of technological change have transformed the nature of work. Today, all professionals, no matter what kind of jobs they do, must be familiar with technology and be prepared to use it effectively. WPI's flexible approach to technological education offers an ideal way for young men and women to blend studies in technology with preparation in a broad range of technical and nontechnical fields. The Information Revolution has catalyzed the rise of a true global economy and made a global perspective a much sought after quality in today's professionals. WPI stands apart from other technological universities in offering its students the opportunity to gain global experience by doing meaningful projects for sponsoring organizations at sites all over the world. The end of the Cold War and the concurrent downsizing and reorganization of major corporations has put an end to the "one job for life" paradigm that characterized the business world for generations. To prepare for this new world of work, students must learn how to learn and how to adapt to change - qualities that are fostered by WPI's student driven, project-oriented style of education. The skills, needs and motivations of college students have changed, arguing strongly for the replacement of traditional approaches to education with new forms of active, student-directed learning. With its nearly three decades of experience with the WPI Plan, the University has a head start on adapting its educational delivery methods to the needs of today's students.
The world of technological higher education is changing as well, and in an equally dramatic fashion:
A number of national studies and task forces, echoing calls by industry, government and academic leaders, have recommended new approaches to technological higher education that incorporate many of the features of WPI's curriculum. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has approved a sweeping new set of outcomes-oriented accreditation criteria by which all engineering programs in the United States will soon be measured. To a substantial degree, the criteria are consonant with the philosophy of WPI's curriculum. FOr this reason, the University was one of two schools nationwide chosen by ABET to be accredited under the new criteria in a 1996 pilot program. WPI's approach to technological education, having been honed and tested over many years, is being viewed as a model by the educators, industry leaders and government agencies who are working to revitalize engineering education in the United States.
The transformation of technological education in this country is shining a spotlight on WPI and its remarkable achievements as an educational pacesetter. Our success can serve as a beacon to other educators, for example, as some of them seek to meet the requirements of the new engineering accreditation criteria and to impart to their students the skills and qualities technological professionals will need to thrive in the decades ahead.
But WPI can do even more. We can blaze a new trail and once again define the leading edge of technological higher education. Like planets moving into a rare and transitory alignment, the changes in the world around us and the evolution of technological higher education are converging to create an extraordinary opportunity for the University to develop a new model for the preparation of technological professionals, one attuned to the needs of the 21st century.
How can we best capitalize on these opportunities? What kinds of changes must we make? What should we no longer do? In what new directions should we move? What must we do to prepare for the voyage that lies ahead? To answer those questions, WPI began a communitywide process of strategic planning during the 1996-97 academic year.
The work began in the summer of 1996 with a conference of the Univerity's senior administrators, the secretary of the faculty and the chair of the faculty Committee on Governance, at which a process for planning was established. THe process moved forward during a fall meeting of the Board of Trustees, which began the task of assessing the state of WPI and considering a vision for its future. About 60 members of the University community met later that fall to discuss ways to bolster the Interactive Qualifying Project and the Global Perspective Program, the two most distinctive elements of WPI's educational program.
In the fall of 1996, I appointed the Strategic Planning Steering Committee (SPSC), made up of members of the faculty, administration and student body, to guide the process of developing a formal strategic plan. The committee created 13 task forces composed of faculty members, staff members, students and alumni to conduct detailed studies of the following specific areas of WPI's operations: admissions, educational technology, financial resources and incentives, global opportunities, graduate programs, information infrastructure, learning environment and campus culture, new programs, outcomes and assessment feedback, pre-college outreach, project-based education and cooperative learning, scholarship, and support services.
Having collated and considered the detailed reports written by the task forces, and having gathered ideas and opinions from members of the greater WPI community at a number of open meetings, the SPSC released a report and made a presentation of the following draft set of recommended goals (the presentation was endorsed by the faculty and shared with the trustees in the spring of 1997):
- create acampus in harmony with our programs
- provide global opportunities for potentially all students
- integrate education and research
- develop creative pathways to graduate degrees
- continue to innovate in undergraduate programs
- recognize and adapt to continuing change
- make creative use of information technology
- improve community relationships and diversity
The work of the SPSC laid a solid foundation for the recommendations that will ultimately emerge from the strategic planning effort. This fall, the committee handed the baton to the Planning and Implementation Committee (PIC), a new body, again made up of faculty members, students and administrators. Before the end of the 1997-98 fiscal year, this new committee will take the strategic planning process to completion and craft a new vision for WPI's future. That vision will become the foundation for a major capital campaign - to be formally launched next fall - that will raise the funds WPI must invest in its people, programs, plant and community if that vision is to become a reality.
The committee will benefit from the work of the two other task forces that are assessing WPI's needs in the areas of information infrastructure and administrative services. In addition, WPI's Budget Development Advisory Committee, along with the faculty Committee on Administrative and Financial Policy, is working with a number of WPI departments to develop a new, more forward-looking approach to budgeting. All of this work should provide the PIC with a wealth of information and ideas to help WPI develop new ways of doing business in the future.
Eight Pieces of the Puzzle
The first phase of the strategic planning effort yielded eight draft goals - a rough cut at strategies for the decades ahead. The spirit of those goals can be found in eight programs that provide a glimpse at the WPI of the 21st century. On the pages that follow, you'll read about those programs and the people who are building WPI's future today.
The members of the PIC have been meting weekly to build on the work of the SPSC and to draft not only a plan for WPI's future but a mechanism for putting it into action. Too often, strategic plans - no matter how bold or carefully crafted - sit on shelves and are forgotten in the crush of everyday responsibilities. Without an accompanying mechanism for implementing them and without the continual revisiting and revising of their elements, strategic plans have no value.
While the final results of WPI's strategic planning effort may diverge from the spirit of the SPSC's goals, they represent a working consencus on possible ways to build the WPI of the future. Read on to see what the future may look like.
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