Folt lays out bold vision for Carolina’s future

In its entire 223-year history, Carolina has never had one overarching vision to guide its growth — until now. Chancellor Carol L. Folt shared that vision — The Blueprint for Next — with University community members who packed a room at the Carolina Inn earlier this year.

The Blueprint for Next, a strategic framework that spans all the University’s schools and departments, was shaped over the past three years by hundreds of people who shared their ideas about what the University is and their dreams of what it can become.

Yet the framework’s core elements were crafted so succinctly they could be captured on a single page.

This blueprint, Folt said, embodies the same sense of hope and possibility that was present more than 200 years ago when Carolina’s founders created the country’s first public university.

And, perhaps most importantly, she added, it captures an underlying quality about Carolina that may be the most essential of all: its willingness to continually reinvent itself.

That quality was evident throughout 2016, as deans and administrators participated in three rounds of thinking about how the goals of their schools and units fit within the core strategies in the University framework. The framework also incorporated input from extensive interviews, administrative retreats and a Big Ideas group.

That willingness to change, over the course of the 20th Century, enabled Carolina to emerge as a leading public research university, Folt said. That same willingness is needed now, as colleges and universities across the country grapple with rising costs and growing skepticism about their continued ability to offer a meaningful education.

The framework responds directly to these concerns by laying out how Carolina plans to respond in the decades ahead to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population and the shifting demands of a constantly changing economy. In this regard, it is consistent with the broader strategic planning process that UNC system President Margaret Spellings and the UNC Board of Governors began over the past year.

In a speech to members of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees on Jan. 25, Folt said she remains confident in the future of higher education because she has never stopped believing in the enduring power of a college education to transform lives.

“Higher education is the longest and most inspiring and most important industry in all of America that leads from dream to opportunity,” she said.

The next morning, University trustees offered their ringing endorsement of that idea when they voted unanimously to approve The Blueprint for Next.

Pillars of purpose

The University-wide framework is buttressed by two core strategies. The components of the first, “Of the Public, for the Public,” harkens to Carolina’s historic role in service to the state and its people:

  • Eliminate all barriers to a great education;
  • Bring expertise to bear for the benefit of North Carolina and beyond;
  • Work for democracy: develop citizen-leaders and encourage informed public discussion.

The second, “Innovation Made Fundamental,” identifies areas where Carolina must continue to expand and adapt to meet the changing needs of students and society in the decades to come:

  • Value and prioritize foundational research and creative practice;</li
  • Meet the new imperative for learning that is personalized, experiential, collaborative, data-literate;
  • Translate research into professional, commercial and societal uses; and
  • Adapt to evolving workforce and student needs.
  • “In one sense, we have one strategic pillar that says, ‘of the public, for the public,’ celebrating the first and perhaps most definitive characteristic of the University. The second pillar, which is about making innovation fundamental, is about changing everything,” said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost James W. Dean Jr.

    Folt said the language used to shape it had to operate at both the objective and subjective levels to be effective.

    “It has to be hard-nosed in determining whether doing something is in your interest or not, but it also has to be motivating,” Folt said. “People have to feel that it is of them, and true to this place, before they are going to be motivated to make it happen.”

    This continuing narrative is woven together with six “Supporting Themes” that connect the spirit of Carolina and its core values with the future commitments associated with the framework.

    Those six themes are:

  • Above all, we are human, inclusive and humane: we build a highly capable community, care how we treat one another, provide for each other’s well-being and facilitate personal success;
  • We embrace the evolving diversity of the people of North Carolina and the broader community we serve;
  • We lead as a proudly public institution: in collaboration with the people and our partner organizations in North Carolina, nationally and internationally;
  • We focus on population health and prosperity;
  • We embrace change and possibility; we prize beauty and art; we are aspirational, energetic, creative, and willing to take risks; and
  • We are committed to operating effectively, sustainably, ethically, transparently, nimbly, with technical sophistication, at the pace of change.
  • “I think the themes help to tell Carolina’s story in a way that ties us to our core values and binds us to each other,” Folt said. “It captures Carolina as a caring place, and reminds us of who we are while we do the work of this strategic framework.”

