Harnessing the future
By Lisa Strandberg
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes it takes a thousand words – or many, many thousands – to bring that picture into focus. Just ask the divisional vice presidents, staff and faculty members who are talking at length to develop St. Norbert’s new five-year master plan.
Since spring they’ve gathered almost monthly under the guidance of architectural firm Performa Inc. to envision together the future of St. Norbert. Many entered the process expecting it to yield a diagram of tomorrow’s campus, and indeed it will. But the group is aware there’s more to a master plan than a picture on an easel.
“There’s kind of a stereotype of what a master plan should be, and most people immediately visualize a drawing,” says Performa CEO Jeff Kanzelberger. “But a drawing is a by-product of something more important.”
That something, according to President Tom Kunkel, is the institution’s long-term sense of direction and purpose.
“Like any big organization, we spend most of our time navigating from day to day and dealing with the issues of the moment,” Kunkel says. “To be doing your job, you have to step back and say: ‘Yeah, we’re steering the ship, but in what direction are we steering it? Are we heading toward the port that’s appropriate for the institution?’”
Charting a course in today’s educational environment is a marked challenge, according to Eileen Jahnke (Business & Finance), who co-chairs the master planning committee with Jeff Frick (Academic Affairs).
“We’re looking at trends in higher ed and what we see there. What we know is that it’s rapidly changing,” Jahnke says.
Staying on the leading edge of those changes while stewarding the college’s existing assets is the goal of master planning, says Bridget Krage O’Connor ’93 (Enrollment Management and Communications). But in a 21st century environment, sans crystal ball, the focus is on the next five years and on ensuring that the campus real estate – physical and virtual – develops in a flexible manner that places a premium on adaptability, with aesthetics also front-of-mind.
“This is not your parents’ master plan. It’s not about acquiring more land or building more buildings. It’s planning about where the college’s strategic plan and its optimal enrollment plan meet what’s going on in the marketplace in higher education today,” says O’Connor.
“How do we align our physical space and, at the same time, take advantage of the rapid advances in technology, to enhance our St. Norbert experience? We have a beautiful riverfront campus that really exemplifies community, and that’s wonderful. Now how do we capitalize on that? How do we ensure we build upon that beauty so it continues to become even more special?”
The student voice
Of course, colleges don’t become great without attracting top-notch students. And those students expect a much different college experience than did their parents or grandparents – a salient point in master planning.
Primary among student expectations are evolving ideas about where and how they will live – ideas with considerable facilities implications. “Most of our students maybe never shared a bedroom with a brother or sister when they were growing up. This is a generation different from the generations that have gone before,” Kunkel says.
Today’s students also have been steeped in technology since birth and reflexively use mobile devices for everything from communication to study to shopping to entertainment. They are primed to flourish under full-spectrum pedagogy – an approach to learning that exploits a range of methodologies, from the tried- and-true to those made possible by the newest technologies. That adds a very fluid layer to the master plan’s many strata.
“We’ve always thought of master planning as being physical – the bricks and the mortar – but in this day we need to also be looking at the non-physical, if you will – the digital master plan,” says Drew Van Fossen (Office of Communications).
The master planning committee’s response to both these dimensions depends on two critical words. Says Jahnke: “We need our residential experience to be adaptable and flexible. We need our classrooms to be adaptable and flexible. We need our technology to be adaptable and flexible.”
To those two words, Kunkel adds a third: affordable. “Everything about what the college does has to be done with the notion of keeping costs as low as possible so that we can keep tuition increases to a minimum and keep college affordable.”
A strategic approach
Using the college’s physical resources wisely calls for a laser focus on the college’s strategic plan. Both the annually updated strategic plan and the college’s optimal enrollment plan have played a central role in the master planning process.
“A successful master plan is really a physical expression of the college’s strategic plan,” says Jahnke.
Kanzelberger points to the landmark arch on Baer Mall to illustrate the connection between strategic aims and facilities planning. In the ’90s, alumni research suggested that of all the places on campus, Main Hall most meaningfully symbolized St. Norbert College for the vast majority of graduates.
“So we’re working on the master plan at the time, and we’re saying, ‘Hey, if 99 percent of the alums visualize Main Hall as the image that is burned in their minds, we need to make sure it becomes a focal point,” Kanzelberger says.
The subsequent construction of the arch, he adds, “basically just put a giant bull’s-eye on Main Hall. That made it, if you will, the character centerpiece to the campus.”
That particular project wasn’t driven by a need for an arch or a need for a mall. It was driven by a need to highlight and preserve a stirring, inviolable symbol of the college.
That, Kanzelberger says, is the point of melding the master plan with the strategic plan: “It’s not buildings, per se. It’s ‘What is it that the institution is trying to achieve, and how can buildings get behind it and support it?’ Buildings are not in front of it, driving it.”
Master planning of this sort calls for involvement from all college constituencies. Says master-planning participant Joy Pahl (Business Administration), “They certainly take every relevant viewpoint into consideration when we’re talking about the various projects and possibilities.”
The process also requires committee members to look beyond their personal and departmental aspirations. “I think everybody pretty much brought their agenda, and we’ve had to throw our agendas out and instead focus on strategic planning,” says the Rev. Jay Fostner, O.Praem., ’84 (Mission and Student Affairs).
That takes time and vision, Kunkel says. “You have to pull together a lot of people. You have to reconcile a lot of ideas. You have to put your institution in the context of where you’ve been. It is very challenging, but there’s probably no more important part of administering an organization than planning your future.”