How Swarthmore’s New Strategic Plan Could Better Build Institutional Memory and Accountability

At the end of October, the office of President Val Smith released their current draft of Swarthmore’s next strategic plan entitled “Sustainable Swarthmore”. This plan outlines four broad goals for the college’s future: “build a rigorous and transformative liberal arts education for the 21st century,” “create a community prepared for life in a multiracial, multicultural democracy and the world,” “educate the whole student,” and “renew our campus infrastructure to achieve our strategic goals.” These goals are generally admirable, yet incredibly broad. I would hope their breadth implies a plan that brings real, deliberate, and thoughtful change to this college.

Here’s the problem: the plan suggests no accountability measures between the college administration and the community. Swarthmore College’s last strategic plan is from 2011 — over a decade ago. As an undergraduate institution, our student population almost entirely cycles every four years. While some institutional knowledge is certainly carried on between class years, if the college seriously wants to incorporate student voices into their long-term planning, their plan must create systems by which students, both current and future, can judge for themselves if progress is being made. As it is, the office of the president’s request for the community’s “review and feedback” feels like hollow posturing, especially coming from an administration that is notorious for using the graduation of student organizers as tools for stalling activism and avoiding responsibility.

Broad goals are not inherently bad. In fact, if a once-a-decade plan did not have broad goals, I think it would be right to criticize it for not seeking to do enough. And I do appreciate that these broad goals are broken down into subgoals and specific action items. Yet, almost all of these action items have no clear finish line. To “prioritize community health and wellbeing,” the plan aims to “review and develop policies and practices that advocate for and prioritize a campus-wide culture of health and wellness.” While I find nothing objectionable about either the goal or action itself, how will we know when it has been done? When can we, as a community, point to a policy the college has implemented and celebrate that this part of the plan has been implemented successfully? Never. This item, just like most of those on the plan, is inherently immeasurable.

Even the few more concrete elements of the plan have this same problem. The college hopes to “admit an annual cohort of up to 20-25 transfer students from community colleges.” Here, at least, one day we will be able to tell if this has been implemented. Yet, “When?” becomes the key question. Again, we are talking about a decade-long plan being presented to a four-year student body. If a current first-year student asks President Smith when they graduate in 2027, “Where’s the cohort of community college transfers?”, she can simply reply that it is still being implemented. And, in over a decade, when the next strategic plan is released, who will be around to ask the question?

So then, let’s try to solve this problem of the future by looking to the past. Clearly, some parts of the plan — as many as possible I would say — should be adjusted to allow the community to judge success. The college should put deadlines and promises of regular progress updates on as many action items as possible. While I understand that a broad, long-term, plan must include items that remain vague, and there are issues that require careful study before specific action can be taken, this vagueness cannot preclude good-faith transparency. Let us call on the college to give regular reports on all parts of the plan and how they are currently seeing them implemented and what parts are currently not under implementation and why. And, as a way of building trust with a community which has long felt unheard by its administration, the college should begin by returning to its 2011 plan and giving current students a report on what was promised, what was done, and, importantly, humbly admitting where it failed. The college must be responsible for its past and build that accountability into its future.

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