On a cold February day in 2016, about 120 people bundled up to venture outside their offices, homes and residence halls to gather at Rider University. Some were longtime colleagues, others were meeting for the first time. All were connected to Rider, though those connections varied. As they sat down together for dinner, the voices of faculty, staff, administrators, students, alumni, Trustees and members of the surrounding community intermingled inside the Bart Luedeke Center’s Cavalla Room.
The occasion was the official start of Rider’s strategic planning process. Over the course of the following year, participants gave their time, contributed their expertise and shared their perspectives as they assessed the serious challenges facing the University to chart a new and exciting path forward for Rider.
“It was very important to be as inclusive as possible,” says President Gregory G. Dell’Omo, Ph.D. “We needed an honest, reflective and candid process that would help us move forward as an institution. In the end, I think we were very successful in achieving in that.”
Rider’s last comprehensive strategic plan was established in 2005, early into President Mordechai Rozanski’s tenure as Rider’s sixth president. While that plan proved successful in steering the University’s course through much of Rozanski’s tenure, it was now time to inform and formalize the vision that Dell’Omo had begun building when he officially became Rider’s seventh president on Aug. 1, 2015.
“We want to transform lives, as well as the University itself, by creating a vibrant and engaged living and learning experience for our students,” Dell’Omo says. “I want every Rider graduate to feel that their life is better because of the interactions and experiences they had here as a student. Establishing a strategic plan allows us to align our priorities, resources and expertise in a very focused and deliberate manner to achieve that.”
Among the first steps was the establishment of a steering committee to guide the process, as well as the creation of six working groups — all of which conducted SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analyses that spring following a similar exercise conducted by the Board of Trustees the previous October. Major themes emerged from this work.
“The SWOT analyses confirmed many of Rider’s strengths and challenges,” says Senior Associate Vice President for Planning Debbie Stasolla, who helped to steward the plan from first steps to final document. “While there were both synergies and contradictions, most important were the commonalities that provided the groundwork to develop goals and action plans.”
Those commonalities, together with Dell’Omo’s developing vision for the University, led to the articulation of five themes that serve as the plan’s cornerstones: our unwavering focus on student growth and development; the branding, marketing and promotion of our University; the importance of our people; the strategic cultivation, management and investment of our resources; and our commitment to planning, implementation and continuous improvement.
The plan’s title, “Our Path Forward,” and each of its five strategic themes include the word “our.” “That was intentional,” Stasolla says. “It conveys a sense of ownership and community as we work together to implement the plan over the next several years.”
Working groups were organized around major areas of operational focus — academics and engaged learning, student enrollment and experience, reputation and branding, facilities and infrastructure, resources, and employee engagement and enrichment. The inclusive nature of the work meant larger working groups, compared to the previous process. While sometimes challenging to manage, the larger groups meant greater engagement and feedback and a greater variety of perspectives, all of which informed the groups’ work.
As part of the employee engagement working group, Mark Scher ’87 traveled to the Lawrenceville campus every Thursday morning to meet in the Student Recreation Center. “I’ve been on a lot of committees as a volunteer, but few have been this professionally structured with such amazing committee chairs,” says Scher, the president of Brandyl Agency, a Bucks-county based manufacturer sales agency of ceramic tiles from overseas. “I was so impressed and, at the end, so enamored with the people with whom I worked. Each of them accepted me into the group and invited all of my comments.”
Working groups took an eyes-wide-open approach to their work. Rather than deflect clashing perspectives or unpopular opinions, groups welcomed them with the goal of an honest reckoning.
“You were expected to say what was on your mind even if it was controversial,” says Associate Professor of Theatre Trent Blanton, who served as an at-large member of the steering committee and a member of its mission subcommittee. “I felt very comfortable asking questions and sharing my perspective. I became very hopeful engaging with stakeholders at the table who were passionately involved in the process and whose input came from an honest place. There is a lot of deep love for this institution, from administrators to faculty to staff and beyond, and they all had a stake in creating a vision that unifies us.”
The groups worked methodically — often scrutinizing statements word by word — to reach compromises and come to satisfactory conclusions. “Each member contributed with a goal in mind of the overall welfare of Rider without any sort of personal agenda,” Scher says. “That was extremely refreshing.”
The Board of Trustees approved the plan on June 21. Because of the broad nature of a strategic plan and its focus on major institution-wide initiatives, not every department or office is specifically cited. “That’s the beauty of the five themes,” says Stasolla. “They help us speak a common language in support of a shared new vision for Rider and our students. They also provide a framework by which each of us can determine how best to contribute to Rider’s success going forward.”
That success is dependent on annual divisional and department planning and implementation over the next several years within each of the themes. According to Stasolla, Rider is off to a great start with the divisional plans established for the 2017-18 academic year.
Rider’s new Engaged Learning Program is high on this year’s list of priorities. A new graduation requirement beginning with new students this fall, the Program reflects the University’s student learning outcomes of leadership, connected learning, ethics and social responsibility, and global and multicultural perspectives. Students are required to complete at least two high impact engaged learning experiences, which will be documented on an Engaged Learning Transcript to supplement their academic transcript. Qualified experiences include credit-bearing courses such as internships, research projects and senior capstones as well as co-curricular activities such as study abroad, service learning and leadership positions in student clubs and organizations.
“Our Engaged Learning Program is a key component of our new vision and strategic plan,” Dell’Omo says. “We are excited about the opportunities it will afford students to engage more fully in their own education and connect their learning both inside and outside the classroom.”
Other priorities this year include additional new academic programs, living and learning communities, and several important academic and residential facilities projects. The strategic plan also serves as the starting point for the facilities master planning currently underway as well as the establishment of a comprehensive fundraising campaign.
With a sense of ownership comes accountability. The implementation of the action plans within each of the themes and the degree to which progress is being achieved, in such areas as retention, graduation rates, student outcomes, higher enrollment and lower cost of instruction, are all being monitored. “Key performance indicators track our progress and are important components of any successful plan,” says Dell’Omo.
Along with a new plan, the University established a new vision and mission as well as the Rider PROMISE, an acrostic that visually represents the mission in response to student feedback during the planning process. The idea refers to a declaration by the University’s namesake and first president, Andrew J. Rider, that the institution’s future was full of promise.
“The concept of the Promise builds on our heritage and gives meaning to the key components of who we are as an institution,” Dell’Omo says.
Essentially, the strategic plan is a promise in and of itself. It outlines the decisive action Rider will take to achieve the visionary growth that is necessary to ensure the University’s sustainability into the future and provide successive generations of Rider students a transformative and affordable college experience. “That will require the efforts of all of us within our university community — faculty, staff, administrators, students, alumni, Trustees and friends,” says Dell’Omo.
As Blanton attests, “The work wasn’t just idle talk. There are concrete items highlighted throughout the plan. Now that it has been approved, I’m quite hopeful about Rider’s future.”