A compass, not a roadmap
by V. Lane Rawlins | © Washington State University
"Guided by a plan that hundreds of WSU people worked on for more than a year, we have maintained stability in one of the toughest years in our history." —V. Lane Rawlins
Recently, I spent a day in Kongsberg, Norway, at a company that is the world leader in development and production of dynamic stabilizers. These technological wonders are installed on ships and oil platforms in the stormy North Sea to stabilize them so that the oil fields can be worked. I was amazed at a video showing ships sitting still in a rough sea, accomplished, I was told, by precisely measuring all of the turbulence around the ship and correctly predicting, one second in advance, what the ship will experience. That instant is sufficient time for actions that keep the ship stable.
The stabilizer uses two kinds of information: the position the ship is trying to maintain and the turbulence of the sea. In other words, they have to know what they are trying to accomplish and what problems must be overcome to do it.
As we left the tour I thought about how similar this is to our situation today. This past year has seen some rough seas for Washington State University, including major reductions in our state appropriations, increases in tuition, and turmoil and anxiety stirred by the events of September 11. Our dynamic stabilizer is our strategic plan and the processes set out in that plan. The plan does not prescribe all of our actions but is focused on our destination. We have often described it as "a compass, not a roadmap." We know that we must constantly reassess our current position, look at challenges and weaknesses, and set a course that allows us to make progress even in stormy times.
Our charge at WSU, as we have defined it, is to offer the very highest quality undergraduate education in a research environment. Whether resources are plentiful or short, we can direct them to improve what we believe is already one of the best educational experiences in the nation. This is not a short-run commitment or simply a question of changing our image. We are looking at what we do, including curriculum development, student services, facilities planning, faculty rewards, landscaping, athletics, and everything else, to assure that a quality undergraduate education is a major focus.
Prospective students were quick to understand this message. This year we had a record number of qualified applicants, with phenomenal growth in those classified as "high ability."
Through our plan we recognize that research is the key to excellence in college education. Regardless of the field or level of study, successful students must prepare for the future by learning to think about change. Research looks at the future and prepares students for change. It is our goal to immerse all students in a world-class research environment. To do this, we must support research, reward success, and partner with government, business, agriculture, and others who support and depend on our discoveries and innovations. We are succeeding in reaching new levels of research funding and other measures of success and recognition in our research. This year we experienced an 18-percent increase in externally funded research expenditures, for the first time exceeding $100 million.
We did not escape damage from state budget cuts and external shocks. Without sufficient faculty, we had to turn away hundreds of qualified students. Many research projects that show promise are on hold for lack of state support, and some have been reduced or eliminated. Some of these opportunities, for students and those who benefit from our research and outreach, are permanently lost.
In the North Sea, it takes a lot of fuel and energy to remain stable in a storm. Similarly, our resources have been taxed, and some have been exhausted, but we have maintained our course through the current storm and are preparing for the next. Guided by a plan that hundreds of WSU people worked on for more than a year, we have maintained stability in one of the toughest years in our history. Ultimately, it is not the plan, but our shared commitment to it that has kept us on course. I am very proud to be a part of this process.
V. Lane Rawlins, President, Washington State University
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