State Of The U: Gestring Talks About USD’s Strategic Planning

President Sheila K. Gestring delivers her annual State of the University address to a smaller than usual audience Thursday afternoon because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who chose to hear her speak in Aalfs Auditorium were required to social distance and wear masks.

VERMILLION — Much of University of South Dakota President Sheila K. Gestring’s annual State of the University address, presented Thursday afternoon in Aalfs Auditorium on the USD campus, dealt with a newly completed strategic planning process that will guide activities on the campus for the next five years.

The discussion of the plan took Gestring away from the podium, where she earlier discussed recent developments at the university, to the stage where she engaged in an informal question-and-answer session with Kurt Hackemer, the university’s provost and vice president of academic affairs.

“During the 2019-2020 academic year, USD was engaged in a collaborative strategic planning process that involved over 1,000 internal and external stakeholders, including students, faculty and staff, alumni, community members, tribal representatives, educators, business leaders, policy makers and legislators,” Gestring said. “And with this planning effort, we emerged with six agreed upon strategic themes that will shape our time, attention and resources for the next five years.”

Those themes are Academic Excellence, Engagement, Facilities and Infrastructure, Diversity, Serving South Dakota and Affordability.

The strategic plan will soon be distributed on the USD campus so that faculty and staff may study it in detail, Hackemer said.

“There are a lot of us involved in that plan who can certainly discuss it with folks and walk you through it, and we’d be happy to do that,” he said.

Hackemer asked Gestring to describe the planning process and the steps the university took to make the work collaborative.

Gestring said a more pragmatic approach was taken.

“It started off by appointing 42 faculty and staff to a strategic planning committee,” which she said was a larger committee than the university is accustomed to working with, “but we discovered that we needed that many people to engage as many stakeholders — there were 1,000 stakeholders involved in the process.

“Those 1,000 stakeholders were a part of 76 stakeholder groups,” Gestring said. “Seventy-six constituent groups is the number of individual, interested parties that we need to be thinking about as a university every single day. That, to me, was a startling number — that there are that many internal and external constituency groups.”

She said the 42 committee members set out to interview 1,000 individuals within those stakeholder groups.

“I think the best hope for accomplishing goals within a strategic plan is if the individual stakeholders have buy-in and have participated in the process,” Gestring said. “From all that information from those 1,000 people, six common themes emerged and the work of the 42 to narrow all of that down, I know, was incredible and I cannot thank them enough for all of that work.”

She briefly discussed the six themes:

• Academic Excellence — “That is to make sure we offer unsurpassed education grounded in the liberal arts for all of our students and also recognizing teaching and research and service,” Gestring said.

• Engagement — “Engagement’s meaning is to communicate USD’s mission, vision and values with all of the stakeholders,” she said.

• Facilities and Infrastructure — The goal of this theme, the president said, “is to prepare campus buildings and infrastructure for future generations of students, faculty and staff.”

• Diversity — The university is pursuing this theme “to continue to create an inclusive and supportive environment for all,” she said.

• Serving South Dakota — The goal of this theme is to foster outstanding stewardship throughout the state, Gestring said.

• Affordability — This theme focuses on “providing access to a first-class education, effectively and efficiently,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of work with that one already and we should be proud of that.

“Under academic excellence, goal number one is to improve long-term outcomes and success of USD students as it relates to the liberal arts,” Gestring said. “The success measures were defined as ‘dissemination of data associated with outcomes and successes of our students as they relate to the liberal arts.’”

Other aspects of those measurements include “programmatic changes happening throughout time,” based on a review of that data, and a continuous improvement process that involves a cyclical assessment of students’ success as it relates to the liberal arts.

A second goal under academic excellence is to align faculty teaching, research and service with the mission of the university.

“It means we need to reevaluate USD’s expectations of the faculty; I know some of that is in progress already, both at the institution and at the unit level, and develop some meaningful expectations for annual evaluations, for promotion and for tenure … to provide a little bit better guidance to faculty and their supervisors on assignment of duties,” she said.

One aspect that received considerable feedback, Gestring added, was evaluating “how current unofficial service is often created for socio-cultural or gendered reasons and it might not be formally acknowledged in a promotion and tenure process, so we want to do some work there as well.”

A goal of the Engagement strategic theme will be to engage internal stakeholders — staff and students — “and do that by a better onboarding process, one that you can do throughout a year and not just in four long hours in one day, but rather in ways to help new employees become engaged on campus and to help them do that throughout the course of time and learn about all of the great things that happen at USD.”

“This theme will also work to engage external stakeholders, and the university’s ‘We Are South Dakota’ campaign is a nice start to that,” she said, adding that the university must also strive to be a resource when there are special projects that need to be studied statewide.

It is hoped that a different approach can be taken when working on the Facilities and Infrastructure theme, beginning by looking at how capital projects were done in the past. She toured the South Dakota Union building “and you can tell there was a time on campus when there were a lot fewer resources available for maintenance and repair.”

Looking forward, a group will be formed to identify facility and infrastructure needs and help prioritize a facilities infrastructure plan. A second goal is to invest in technology and infrastructure.

USD will work to develop core competencies to meet the goals of the Diversity theme. That means reviewing and revising diversity statements for the university “so that we have one message when we talk about what is diversity at the University of South Dakota — aligning those diversity messages,” Gestring said.

It also means recruiting and retaining diverse faculty and staff. “We need to do some work there — review our baseline, analyze our recruiting processes and perhaps there are new ways that we can attract more diverse applicants than we have in the past,” she said.

“We want the state to be able to understand everything that it is that we do,” Gestring said when discussing the Serving South Dakota theme, “and be able to communicate that. I think we’ve done a better job in getting our story out there, but there’s still work to do.”

A twofold effort will be made to meet the goals of the Affordability theme, she said.

“One is to, obviously, try to increase the resources for students through scholarships and other means, but also to try to control affordability by looking at efficiencies and not necessarily for dollar savings but to make the service easier for the student to navigate and perhaps save us some very valuable staff time in the process,” Gestring said.

For example, processes that may cross involve financial aid, the registrar and the business office may be able to be automated and, in turn, better serve students.

“I hope each and every one of you has an opportunity to review the strategic plan information that comes out, I hope you enjoy it and I hope we can all rally behind it,” Gestring told her audience.

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