Before the novel coronavirus disrupted the educational landscape, officials at Thomas Nelson had begun to imagine what the College could look like in a few years. It was part of strategic planning they undertake periodically.
When those same officials had to consider a post-pandemic educational environment, they had a head start on trying to determine what the “new normal” would look like. And the importance of those regular planning sessions was re-enforced. Instead of starting from scratch, Thomas Nelson officials just had to make adjustments.
“We made it quite far in conceptualizing some of the main things that we wanted to look at in the next strategic plan, and then COVID-19 and the pandemic happened and it really changed everything in higher education,” said Steven Felker, the Director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness.
Instead of having a limited number of people working on a strategy, the entire College community was invited. So in an eight-day period from late May to early June, approximately 120 College administrators, faculty and staff participated in a scenario planning workshop.
“The goal was to develop a set of scenarios that the College could potentially experience over the next five years, and let groups of faculty, staff, board members, and students create a story of how their scenario might be experienced by students and the community,” Felker and Kris Rarig, the interim Vice President of Student Affairs, wrote in an email. “By exploring a range of possibilities, the College was laying the groundwork for whatever eventuality may come.”
Each participant was assigned to one of eight potential scenarios regarding how Thomas Nelson might look in 2025. Among the scenarios were the College being a completely online institution, the College having a partnership with a four-year institution, the College being combined with other community colleges, and the College have a dramatic increase or decrease in enrollment.
After the groups spent about a week on their presentations, they were shared via a Zoom meeting June 3.
“There were a lot of really good, rich ideas here that can be acted on quickly,” Felker said. “Some of these are not things that need to take years to implement or design. And so we really want to look and review all of this together to really identify some great ideas and actions we can take quickly.”
Rarig was impressed.
“Speaking for myself, I think it was exceptional,” she said. “And there is also a good bit of proof in that from the comments at the end of the presentations. The eight groups came together over a short period of time, and the full creativity, innovation, and imagination of the participants was on full display.”
Thomas Nelson’s interim president, Dr. Gregory DeCinque, enlisted the services of Larry Robinson, a longtime colleague of the president who has years of experience working with groups in planning environments.
DeCinque was impressed with how many people participated in this voluntary exercise.
“What you have to have as a community college, you need to involve everyone as you discuss where the college will be in the future,” he said at the end of the presentations. “And I'm so appreciative of so many of you that were willing to participate and give us your time.”
Having so many people from various departments and levels at the College was key, he noted.
“All of the great ideas don't reside in the top five or 10 people in an institution. They are spread out evenly,” he said. “You just have to find ways to bring that forward and create a model where people can feel free to fully participate.”
So what is the next step?
As Felker and Rarig wrote: “One realization from the event was that many of the good ideas from the scenario groups should be actively considered and potentially implemented quite quickly. Even more could help the College as it prepares for the coming months and the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic.”
The Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness will analyze the work and share common themes with the campus community that will be used to inform strategic planning efforts into the fall.
“The other thing that we really want to do is fold this into our work on our next strategic plan,” Felker said.
Added Dr. DeCinque: “What I get from this is that Thomas Nelson has a great future. Everything today was positive. Everything today focused on what we could be doing. ... I doubt if any one of the scenarios alone is going to be the sole path, but to take it together. There are some really good things in there that can move Thomas Nelson forward.”
Felker and Rarig also pointed out an unexpected benefit from the exercise.
“It is possible to have creative, collaborative, and collegial meetings over Zoom."