Following months of consultation, Western has released its new strategic plan, Towards Western at 150.
President Alan Shepard sat down with Western News to discuss the plan and what it means for the university.
In the midst of, and now coming out of, a pandemic – why was this the right time to create a new strategic plan for Western?
There was a pent-up hunger to think about Western’s future together, and there was an eagerness that surprised even me, not to wait. Although we delayed planning by about six months, there was strong interest in moving ahead and not letting the pandemic distract us from our longer-term vision.
You chaired a 36-person strategic planning steering committee. Why was a group with broad representation like this so important to you?
The committee had a strong balance of students, staff and faculty, and representation from the Board and Senate, and senior administrators. We wanted a broad-based group that would represent the Western community’s ideas, visions, and concerns. I think we got that. The group was extremely collaborative, and forward looking and we had lots of productive debate.
We organized the group into smaller working units, and I think that helped make it more personal and real for people. We wanted to ensure that voices from different corners of the university would have a chance to be heard.
And when we conducted the nearly 100 consultations with the larger Western community, we ensured the facilitators were from the group we were consulting with. They were from their faculty, they were fellow students – there was a simpatico element to that.
You mentioned the extensive consultation, done almost entirely on Zoom. Why was it important to engage the community as much as the committee did?
Strategic plans need to be owned by the community. They’re really meant to capture, express and show a way forward for everyone. In order to have legitimacy and an accuracy around where the community feels able to go, you need to have a broad-based coalition of people thinking through those ideas and endorsing them. In having a more diverse community, you also get strength. There’s a lot of research showing that decision making, or planning done by a diverse body of people, gets to a better, stronger plan.
“Strategic plans need to be owned by the community. They’re really meant to capture, express and show a way forward for everyone.”
The first theme in the plan is greater impact, and the first item under that is ‘grow strategically’. Why is growth important for Western?
Western is a strong institution with superb resources, brilliant faculty, strong staff, and among the best students in the world. We also have the fiscal resources, a beautiful campus and excellent facilities. I think the Western community would agree there’s a gap between all of this talent and resources, and how other people perceive us around reputation, and particularly, impact.
People who are studying at this university or people who work here – we’re trying to make the world a better place. Western would like to have more impact, more influence on the world, and we have a lot to offer.
There’s a strong correlation between the size of an institution and the amount of impact it can possibly have. It’s particularly true in Canada, where funding models are tied to the size of institution. It follows that if you want to have more impact and more ability to make a difference in the world then you need to grow. At Western, we need to grow our research, scholarship and creative activity. To do that, we need to grow faculty and staff complements along with funding and facilities. Then we need to grow our student body, while providing the supports they need to thrive. Students then graduate and engage with Western as alumni, partners and lifelong learners around the world. All of this contributes to impact.
The plan talks about growth not just for growth’s sake – that it will be strategic and well planned. Why is that an important distinction?
Growth for growth’s sake would say you just admit as many students as you possibly can and hope for the best – and that’s not at all strategic. It would actually be a negative for Western.
We need to be thoughtful, careful and planful in constructing a future for Western that meets societal needs and the needs of our students, and anticipates and participates in major advances in the academy. You want to align the resources you’re seeking with opportunities, making sure there’s a demand from students and professors to work in that area. It’s not just a matter of getting as many people as you can on the ship.
You talk about opportunities. In general, what are your impressions of Western’s research strengths and potential moving forward?
We’re a large, complex institution and we have dozens of strengths. We have some that have received a lot of attention historically – areas in which we are still strong.
But I want to be careful going forward. We certainly need to make investments right across the board, but to keep all of our areas as strong as they can be, we’re going to need to make some ‘super’ investments in areas where we think we have a chance to really stand out internationally.
It’s important that the academic community understands that as we build strength in an area, and that area seeks international recognition or international prominence, that we have the resources to help them get there.
It’s also important to have balance. Some of these areas are of great critical importance today, and some will be critically important for the future. We’re trying to balance between, for example, fundamental research and applied research, between a technology driven view of the world, and an arts and humanities view of the world, and so forth.
There are many different kinds of contributions that can be made in research and teaching and service to the public good. And they all matter.
Switching to a focus on teaching, there has been a lot of discussion about online teaching and learning during the pandemic. Are there things we’ve learned that can be applied long term?
We’ve learned we can pivot from face-to-face to online. We’ve also learned, that for most of us, online is a supplement and not the primary model for learning.
Online learning will likely emerge more strongly in continuing studies or lifelong learning scenarios where people are past traditional university age, perhaps raising families, working full-time or have other circumstances that limit their ability to devote themselves to full-time study or to be in London.
For undergraduates, we’ve learned online work is supplemental to, and not replacing, face-to-face instruction and engagement. Much of what you learn happens in a classroom, but a lot happens in the libraries, labs, studios, with friends, with instructors in their offices or in the hallways. Throughout the pandemic, we have been craving and missing that.
There are also certain practices we probably will move away from – very large lectures for example. I think we will see blended courses where some content is delivered online, and what’s reserved for the face-to-face component are intense, smaller group experiences, where people can really thrive and develop their skills.
Enriching the student experience is an important part of this plan. What might that look like?
