Higher Education Strategy Associates

Radical Recovery at Trent

Most of you probably don’t habitually read other institutions’ academic plans, but consider making an exception for this one. “Radical Recovery at Trent” is easily the most interesting strategy document written at a Canadian university in the last three years.

Pursuing strategy at universities is tough. Real strategy means building on strengths, which in turn means being able to say that you as an institution are better at some things than others. But, too often, when a university stands up and says it is really good at (say) marine biology, faculty members in the rest of the university have a sulk along the lines of “so you’re saying the rest of us aren’t any good?” This in turn creates significant political pressure for blandness and stasis. For instance, about 18 months ago, one prestigious Ontario institution (which shall remain nameless) issued a strategy document which claimed that the university had two real strengths. One was “research.” The other was “teaching.”

Seriously. And that took them six months.

Anyway, back to Trent. “Radical Recovery” starts with a bang. Acknowledging the institution’s very high labour costs, it stated bluntly that “without a dramatic increase to enrolment, or a radical restructuring of our instructional delivery models, or a radical rethinking of our capital expenditures, or a high caliber revenue generating unit, Trent University will remain unsustainable.” Boom! Fiscal realism!

That’s followed up by some clear-eyed thinking about what’s financially sustainable and what’s not: and having one-third of your undergraduate courses with less than 20 students goes in the “not” category (and probably would even if Trent weren’t carrying such high labour costs). Boom! Enrolment floors based on something resembling cost control!

Then there’s some fresh thinking about the relationship between academics and marketing. Most importantly, there is a recognition that a few clear academic priority areas need to be emphasized. As a result, they have designated four areas to be of a “signature” nature: sustainability and environment, Canadian studies and indigenous studies, life and health sciences, and critical cultural inquiry.

One could quibble about the wisdom of these four, of course; one is too broad and a second meaningless to anyone outside the academy. What’s impressive, though, is simply that a cross-institutional committee came up with a single set of priorities in just a few months. Many universities can’t do that at all.

It’s not a perfect document by any means. It has a surfeit of priorities; a shorter, punchier report would probably have had more impact. Still, with this process, Trent reflected honestly on its situation and decided to make meaningful changes as a result. That’s all too rare, and it’s why “Radical Recovery” deserves a readership outside Peterborough.

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