Hobart and William Smith Colleges: Using Authentic Positioning to Guide Strategic Planning

Strategic Insights Blog | July 15, 2015

As anyone who has been involved in strategic planning knows, a successful plan requires a significant commitment on the part of the campus community to develop clear goals and objectives consistent with institutional values and capacities and guided by insights gained from rigorous market research. It also requires a strong champion who can help rally the campus community around a distinctive positioning strategy, establish metrics on progress and hold stakeholders accountable, and ensure that these initiatives produce impact in terms of enrollment, quality of student, and net tuition revenue. No one knows this better than Mark Gearan, who over past 16 years as President of Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS) has guided the institution through three strategic plans.

Art & Science Group first met President Gearan at HWS in 2006 when we were retained to conduct research with key stakeholders and develop positioning strategies to support the Colleges’ strategic planning process. Our work resulted in an authentic and market-savvy positioning strategy that emphasized student immersion in the ideas and experiences they would encounter as professionals, leaders, and citizens. And it helped lay the groundwork for the position HWS now occupies as a school that provides a truly distinctive educational experience centered on community engagement, experiential learning and global leadership, all of which have enhanced HWS’s core liberal arts mission.

The results speak for themselves: yield, enrollment and student quality have all improved. In addition, HWS has created successful and lasting community engagement through its Geneva Partnership program.

In this interview, President Gearan discusses the importance of developing strategies that support authentic, substantive institutional distinctions and ensuring that responsibility for executing these strategies and meeting associated objectives are shared by stakeholders across the institution. Mark also shares his thoughts on the continuing relevance of liberal arts education, the value of community engagement, and the importance of transparency and communication with the community, especially in times of institutional conflict.


A&S: Many liberal arts colleges look alike and are largely undifferentiated in their respective missions, but at Hobart and William Smith, applications have increased dramatically, student quality has improved, net tuition revenue is up, and you’re in a much stronger competitive position. How has Hobart and William Smith distinguished itself in this competitive climate?

President Gearan: We have a responsibility to collectively honor our students and parents, and we do this by speaking authentically about what is distinctive about our institution. I think we set the groundwork with our academic program: the focus on interdisciplinary learning and global learning is very distinctive in our core educational mission. In addition to our academic program, we place an emphasis on career services, community engagement and our setting in the Finger Lakes region. Our distinctiveness, therefore, can really be honed down to five essential features: a strong academic program, career services, community engagement, global leadership and a sense of place.

Our interdisciplinary academic program is built on creating faculty and student mentorships that allow students to explore their interests. Instead of a common core of courses, we require students to become proficient in eight areas. For example, they must display proficiency in critical thinking, quantitative reasoning and ethical judgment.

We put a large emphasis on career services and internships for students. We guarantee that every student will receive an internship, and if that opportunity is unpaid, that they will receive a stipend. In order to qualify, students must participate in the Pathways program, which offers opportunities for students to explore different fields through inter-semester experiential learning opportunities, to build career skills, and to connect to our great network of alums, parents and family members. Pathways is a very significant career development program that brings clarity of direction and a competitive advantage when students are seeking first jobs, post-graduate service opportunities like The Peace Corps, and entrance to graduate, law and medical schools. While we believe the liberal arts is the most important education we can give to young students, the Pathways program really helps them apply their education to their future goals.

Our Geneva community program and in particular our work around Geneva 2020, a partnership that reaches across the community to help the Geneva City School District excel, encourages students to contribute to the collective goals of the entire community. This program imbues our students with a sense of citizenship and responsibility, which I believe is distinctive.

Our global education is also unique. We have about 50 programs in six continents. About 60 percent of our students will study abroad and then bring that abroad experience back to Geneva, changing the dialogue of the classroom in important ways. We recently won the Senator Paul Simon award for campus internationalization, awarded for innovation in programming which at HWS includes strong pre-departure and post-abroad initiatives. One major distinction between our abroad programs and others is that our programs are led by our faculty. It helps internationalize the campus, because these faculty members come back from abroad, whether from Peru or Vietnam or Galway etc., and bring their cultural experience back to the campus. Our leadership track is distinctive as well. As a global center we place prominence on and encourage entrepreneurial skills in students in the leadership center.

Finally, we benefit from a tremendous location in the Finger Lakes and in Geneva that allows students to live on an actionable scale – to understand their responsibilities as community members. In their four years here, students discover that they can make a difference in the Geneva community. They will then take that knowledge and apply it in their own communities around the country and the world.


How has HWS succeeded in implementing these programs?