The student experience at Western is already strong and, of course, our hope is that we protect what’s great about it and continue to build on it. The new strategic plan calls for us to make new investments in career advising and development, and in experiential learning opportunities. These experiences are meaningful and we know students deeply value them.
The notion that Western is still a face-to-face, residentially intensive University means we need to continue to invest in the physical structures of the university to support the student experience. For example, we’re building a new fieldhouse, where students can run and play soccer in the winter months.
The plan also calls for new investments in equity, diversity and inclusion, to help create a fair environment and contribute to important adjustments in, and access to, education. That includes access for marginalized groups and also, first-generation students – those who may not come from privileged backgrounds and who, historically, might not have ever considered coming to Western.
That leads nicely into the second major theme of the plan, which is about people, community and culture. You mentioned EDI – what did the committee hear from the community on this specifically?
We’ve heard the Western community is ready for – and I would say demands – greater institutional attention to EDI.
We also heard about demands for greater attention to sustainability, which might seem at first blush to be unrelated. But it’s actually quite related because it’s all about social justice.
We found a strong interest in social justice, broadly, and in developing a strong institutional focus on combating structural inequities in our society and in university education, specifically.
How does Western’s Indigenous strategic plan relate to the university’s overall strategic plan?
Launched in 2016, Western’s Indigenous strategic plan was a visionary document for our sector for the time.
That critical work will continue. We now have the Office of Indigenous Initiatives doing important work right across the institution. We’ve recently appointed its leader, Christy Bressette, and she, along with the associate vice-president for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (to be appointed later this summer) will be important leaders for Western as we move towards the directions outlined in the plan.
The third theme area is about Western’s place in the world. There are strong commitments to London and region in the plan. In a global world, why are local connections and partnerships so important?
The previous strategic plan called for the internationalization of Western and a lot of progress was made on that front. Western went from roughly two per cent international students to 14 per cent today. That’s important because all universities with great impact are magnets for students to come from around the world.
This plan calls for a renewal of that emphasis on internationalization, with a goal of achieving a 20 per cent target for international students. What’s important about this is that you create a blend of domestic students and international students who learn from each other, who might represent different economic systems, different religious faiths, different ways of seeing the world, different languages. They’re all coming together to build their own lives, but also to help build Canada and the world.
At the same time, it’s critical to remember that Western operates in a particular place, London, Ontario, and that we want to do public good locally as well as nationally. The community has a huge amount to offer us, and we have a lot to offer as well.
We have our student teachers, nurses, doctors, dentists, and many others, who are out working in local community institutions. But we also have local industrial partnerships, internships and other ways we’re integrated with the local community.
We want to help build London and Southwestern Ontario. We have a special responsibility to this region to help it prosper in all the ways that matter – whether it’s in terms of social well-being, health outcomes, the economy, the culture.
“…you create a blend of domestic students and international students who learn from each other, who might represent different economic systems, different religious faiths, different ways of seeing the world, different languages. They’re all coming together to build their own lives, but also to help build Canada and the world.”
During the strategic plan consultations, the committee heard a lot about innovation. Why is innovation important to Western?
All universities need innovation.
We’ve started a new program in data strategy and a certificate and degree programming in data analytics is emerging. That’s just one example. As the world changes, Western needs to change with it and, when we can, be leaders in that change.
Interdisciplinary academic programs are especially appealing to our students. We have a new climate change program that integrates science, social science and the humanities, an ideal example of interdisciplinary work in which a student could study in four or five different departments. I think that’s the future of education. Not 20 courses in a single discipline, but much more kaleidoscopic, personalized programs of study where students can put together their own programs that dovetail with their academic interests and their sense of the future for themselves and for the world.
The more you get people invested in their own education and making those choices, the more meaningful their experience and engagement will be.
Alumni contributed to the strategic planning consultation process – what role do they play in helping Western achieve some of the goals in the plan?
Alumni bring with them their education, their skill set, their experiences, but also the sense of the reputation of the institution. After they complete their degree, they continue to be part of our ecosystem. As that ecosystem gets stronger and stronger, and alumni are more nationally and internationally engaged, everybody wins. It’s good for alumni to have Western be strong; it’s good for Western to have our alumni be strong.
“The more you get people invested in their own education and making those choices, the more meaningful their experience and engagement will be.”
Are there any other important aspects of the plan that you wish to touch on?
I want to talk about entrepreneurship. We want innovation in curricula and degree programs, but we also need change outside the curriculum.
Not only will we make new investments in career advising and getting people ready for life beyond university, but also, we will teach them some interesting ways of seeing the world around entrepreneurship, including social entrepreneurship. As a university we want to serve the public good – our students are eager to do the same when they graduate.
There are new pathways through the university that are being created, and will ultimately lead to certificate programs, maybe degree programs. These are important new pathways that will contribute to strengthening Canada’s prosperity.
In the end, what will it take to ensure this plan is successful?
This plan reflects not only what the Western community told us was important to them, but I also think it anticipates where postsecondary education is headed. At the end of the day it will be the students, faculty, staff and alumni that have made Western a special place to learn and work that will make all the difference. We need everyone to embrace the plan – to bring their ideas, their intellect, their creativity and an open mind. As a collective, if we can harness all that energy, we will be successful.