Building on Strength
Emboldened by the success of its previous strategic plan and a keen awareness of the significant challenges facing higher education, Union College is again innovating on the idea of a liberal arts college, a tradition now 225 years old. We remain open to change while grounding our mission in the long history of teaching, learning and scholarship in the expanded and integrated arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics, engineering and computer science, all of which are essential and which collectively distinguish us from our peers. Union has deep and rich traditions, has made its mark with groundbreaking innovations, has invested significantly in capital projects to create state of the art facilities, and has vibrant academic offerings fueled by talented and dedicated faculty members who are exceptional teachers and scholars in their fields. These serve as the foundations upon which we can reconceive and rejuvenate a Union education so students and faculty are best positioned to address key areas of inquiry, practice and action, now and in the future. Union is forever committed to providing a rigorous and relevant education, one steeped in values and vision. Once again, it is the time for Union to seize its position as the harbinger of innovation.
Since the adoption of Union College’s strategic plan in 2008 and its 2013 revision, Union has invested $160 million to modernize its campus. The results are striking, welcoming, and vibrant. Spectacular renovations for the arts, humanities, and social sciences – with the Henle Dance Pavilion, Feigenbaum Center for Visual Arts, Karp Hall, Lippman Hall, the Kelly Adirondack Center and Lamont House – combined with the renovations and new construction for the Integrated Science and Engineering Complex, including the Peter Irving Wold Center, and Stephen Charles Ainlay and Judith Gardner Ainlay Hall, place Union in an enviable position of strength. These buildings accommodate most of the academic departments and interdisciplinary programs on campus with cutting-edge technology and flexible spaces for collaboration. In the past decade alone, we built a new student residence, Garnet Commons, and a co-generation plant to reduce Union’s carbon footprint. Students’ health and wellbeing remain core to our mission. The Wicker Wellness Center was established to ensure Union meets the needs of a changing student body. It and all of our programs excel because of the talented and resourceful staff who embody and advance our goals.
Commitment and appreciation for a Union education is strong. Thanks to our generous and accomplished alumni, Union raised more than $250 million for student scholarships, facilities, new faculty, programs and current operations in the last capital campaign. The 2008 plan and its successful implementation have provided a solid foundation upon which to build as we embark on a new era with significant challenges and opportunities. The momentum must not only continue but accelerate. It is time for the next chapter.
A Challenging Context
Colleges and universities are facing a confluence of factors that are challenging our viability. These include a decline in the number of high school graduates (especially in the Northeast, where Union recruits the majority of its students); the shrinking middle class; high costs; public perception and concerns over rising student debt levels; a growing emphasis on job and career preparation; increased regulations and compliance; and pressure on the admissions process to attract exceptional students.
Union is in a strong financial position, but it is not immune to the challenges that are affecting all of our peers. The annual cost to attend Union and its peers exceeds the U.S. median family income. We have increased our expenditures on financial aid, which puts great stress on our budget. Our endowment per student is far less than the mean of the group with which we compete for students. To ensure that Union will thrive in this changing higher education landscape, we need innovative approaches to recruiting, developing and retaining talented students, faculty and staff; prudent fiscal management; effective messaging; ambitious fundraising; and responsive infrastructure.
Preparing for Multiple Tomorrows
As has been the case since 1795, the students who come to Union will encounter known and unknown challenges and opportunities throughout their lives. A Union education prepares them to understand, engage and affect the world around them. Preparing students to engage known futures is difficult. Preparing students to engage futures that will be marked by rapid and pervasive change can be daunting.
There is little doubt that the global climate crisis, human migration, economic uncertainty, prejudice and discrimination, threats to freedom and democracy, and assaults on rationality and objectivity are among the forces that will affect students’ futures in profound ways. For each, there are known impacts, but each will also have consequences that are difficult to foresee and impossible to fully appreciate.
Rapid technological change is another force that is affecting all college students in clear and substantial ways, and will affect their futures in ways that will be profound and unpredictable. Technological innovations have fueled both a constantly shifting economic environment and corresponding disruptions in cultures, politics and relationships. We live in a time where information is being created at an unprecedented rate. We must grapple with the moral and ethical questions technology raises as it simultaneously broadens and narrows our access to information and our interactions with one another.
When one considers how current students differ from those who preceded them, the information, or digital, revolution may well be among the most important driving forces. Social science research suggests that this generation of students, the first to grow up in a digital world with smartphones and social media, has distinctive social patterns, behaviors, mental health and academic needs. Technological disruptions are changing jobs and sectors, even those we thought would be immune to change. Students will switch jobs every few years, not decades, as in years past. New occupations will emerge while existing professions become outdated or obsolete. These students will engage a world that demands breadth and depth as well as resiliency and flexibility.
All of these factors have significant implications on college campuses, including teaching and learning, retention, course design, research and scholarship, career advising, health and wellness services, and overall campus culture. Colleges everywhere are struggling to meet these challenges. This is especially difficult at a time when the cost of higher education is prohibitive to a staggering number of students, and the value of higher education is both objectively high and frequently questioned. The status quo is not stable.
Union Will Thrive
For 225 years, Union College has been an innovator in liberal education, making its curriculum relevant to the contemporary world. In the early 19th century, Union pioneered teaching modern languages and integrating engineering into a liberal arts curriculum in response to the economic and social challenges facing the nation. Throughout our long history, we have placed a premium on the ability of a liberal arts approach, steeped in diverse ideas and perspectives that cultivate critical thought and strong communication skills, to create a good unto itself, but also to prepare students to effectively address the social, political and economic problems that face our communities locally, nationally and globally. In our interconnected and rapidly changing world, Union students also need skills and a range of experiences – learning from successes and failures alike – that will enable them to produce, synthesize and employ knowledge. With this strategic plan, we will leverage our unique academic offerings and invest in immersive experiences to ensure that every student develops the skills and knowledge to lead for whatever their future will hold. Rather than prepare students for a specific and known tomorrow, we are preparing students to lead across multiple tomorrows.
The full Union experience that many have been able to construct throughout our history must now be an intentional and expected part of what it means to be a Union student.
We confidently forge ahead.