It’s a comprehensive view of admissions and institutional positioning based upon a good inclusive strategic plan we’re executing. As a result, admissions not solely the province of our admissions office – although we have an excellent one – it is the responsibility of everyone. The students, faculty and alumni all contribute. We’ve had three different strategic plans in five-year increments, and each time we’ve aligned our metrics in ways that incorporate the efforts of the whole HWS community. As a result, we have a sense of engagement where everyone feels a part of the success and the challenges. I make sure to meet regularly with the trustees and faculty to communicate with them about progress on our goals; there’s a responsibility to communicate with them because our strategic planning markers are a part of everyone’s shared collective responsibility.


Over the 16 years you’ve served as president of HWS, the liberal arts has come under increasing criticism for being an impractical, less employable form of education. How do you address this critique and what steps have you taken to ensure student success beyond graduation?

When you look at the number of times graduates will change careers in their lifetime — a trend which is increasing — our graduates in the 21st-century global economy will have to be facile and nimble in their careers. While a specialized training will be useful in the short term, building well-rounded skills will allow these students to be successful in the long-term. These skills are even more relevant in this century than prior ones, contrary to the narrative.

Our students are able to gain clarity and experience through internships and jobs in the Pathways program, and this program allows them able to assess what their skills are and compare them to other graduates within the college, participate in inter-semester programs, explore different fields, and connect them to the great network we have with alums, parents and family members. We take it seriously, and think that we have the best of all worlds: a liberal arts education that allows students to explore what their skills are, apply them and be more prepared for the world when they leave us.


You mentioned the Geneva partnership. Can you explain what motivated the creation of this program and how it has benefited your students and the Geneva community? In what ways is this program different from the standard college community service programs?

It extends from a significant sense of engagement here. It began when the Geneva school district was on state watch, and I had just been educated on the foundations of collective impact theory. Collective impact is similar to the Peace Corp ethos. The Peace Corps ethos is that you go the village and ask: what are your needs? You don’t go to Washington and ask “what are your needs?” for Botswana or Paraguay.

It resonated with me, because I thought we could bring the scale of the 2200 students we have on campus to address the issues of the public schools. We went to the schools and worked with them to figure out their priorities. We brought together the superintendent and the business community to see if we could band together toward this collective impact theory, if we could measure the aspirations we have for the public schools and what we could all work together on to help the school community. We have formed a coordinated backbone to work on this initiative that involves improving the graduation rate, literacy, college and career readiness; goals that have been outlined by the superintendents. It involves the entire community: One local bank bought lab coats for the students. We bring every 2nd, 6th and 9th grader to campus on designated days. The hospital has bought books and expanded their efforts for helping with the literacy initiative. Over time, the graduation rate has gone up several points for the Geneva school district, but we still have a lot of work to do.

The theory is if everyone works together, things will work out right. It’s the old cliché. The really difficult thing is actually getting everyone organized and acting together toward these goals. I’m pleased by the efforts to date. For our students, it gives them an opportunity to be engaged. Our hope is when we welcome them here, during the course of their four years, they’ll be part of this effort with the community to move the needle on these metrics, and afterward, they’ll use these learning moments and teaching moments in other communities they are in where the problems seem intractable. It’s important for them to see a community and engage with it.


Speaking of community, as a president, you inevitably have to manage crisis situations whenever they arise, whether it’s hazing, sexual assault, drug and alcohol abuse, academic misconduct, etc. How do you resolve these situations without derailing the campus culture?

In higher education, presidents are in a position to make a decision that could pull an institution out of a crisis or further the crisis. It’s critical for the president to best help the campus community and the alum community, and interface with the board and faculty and staff. It will require presidential leadership that is trusting and transparent and appropriate to circumstances in the hopes of bringing together the entire campus community toward resolution of the crisis. I’m always struck by the importance of communication regardless of whether it’s positive or negative news. Communication is paramount every day, but particularly during a crisis at every level, from the institutional level, to alum engagement, to the students who are going through a rough time morale-wise, communications is so fundamentally important, and good communication is based on truth and integrity.

Academic communities are often the best place in these situations — given the freedom — where thorny issues and divisive issues can be aired, understanding that people might not always be happy at the end of it. Academic institutions have a responsibility to model discourse and to be open, and academics can show other fields how thorny issues can be addressed. I come at it from the appreciative side; that the kind of discourse fostered can resonate with the rest of society. We don’t have to devolve into a cable news format. We can have dialogue that can be fulfilling, even when the there are differences, which on campus there always are.


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