by Alistair Highet
In January, University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., convened a campus wide-meeting in Barone Campus Center to launch Fairfield 2020: Building a More Sustainable Future — a comprehensive refresh of the University’s strategic plan designed to position Fairfield to thrive in the new higher education environment.
The goal is to position Fairfield to respond more nimbly to the economic and demographic changes that are now emerging.
The refresh is being guided by a steering committee chaired by Executive Vice President Kevin Lawlor ’79, and co-chaired by the Senior Academic Vice President of Academic Affairs.
The steering committee has formed 11 discrete task forces, assigned to identify and recommend potential improvements, efficiencies, new revenue streams, and new pedagogical models to move the University forward.
Almost 200 faculty, staff, alumni, and administrators are currently involved in the process — discussing recommendations for the University’s business model; possible pedagogical innovation; student affordability; student outcomes; the core curriculum; efficiencies in back office operations; opportunities in continuing education; the future of the University’s professional and graduate schools; understanding the student, staff, and faculty candidates of the future; how to renew the total school experience; and the role and future of athletics.
In launching the refresh, Fr. von Arx said, “We must create a bold new vision for the future that ensures our viability, builds upon our foundations, and propels us to a leadership position in this new era of higher education.”
Lawlor commented that Fr. von Arx’s timing was appropriate. “He saw the sea change developing in higher education and moved deliberately to position the University to not only survive, but thrive.”
The University’s business model will have to change. As is true of most colleges and universities, costs are rising significantly faster than revenue, and this trend is expected to continue.
Fairfield is largely dependent on undergraduate tuition to fund its operations. But costs are rising at a faster rate than students can afford to pay. In recent years, Fairfield has tried to keep a cap on tuition. This year, tuition and fees will rise by only 2 percent, the smallest percent increase in recent history.
At the same time, the University has had to raise the level of financial aid to compete for desired students, and to support families who cannot shoulder all of the costs, thus cutting into revenue.
“It is critical for Fairfield to initiate the refresh of its plan, for the simple reason that the pace of change is so rapid and the business model is broken,” explained William L. Atwell, P’08, chairman of the Board of Trustees, in an interview. “We can no longer simply raise tuition to solve every problem.”
There are also other pressures demanding changes to the way the University operates.
One of these is the declining number of prospective undergraduates in the Northeast in the coming years. There are fewer students, and more colleges competing for them.
“The high school population is New England is declining, and will continue to decline until 2017,” said outgoing Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Paul Fitzgerald, S.J., after which time the number will rise slightly again and then decline again.
When it does rise, Fr. Fitzgerald noted, “The high school students will be poorer, and they will be more ethnically diverse.” It is critical that Fairfield begin innovating now to be ready to meet the needs of those students when they become college-bound.
“Deeper shifts in the dynamics of our economy suggest that fewer families will be in a position to afford the kind of education that Fairfield has to offer — even if they desire it,” Fr. von Arx said. “Middle-class incomes have remained flat for over a decade, and the general debt burden of our families has increased. In short, the ‘middle-class’ is eroding.
“Most economists see no reason to believe this trend will reverse itself. If we don’t change our financial model,” he continued, “we will be compelled to accept students based on their ability to pay. I don’t think this is the kind of institution that we want to become.”
The third — and in some ways most elusive and unpredictable factor demanding a response from the University — is technological innovation.
Online and distance learning is attracting more students, particularly those who have questions about the value of an expensive, residential college experience. The internet enables students to take classes from a variety of institutions — and to build their own “student-centered” learning experiences, independent from the traditional model. Students today are more likely to attend more than one institution — getting a few credits here and a few credits there — and they want more frugal ways to complete their education.
As Fr. von Arx noted, “These are not temporary trends. They are converging forces that demand a sense of urgency from us all.”
The task forces were expected to make their first recommendations to the Steering Committee in May. They will continue to meet throughout the summer and the fall semester of 2014, with the expectation that a plan will be ready for implementation by March 2015.
The process is being informed by a series of lectures called “IDEAS: Fairfield 2020 Lecture Series,” which will bring some of the leading voices in higher education to campus to share their vision of the future and challenge the thought process of the task forces and the campus community as whole (see sidebar on page 31).
“This is an exciting time on campus,” said Lawlor. “How often do you get to make decisions that will impact the next 20 or 30 years? People are taking the responsibility seriously and really working collaboratively to find the best solutions.”
One question foremost on the minds of many involved is how the tradition of cura personalis — the “care of the whole person” that is the hallmark of Jesuit education — will be preserved as new pedagogical methods are implemented.
Fr. von Arx asked: “How might we offer non-traditional students — online students or part-time students — a pathway of mentorship, an introduction to Ignatian values? What would cura personalis look like if we were to offer it online?
“This will be a serious undertaking, one of institutional soul searching,” he concluded during the launch, “However, I’m confident — given the talent and dedication of our community — that we will develop an exciting model for the next decade of our development, and I look forward to working in collaboration… as we chart a course for the future of our University.”