Strategic Insights

October 14, 2019

From Paul Yost, Associate Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Director of Applied Learning and Development, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives

I’m excited about the opportunity in the next two years to work with the SPU community as we revisit and renew SPU’s strategy. My work will include three elements: (1) anticipating the challenges and opportunities facing SPU in the coming decade; (2) clarifying SPU’s key differentiators; that is, the unique role that SPU is being called to play in God’s kingdom; and (3) choosing a catalytic action that will help SPU move forward in the immediate future.

Furthermore, the work will be undertaken in a dynamic environment: higher education is facing financial challenges, and a culture exists where pointing out what is wrong is a lot easier than doing the work that it takes to make hard choices. Universities are a unique type of organization with all of the advantages and disadvantages that come with shared governance. Finding a path forward that draws on the SPU board, senior leadership, faculty governance, student voices, the Seattle community, and alumni can be, well … complicated. And, in this environment, I’m excited by the opportunity to work with Dan to facilitate these conversations in the months ahead. The following is an overview of some of the aspects of the three areas that will be pursued in the coming months.

Strategic Challenges and Opportunities (Autumn 2019–Winter 2020)

Higher education is undergoing significant change. To understand these changes, three steps are important to systematically explore the future. A good first step is to conduct a comprehensive “environmental scan” to explore the demographic, economic, political, technological, pedagogical, societal, and legal trends that are facing SPU. It’s important to consider both the predictable changes (e.g., significantly lower high school graduation rates in six years, an increasingly diverse student body) and the unpredictable changes (e.g., federal/state funding) that could have a significant impact.

Once a comprehensive list of the factors has been identified, the next step is to combine the factors to identify tensions. For example, students arrive at SPU less prepared than they were in the past, requiring more resources and costs to support them, yet inflation-adjusted income for families with children under 18 is down 11 percent since 2000 and cost of living in Seattle for faculty/staff is at an all-time high. Where should SPU spend its money? One of the ways that organizations analyze these tensions is to build scenarios and consider how the organization might deal with each of them. For example, what happens when, with the passage of the Workforce Education Investment Act, many students can attend a Washington state school for free next year? What happens if the economy takes a sharp downturn? What happens if we follow the status quo and continue to increase tuition at 5% every year? Scenarios allow an organization to proactively anticipate the challenges that will be faced in order to identify the underlying capabilities that would allow it to adapt to all of them. Identifying, as a community, a diverse set of scenarios will allow us to think about and prepare for the future.

SPU’s Differentiators (Winter 2020–Summer 2020)

Focusing on just the external challenges and opportunities is dangerous. If only external factors are considered, organizations are tempted to attempt to be “all things to all people.” There is no direction. SPU’s mission is not simply survival. The important question is fit; that is, what is the unique role that SPU is being called to play in God’s kingdom? We serve a God who is all sufficient so our job as a university is to discern the unique role that God has called SPU to play. In organizational language, the question becomes: What is SPU’s value proposition?

Students and their families are investing a significant portion of their current and future income to attend SPU. Given all of the choices before them, what is the unique value that SPU can offer? The answer needs to be both practical (e.g., costs) but also the emotional (e.g., “SPU is a place where I feel like I belong”). Furthermore, a strategy cannot be defined by what an organization is not (e.g., we are not fundamentalist, we are not Christian in name only), but instead must be built on what, or who it is. What is the Good News that SPU can confidently proclaim in a city of the future defined by technology, homelessness, a concern for the environment, and low religiosity?

Given our place, SPU could become a role model for Christian schools across the country, both now and in the future. For example, SPU already is a place where we have conversations about faith and values in ways that couldn’t happen at the University of Washington or Liberty University. What if SPU became the place where students received training for a future career, but that was only the foundation for a life of service? What if SPU was the crossroads (emphasis on cross) where love and challenging conversations were central to everything we do. A critical question for us to answer as a community going forward is how to define that core message that captures our strength and passion in ways that are affordable, accessible, and sustainable.

Catalytic Actions (Winter 2020–Spring 2021)

Exploring the strategic challenges/opportunities facing SPU and identifying our differentiators is not and will not be a quick process. Something needs to happen now. The world is moving too quickly. This is true of every organization today where strategic planning processes always include elements that are iterative — trying things out, seeing what works and what doesn’t, adapting, and trying something new. At Amazon, the phrase they adopted is “fail fast.” Try out a prototype and iterate until you get it right. We are already doing that at SPU. In Bruce Congdon’s provost letter of October 4, he highlighted several initiatives within SPU to increase student success including Early Connections, Ascent, BioCORE Scholars, and an integrated retention strategy among several others.

One area that is critical to SPU’s success is student costs. If students can’t afford to attend SPU, it doesn’t matter how good our programs are. We are missing the opportunity to serve students who may need us the most. Students are increasingly dealing with the costs by starting early with Running Start, AP credits, and community college classes. A large majority of our students are entering with enough credits to start as sophomores. What if SPU became the place to onboard these students? Transfer students, in particular, provide a powerful group to study what it would take to address the underlying dynamics at play. Understanding their experience throughout the process — initial contact, enrollment, onboarding, academic development, retention, and post-graduate careers — would allow us to understand not only their journey but provide insights into both the undergraduate and graduate experiences. As we have seen in recent years, hitting our enrollment numbers directly impacts the resources available to invest across campus. A few years ago, we engaged in a campuswide push to increase student retention and it made a difference. What are the actions we can take individually and as a community to make SPU a place that, within the first 10 minutes of their visit, students want to attend?

There will be other critical strategic directions that will emerge; likely there will be too many! So, another critical element will be identifying the one or two key strategic directions that will be most important in supporting SPU’s mission and developing implementation plans. Which elements will be immediately important and which ones should kept for a future timeline?


A timeline of the work and key outcomes is provided below:

Timeline Step Deliverables/Outcomes
Autumn 2019–Winter 2020
Strategic Challenges and Opportunities: Conduct an environmental scan of external/internal pressures facing the University; create a shortlist of the future scenarios that SPU could face. Identify the key external and internal challenges and opportunities that SPU will face in the coming decade.
Winter 2020–Summer 2020
SPU’s Differentiators: Identify what makes SPU special; that is, what is the unique role that we, as a community, are called to play in God’s kingdom? Move beyond defining what we are not to identify a strong sense of who we are as a community. Identify best internal/ external practices that directly support our mission. Identify the core elements that define who we are and how this can be communicated and lived out in our relationships with students, alumni, and the larger world; identify ways to directly incorporate our core mission more explicitly into everything we do.
Winter 2020–Spring 2021
Catalytic Actions: Study the transfer student experience to identify immediate actions to improve SPU; identify a short list of long-term strategic priorities for the coming decade and implementation plans to achieve them. Identify specific short-term and long-term actions that SPU can take to fulfill our mission now and in the years ahead; build implementation plans that identify the actions and roles the SPU community can take to move forward in the strategic directions identified.

In the coming year, I look forward to working with Dan, the board, SPU leadership, faculty, staff, and the larger SPU community as we discern what God is calling us to do in the decade ahead.