Whether it’s the famous scholarly interpretation of religion and myth known as the “eternal return” or the Frank Baum tales of Oz, the abiding premise is that no matter how far the hero or heroine may travel, their aim always returns them to a familiar starting place, where they were once deeply connected. They may follow a map or go where the wind blows them, but in the human story told in myth or in the making sense of personal history, the continuous effort to go forward, sometimes arduous and costly, is to end up, somehow at the familiar place called home.
Cavafy explained the heroic journey in his much-admired poem that begins, “As you set out for Ithaka, hope the voyage is a long/ one, full of adventure, full of discovery…/May you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine/ things, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,/… Keep Ithaka always in in your mind. Arriving there is/ what you are destined for.” Squaring the circle is an old human quest, the myth of eternal return that even universities live by.
Earlier in this current decade, St. Lawrence University drew a Strategic Map, born of the Great Recession and the sudden opportunity to accelerate our overall institutional profile and self-confidence upon a rapidly changing economic and demographic landscape of American higher education.
There were originally six major themes on our map: 1. A renewed commitment to an innovative liberal arts curriculum; 2. An enlarged reputation that would attract students from a wider geography and use more of our unfilled campus capacity for growing enrollment; 3. Energize and engage our alumni whose range of career expertise could deepen their connectedness to the campus community; 4. Reinforce the structure and lines of effective university governance practices; 5. Ensure that decisions are developed from careful planning, the use of data, and the habits of assessment; and 6. Develop an up-to-date campus master plan with attention to maintenance, budgets, and modern building needs. Perhaps the most strategic activity of all, touching half the themes, has been building the next generation of St. Lawrence faculty into a vital community of teachers, scholars, and intellectual creators.
By every yardstick used over the years, each of those six strategic goals has demonstrated substantial progress that has been measurable, often remarkable, and even far-reaching. Without the framework of the map, without the implicit permission to “go for it” that the map granted us, we would not have a program in New York City, a Business in Liberal Arts major, record-setting results in admissions (including a much more diverse student enrollment), the graduating senior placement rate of 97% for 7 years in a row, or the numerous forms of public recognition in reputation-building, including the largest number of active foundation and government grants in our history.
Without the map, we wouldn’t have been nearly as committed to shared governance as we are today in our habit of bringing university constituencies into better and more frequent contact with each other. Without the map, our custom of “measuring twice and cutting once” as careful planners may not have been as rigorous—we gambled and we calculated in constructing a new residence hall with a geothermal system, as we have also done in a mix of new academic assets emphasizing sustainability, statistics, and public speaking. A friend of mine from the business world, a proud Stanford graduate, recently told me how much he admires the liberal arts at St. Lawrence because our students learn to “rap,” his acronym for reading, analysis, and percentages. And finally, the map keeps us honest about the importance of real-time quality ratings in the strengths and stresses of our campus facilities.
In time, the Strategic Map has been easier for me to explain in public places and for general audiences as having four essential quadrants. It’s the same map, but a tourist-size version. Leaving the more internal matters, such as governance and assessment, aside, the planning and progress of recent years have lived inside the framework of four easy-to-remember priorities: 1. The Student Experience and our commitment to diversity and inclusion (the latter developed strategically by a special commission, which also demonstrated excellent practices of shared governance); 2. Reputation in all its dimensions— how we are known to the world matters as much as any of our riches— is about the quality of our faculty and its pioneering habits, the quality of caring in the community, the quality of our core values to prospective families; 3. Alumni Engagement is our secret, shadow endowment—a priceless resource; and finally, 4. Facilities’ Stewardship and, by direct implication, our long-term financial resiliency must be as sturdy as the chapel walls that once withstood fire.
In each of the four quadrants of the simpler map, we can chart considerable and quantifiable activity, an unceasing and progressive work, in making St. Lawrence even better than it was a decade ago, when it was already an outstanding national liberal arts college. The student experience in a traditional residential liberal arts environment proves its own vitality and relevance time and again. In a general word, today’s students are happy and particularly happy to be here and nowhere else.
