The American poet Mary Oliver once wrote(1):
" I like to say that I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now."
Today, we together, faculty and staff, are like the poet Mary Oliver -- we are creating something for the future. We are not writing poetry together, but we are building a university together: We are building a university for a student we do not know, who will be born this year, somewhere in the world. Unlike Mary Oliver, who will not be present for her reader hundreds of years from now, many of us will be here for our student 18 or so years from today. We must plan for that student. We must do so with the passion brought by poet to verse, but realize our poetry of university building is in continual revision around important academic constancies. Those constancies, upheld by the faculty, fuel my optimism for EIU's future.
In this year before us, we are engaged in a strategic planning process. We began in January and have seen emerge from dozens of focused discussions six themes of importance. After significant work to occur this fall, we will present a plan to the Board of Trustees in January of 2012. I will say more about the plan in a few moments. But first, I will comment on planning in general.
Robert Heilbroner's book, "The Future as History," speaks in many ways to one who wishes to plan. Heilbroner writes about the philosophy of optimism and says the following(2) :
"At bottom, a philosophy of optimism is an historic attitude toward the future -- an attitude based on the tacit premise that the future will accommodate the striving we bring to it."
That is the philosophy we bring to our planning process. Surely, we scan the current environment and trends, but we do not accept the premise that we are on a rudderless raft in, say, the Mississippi River. We do accept the premise that we sail in a vessel with tiller and means of propulsion in a body of water with natural limits. We can move across or even against the current if we plan to do so. In planning we may even suppose we will improve or add to our ship to enable even more possible destinations. Also, while we know that history influences our future, we do not accept the premise that history determines our future.
Imagine those faculty and staff who have gone before us in the history of Eastern Illinois University. Could Livingston Lord, president of a newborn normal school, and the faculty and staff at that time have anticipated the Great Depression, the ACT and SAT, online learning, cell phones, Facebook, texting, tweeting, the GI Bill, or Eastern growing to more than 10,000 students? They had to deal with the history they knew and had to plan to grow and change in the context of emerging historical currents. I would say they, and those who followed them, worked with a philosophy of optimism, and it has paid off.
Today when we plan, we have to ask ourselves what is possible and what is impossible given the current state of the university, society and historical forces. Heilbroner has something to say about this, as well(3).
"But the fact that the main direction of historic movement is too deeply rooted to be turned aside does not mean that our future is therefore caught in a deterministic vise. It is not just necessity, but a mixture of necessity and freedom which, as always, confronts us as a condition of historic existence. If the idea of the future as history tells us what is not "possible" for our kind of society to do, it also makes clear what is possible."
We are engaged in planning as optimists, carefully gauging the possibilities for EIU.
Our strategic planning has been led by a steering committee, co-chaired by Professor Assege Haile-Mariam of the Department of Psychology; Bill Weber, professor of economics and vice president for business affairs, and Ken Baker, director of Campus Recreation. The committee is large, and the majority of the membership are faculty members. You can access the current status of the planning process with one click on the "Collaborative Strategic Planning" button near the bottom of our main webpage. There you will see that this process has involved hundreds of individuals in dozens of meetings facilitated by the steering committee. The steering committee has found six areas of strategic importance to have emerged. They are, in alphabetical order:
Concept papers for these areas have been developed by the committee and those papers will be posted on the strategic planning website next week. A vision conference will be held in late September. After subsequent work and communication with the campus, the plan will be shaped for presentation to the Board of Trustees. In the spring, we will make initial investments in selected objectives in the plan. I thank the steering committee for bringing the planning process to its current stage.
Strategic planning is only one of several developments for our campus this coming year. I also note the following:
I take every opportunity to tell our students that they have chosen a university that offers an educational experience second to none -- an educational experience designed and carried out by you, the faculty. I encourage your enthusiasm in your teaching and research. The manner of Chaucer's clerk, "And he would gladly learn and gladly teach(4)," provides great advice. Your enthusiasm, the " gladly," will capture the imagination of your students and change their lives. And changing lives is at the heart and soul of our calling to higher education. Let us resolve to change the lives of our students this year, with our expertise and enthusiasm. Thank you.