Where did we come from? Where are we going?

By Thomas Albano and Thomas Regan 

While Rider continues to face financial challenges, the seemingly logical answer of increasing tuition is not the solution, according to an outside consultant, who spoke at the university’s strategic planning kickoff in the Cavalla Room on Feb. 11.

“What you had [in the past] is you had expenses, and then you had revenue, and the way you matched expenses to revenue is you raised the tuition, fees, room and board,” said Dr. Brian Mitchell, a former university president. “And that’s how you did it. It really is that simple.

“It’s gone. You cannot do that. Consumer-price sensitivity is such that it simply will not allow you to raise tuition, fees, room and board as comprehensive fees above a certain level.”

Following an eventful first semester under President Gregory Dell’Omo, during which multiple layoffs and program cuts were reversed thanks to negotiations between the union and administration, the university is now ready to begin a new strategic planning process and work on its self-study report for Middle States accreditation. An accrediting team will visit Rider in spring 2018.

Mitchell is a former president of Bucknell University and Washington & Jefferson College, both in Pennsylvania. He is also the owner of Brian Mitchell & Associates — which gives consultation to universities — and the founder of a nonprofit organization called the Edvance Foundation. As a columnist for The Huffington Post, Mitchell comments on issues and topics in higher education.

Members of the Rider community who were chosen to help with the process met with Dell’Omo and Associate Vice President for Planning Debbie Stasolla at the kickoff to discuss how the process will work.

The process’ structure will be coordinated by a strategic planning steering committee and overseen by the Board of Trustees. The steering committee consists of the Cabinet — made up by Tony Campbell, Greg Dell’Omo, DonnaJean Fredeen, Don Harnum, Julie Karns, John Lenox, Jonathan Meer, Jamie O’Hara, Mike Reca, Debbie Stasolla, Rob Stoto and Christine Zelenak — as well as deans, working group chairs, two at-large trustees, three faculty members, two students and an external representative, Mitchell.

There are six working groups in this process, which focus on: academic excellence and integrated learning (led by Dr. Jonathan Millen, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Education and Sciences); student enrollment, experience and outcomes (led by Dr. Todd Weber, professor and chair of biology); institutional reputation and branding (led by Dr. Kelly Bidle, biology professor); financial resources (led by Dr. Chih-Chieh [Jason] Chiu, assistant professor of finance); facilities and infrastructure (led by Karin Klim, assistant vice president for development); and employee engagement and enrichment (led by Jill Shockley, director of auxiliary operations).

Stasolla explained the university is asking for confidentiality, not to hide top-secret information, but to allow for free discussion.

“The information that you’re going to be dealing with is not necessarily confidential information, but one of the things that we do ask is that we want everyone to feel comfortable in their discussions,” she said. “So let’s not share with our colleagues what somebody said that may have asked a question or made a comment about a weakness someplace. Let’s all feel confident that what we say in our discussion stays in that room and is not attributed to one person or another, so you can all feel comfortable being honest and being frank.”

If the university is going to successfully form a strategic plan, according to Mitchell, it will take everyone’s cooperation, and open dialogue between the administration and the rest of the university.

“Now as the president [Dell’Omo] suggested, I think it has to be transparent,” he said. “There’s no surprise about it, whether you like each other or not, whether you laugh at jokes from a Boston Red Sox guy or not, the fact is you’re common stakeholders. You have to find a way to reach consensuses as stakeholders, because there’s really no way around it.”

Mitchell has experience in building strategic plans. While serving as president of Bucknell from 2004 to 2010, he developed its first comprehensive strategic plan and campus master plan, and also launched a $500 million capital campaign.

He compared Rider’s situation to one that he foresees Bucknell facing in the future, referencing the declining demographics and the possibility of free public colleges as major threats to private institutions.

“[Rider has] a $65 million endowment in comparison to Bucknell, which has 3,600 students as opposed to your roughly comprehensive 5,000, and [Bucknell] has roughly a $750 million endowment,” Mitchell said. “It has about 15 years to make the decision that you’re going to have to make today, even with $750 million in the bank and very little debt.

“In terms of conversations I had with Rider folks, initially, I have to say I’ve also been very pleased with the sense that one understands that strategy can inspire vision. And really it’s very necessary to understand that there has to be a common and mutually held sense of vision for Rider. If you do [strategic planning] right, it’s the living, breathing heart of a university. I honestly believe that it is the only way to build and sustain momentum.”

During the first semester of the planning process, Stasolla explained, each working group will conduct an internal and external analysis, “SWOT,” to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for Rider. Once that comprehensive process, which will take place from May to August, is complete and reviewed, according to Stasolla, the groups will begin to seek out additional input before creating the plan in December of 2016. The plan will take an additional couple of months to be reviewed and approved, but Stasolla said if all goes according to the schedule it should be reviewed in early 2017.

Dell’Omo said in a letter emailed to the campus community on Feb. 15 that he understands how vital this year will be for Rider in rebuilding its reputation and improving enrollment.

“This will be a very important year for the institution as we conduct a number of important initiatives that will guide and shape the future direction of our university,” he said. “As I discussed at convocation and throughout my listening tour this fall across both campuses, we are ready to begin Rider’s next comprehensive strategic planning process.

“I am excited about the opportunity for us to renew Rider’s vision and mission, and to establish a set of institutional priorities and goals that will build on our strengths as we seek to serve students with distinction in an increasingly competitive higher education environment.”

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