If you have ever gone on a particularly challenging mountain hike, there are a number of truths you have come to expect. You need to put in the time to prepare: planning the trek, getting your gear together, deciding which trail to follow and being mentally and physically prepared.
The most difficult part is often mental preparation. It’s one thing to read that a trail requires eight hours of rigorous hiking to reach the summit, but it’s quite another to do it. Then there are those things that are beyond your control—obstacles, changing weather, bad jerky. How you react has great bearing on your journey.
Each hike takes great energy to accomplish and is full of highs and lows.
By now you’ve likely guessed where I’m going with this analogy. We stand about two and a half years (and a lot of work) beyond the adoption of Wilson Today—the five-part plan approved by the Board to provide fiscal sustainability for the College. While we have built a firm foundation and have much to celebrate, we are still in the early stages of a journey that has faced its share of obstacles.
News of troubled small colleges has not been uncommon over the past two years. Closures, mergers and financial exigency have been announced at a range of institutions. None of these situations had any bearing on Wilson, nor did they have any particular resonance in the Wilson community. That changed in early March when Sweet Briar College announced it was closing at the end of the summer.
Very quickly after the announcement, news reports began to include Wilson in their stories because of the court intervention of Wilson’s closure in 1979. Since, however, the two schools seem to have become intertwined in unhealthy ways.
Many people, looking at the surface of Sweet Briar along with a pre-Wilson Today view of the College, began trying to draw comparisons. At first glance, it is easy to see why this might happen. Both institutions share some common traits: small, tuition-driven schools; liberal arts; women’s college history; enrollment challenges; carrying bond debt; right down to popular equestrian programs.
For some, this comparison leads to a conclusion that Sweet Briar can survive; for others it leads them to question Wilson’s ability to thrive. The latter of these interpretations serves as a distraction from the work at hand. What we know about Sweet Briar cannot provide any of us with a full picture of the issues facing that institution or its viability. Digging a little deeper reveals some clear differences in the circumstances of the two institutions. For example, Wilson has population centers totaling 1.08 million people within an hour’s drive, compared to just under 300,000 for Sweet Briar. Wilson offers undergraduate, graduate and adult degree programs as opposed to only undergraduate education for Sweet Briar. Wilson also costs $10,000 less and has deferred maintenance costs approximately $20 million less than Sweet Briar. I had a whole table to illustrate the differences, but in the end, those differences are not important because, to put it simply, the particular situations faced by the two institutions are not the same.
There is one clear difference that is worth discussing though, and that is the process used to arrive at decisions. With each college or university that makes decisions about its own future, the strength of the Wilson commission process becomes more evident. Chatham University announced its intent to examine coeducation over a three-month period before announcing a change; Cooper Union made a decision to move away from its free tuition model in a closed process—a track Sweet Briar chose as well.
Was the method of research, examination and decision-making wrong at these institutions? That’s not for us to say. We do know it was necessary for Wilson to invite representatives from all constituencies into our process—to examine, propose, discuss and refine ideas that have provided a plan to thrive. This process led us to some very different conclusions than Sweet Briar. We were able to develop a business plan that makes sense for our location, for our institution, for our future. And it is working for us.
The first Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy is constant and cannot be destroyed, but it can change from one state to another. For many, the commission process was so intensive, with an incredible number of hours invested over a year’s time, that they looked upon the Trustees’ approval of the Wilson Today plan as a pivot point—a summit if you will—with only blue skies and an easy hike down to success.
But that success was never going to happen overnight. Approval of the plan was really what hikers would refer to as a false summit. As you ascend a mountain, you approach what you perceive to be the summit, only to reach that point and see the real summit still before you. If you let it, this can be disheartening. The positive energy you have harbored can flip on you, making continued progress unnecessarily difficult. As often happens within organizations, we serve as our own obstacle to success.
For Wilson, the summit of our journey is enrollment at levels that provide balanced operational budgets. We are moving in the right direction and will likely see our summit in two to three years. There is still much work to be done to ensure that we not only reach this goal, but that we continue to strengthen the institution beyond the point of balanced operations.
The projections of the Wilson Today plan extend through the year 2022. We will continue to celebrate our successes, but we will also face tough decisions and disappointment in that time as well. How will the Wilson community respond to adversity? How will you respond if your own expectations aren’t met in the way you envision? Will we be an obstacle, or will we look within ourselves and find the positive energy that allows us to work together—as partners, as a community—and complete our journey together?
Since the Board decision, we have demonstrated the power of collective determination. We have invested a lot of effort and resources to accomplish our goals and we are moving in the right direction. We stand on a firm foundation and need to remain focused on continuing to strengthen the College. Now is the time to sharpen our focus, our actions and our energy to continue this challenging trek and to ask ourselves: What will I do to maintain positive energy and help achieve the ultimate goal of Wilson Today—to make Wilson a thriving institution?