The Business in Liberal Arts major has 180 students in it—a cross-linked discipline that did not exist a few years ago. It has a higher percentage of women in it than the traditional economics major and it has broadened student course selections into 17 other departments in fresh combinations of study. The number of Public Health minor declarations has taken off in its first semester with 16 students. Exceeding everyone’s expectations, 174 students have enrolled in 14 Public Health courses this year.
The desire of our faculty to teach in the very original Sophomore Journeys program has resulted in a large number of course proposals under consideration. These seminars enrolled 100 students this spring, our inaugural term, which is 15% of the class. The arrival a year ago of our chief diversity officer has already had significant impact on programming for a more positive student experience. We are embarking now on the first campus climate survey in over a dozen years. And I’ve heard that several peer institutions are planning to use the questionnaire we helped design for similar purposes.
About the St. Lawrence reputation, let me say that our faculty are called as experts in news and feature stories more times than anyone can remember. It is no longer strange for us to be mentioned in the New York Times or in the Winter Olympics media coverage of ice hockey. We have 55 countries represented among our student body—that could not have happened without significant intention and commitment on our part to make sure our candle in the wooded valley was not hidden under a rain barrel.
The power of our alumni network has become the envy of many places with high brand recognition and advantageous endowments. This academic year 110 students have participated in SLU Connects programs in Boston, Albany, Montana, Washington, DC, and San Francisco. Our LINC program has 90 alumni mentors matched with 100 current students. One-third of the current sophomore class, nearly 200 students, joined 40 volunteer alumni faculty for our fifth annual Business Skills Bootcamp on a very stormy January weekend.
The fourth quadrant of the revised reference map is the place itself, the campus, the stone, the brick, and the slate symbolizing our architectural heritage and our brave saga to build it all. Coupled with the recently renewed master plan, including its long-term ambition to achieve the highest sustainability and carbon neutral standards, is the careful attention we must especially give to our annual operating finances. Fiscal strength and expense equilibrium must be sufficient to cover financial aid, salaries and wages, and debt obligations, but also and ultimately adequate to support the functioning of 102 buildings of various ages and conditions.
Our journey as an institution has been traceable along the crooked lines of our well-used map in its two identical versions. It should not be surprising, therefore, that by strategic coherence, logical consistency, and natural extension the themes and milestones placed on the St. Lawrence map of recent years would also resemble, or even mirror, the four “big idea” topics of our “Campaign for Every Laurentian.” This is neither coincidental nor problematic. The campaign ought to serve our hope to advance from strength to strength. To do that, we must endow what we do well; we must ensure our liberal arts experience will fit this generation born in the 21st century; we must empower our genius of connections like never before; and we must balance our architectural heritage and our modern campus with an infusion of capital investments.
From map to campaign, our strategy is consistent over the present run of years. From the perspective of literary construction, there is a narrative parallelism in this continuing story. It is an outward projection of meeting challenges, adapting to them with imagination, gathering momentum, and using the leverage of a more secure identity about who we are. Our goal may be expressed in a variety of roads and waymarks to achieve the results we are seeking. It remains reasonable, in my view, that not every detail can just now be described and that strategies necessarily ought to lack full certainty or precision, leaving white space on the canvas. And yet, I am confident in knowing exactly where we are going in this journey.
We all know that we still have far to travel in the coming campaign, but, like the ancient voyagers and pathfinders, we are not really looking for a better place, so much as we are making our way toward home. For every Laurentian, the work ahead of us is important because we believe in this home place—the home of a budding intellectual life, the home of ideas that never leave us, the home of lasting friendships that see us through the issues of life, the home of the freshest air we may ever breathe, the home of dreams that form an unbroken seal upon our hearts.
In psychological terms or, if you are inclined to the transcendental, in theological reflection, the map and its subsequent campaign will bring us to the ground of our being. You may have anticipated my appropriation of lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets to explain what the academic community might today call our St. Lawrence “meta-strategy”:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning…
The promise of the St. Lawrence map in its twin drafts, now expressed as the journey of the campaign ahead of us will be to arrive somehow “where we started… [and to pass] “through the unknown, remembered gate” with the joy and freshness of the youth we all once knew ourselves to be. Arriving there, our own Ithaka, is what we need to believe that we are destined for.