    Making strategic choices

    The strategic choices in the blueprint will help set spending priorities, and in so doing, impose needed limits, Folt said. They will guide the fundraising goals of the new capital campaign, set to begin this fall, and building priorities in the campus master plan, to be updated later this year.

    Each choice had to meet three core criteria:

  • Is it true to us? Is it something that we are deeply committed to?
  • Does it create advantage for us in the competitive landscape of higher education?
  • Is it aspirational enough and, at the same time, achievable?
  • Before determining a strategic direction for “a leading public global research university,” Folt directed Dean, along with Ron Strauss, executive vice provost and chief international officer, and Lynn Williford, assistant provost for institutional research, to lead “The Carolina Metrics Project.” Among the goals of the project was to assess performance toward mission and strategic priorities; establish a benchmark against peers; and set targets for improvement.

    “For a strategy to be effective in any setting, it has to be based on an understanding of reality, of facts,” Dean said.

    Later this year, a metrics task force will translate the framework into concrete objectives at both the University and school/unit levels and develop a system of measurement to track progress.

    These same analytical tools will be used to monitor progress in meeting the five “cross-cutting imperatives” included in the plan:

  • Aspire to pre-eminence;
  • Help us serve as the economic powerhouse for the state;
  • Prepare our graduates for the new economy and contemporary life;
  • Adopt a global mindset; and
  • Address big societal questions.
  • Finally, Dean said, an online dashboard will be created as a way for all stakeholders to gauge progress.

    The experiment continues

    Like the University itself, the strategic framework is dynamic. Folt said the blueprint is designed to make it easier to respond to both unforeseen challenges and unexpected opportunities.

    “Rather than an inflexible plan, we believe it is best at a complex university to set real direction but also allow creative people flexibility in how they achieve it,” she said.

    Last fall, Folt harnessed that kind of big-picture thinking without restraints when she convened a dozen working groups to develop these five pan-University initiatives:

  • The New Graduate;
  • The Great Convergence;
  • Culture of Innovation;
  • Carolina Whole Health; and
  • The Economy of the Future.
  • The initiatives are in various stages of development, but when completed, will bring essential elements of the blueprint to life, Folt said.

    All members of Folt’s cabinet received assignments within their respective areas of responsibility.

    For instance, Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, has been working in the areas of modernizing support for The New Graduate and extending the campus to meet the needs of more nontraditional students.

    The strategic framework, Farmer said, “gives us the compass pointing us in a new direction with the values we have always had. That is a powerful combination. That is our North Star.”

    The New Graduate will receive hands-on-learning experience and be able to function – and lead – in team settings. All students must also graduate from here “digitally- and data-literate,” Folt said.

    These capacities, she added, will add to, not replace, “our historic and continuing commitment to the cultivation of critical and analytical thinking, self-knowledge and broad exposure to the best of human thought that are the bedrock of liberal arts and professional educations that a great university provides.”

    Another key initiative, The Great Convergence, builds on a collaborative culture already strong among the faculty, particularly in areas such as applied physical sciences, computational sciences and biomedical engineering.

    Folt said this kind of collaborative thinking without boundaries is also needed to unleash that same kind of creativity between the humanities, arts and social sciences.

    “We are setting out to create the conditions to make it possible – in fact, normal – at Carolina to bring researchers with divergent expertise together, without physical relocation or other disruptions, for time-limited, problem-focused projects,” Folt said.

    Change is never easy, but Folt said she was heartened by the positive reaction she received last fall when presenting the strategic framework to the Faculty Council, Employee Forum and three community forums open to faculty, staff and students.

    “At all of those meetings, I witnessed a desire on everyone’s part not to live in the status quo, but to do what it takes to achieve a future that is worthy of the effort and dreams and hopes of people who have come before and to the people of the state who have invested in Carolina for more than 200 years,” Folt said.

    By Gary Moss, University Gazette