The Saint Joseph's College Strategic Plan:

An interview with President Joe Lee

Imagine Saint Joseph’s College in 2015. That’s just what the steering committee, goal committees and the entire campus community involved in creating the Strategic Plan did over the past year. Keeping that vision of the college in mind, we charted the course of its future over the coming five years. I want to thank the entire community and Board for the many hours they gave to this significant project. I am extremely pleased with the results, as Saint Joseph’s now has a plan that shows a clear path to an even stronger future. All institutions must embrace change, even as they adhere to their original mission. Saint Joseph’s is no different. With this Strategic Plan, we celebrate who we have always been and address the changes we need to make.

(Because of the broad scope of the Strategic Plan, this interview covers only major themes and strategies. The full plan is online at www.sjcme.edu/strategicplan).

collage of photos from campus

What is the top goal listed in the Strategic Plan?

Because Saint Joseph’s is tuition driven, our first major goal addresses the need to grow our on-campus enrollment from roughly 1,000 students up to 1,200 students. As demographics in Maine and New England have shifted over the last 10 years, the enrollment landscape has changed. Right now, 57 percent of our students are from Maine, but the pool of high school graduates in the state has decreased over the past several years and will continue to do so. Another 40 percent of our students are from other New England states, and the region’s number of high school graduates has decreased in number as well.

How does the Strategic Plan propose to enroll more students?

One way is that we will increase the number of transfer students. We are beginning to sign articulation agreements with two-year colleges and will continue to do that over the next several years. The economic downturn drove many students to enroll at two-year community colleges, and they will need the nurturing environment St. Joe’s provides as they continue their education to the bachelor’s degree. Boosting the number of transfer students will make a world of difference in our ability to grow.

“More and more we have begun to think as a college that offers a collaborative synergy between on-campus and online programs.”

We’ll also cultivate new markets, particularly Catholic high schools in Massachusetts, southern New England and the New York City area. We need to encourage seniors from these areas to visit campus and meet our faculty. Once they do that, they love St. Joe’s.

A third major way to meet our enrollment goal is to improve on retention of existing students. Our Academic Center does an excellent job in supporting students, but we will boost institutional research, including market surveys, to target retention issues. 

What is the role of branding and promotion in reaching the enrollment goal?

Branding is crucial. It will help us clearly define our college identity and also show us how to strategically promote that identity. A comprehensive branding study will be money well spent, as it can boost enrollment and help us raise money. There’s a reason it’s at the top of the strategy list for the enrollment goal. We offer an excellent product, but more people need to know about us and what we offer.

“In five years, who we are shouldn’t change a great deal because we don’t want to lose what makes us special, the essence of what St. Joe’s is. But we should be a little larger.”

The enrollment goal also addresses the online division of the college, correct?

Yes, we want to increase the number of online students from 1,700 to 2,100. We’ll be looking at branding and promotion, the market strength of various curricula and creating a graduate education task force. But a key concept here is that we have begun to think of ourselves as a college that can offer synergy between on-campus and online programs. In general, we create win-win situations when we think critically and creatively about new ways to do things that benefit the student.

One example is to let on-campus seniors take online graduate courses that count toward both their bachelor’s degree and their master’s degree here at St. Joe’s. We’ve begun to offer that to senior nursing majors, who by taking online courses can do their class work anywhere, anytime and still fit in their clinical hours smoothly. At the same time, they begin to see how our online graduate programs work and benefit their career. We plan to use these same models for theology and accounting, and we will also explore creating new hybrid majors, where some courses are online and some are on campus.

The second major goal in the Strategic Plan speaks to attaining greater financial stability. What’s the biggest step in doing that?

At small private schools like St. Joe’s, it’s critical to build the endowment and increase annual giving to reduce tuition dependence. Our percentage of tuition dependency is 94% and we need to get that down closer to 85%. We have always operated the college to ensure financial stability and have consistently operated in the black for more than a decade. Now our goal is to increase the endowment by $5 million within the next five years (bringing it to $15 million), primarily through making potential donors aware of planned giving options. We will develop a vibrant planned giving program and have recently expanded our Institutional Advancement staff to include a major and planned gifts position. We are also developing ways to get alumni more involved with giving to their alma mater annually. Our goal is to increase annual fundraising from all sources – including generous alumni – to $1.5 million per year.

What are other ways to lessen tuition dependence listed in the plan?

We have a magnificent campus, magnificent facilities and magnificent staff. We will explore how to bring more people here in the summer for conferences, seminars and other activities. Maximizing use of our facilities is a golden opportunity to become less tuition dependent, yet sustain our educational mission. The goal is to generate 10 percent of our annual budget from these non-academic sources. In addition, we will explore establishing a new conference center that would produce income through offering corporate training, while providing needed meeting and exhibit space for students, faculty and staff.

How does the plan address our Catholic identity?

Our Catholic identity is addressed in the very front of the Strategic Plan because it is the preamble to all that we do. Going forward, we will continue to honor and incorporate our Catholic identity in many tangible and very visible ways. By 2012, the centennial year of the college’s founding, we will already have realized some of the goals in our Strategic Plan – goals that are designed to perpetuate the life of Saint Joseph’s College into its second century and carry on the tradition of academic excellence established by the Sisters of Mercy in 1912.

What does the Strategic Plan say about academics?

The learning outcomes of our academic programs – liberally educated graduates who are prepared for professional careers – are tied directly to assessment, which in turn flows from our mission. The Office of Academic Affairs has taken the lead in establishing a culture of assessment across campus. A great number of faculty members helped to establish a set of 10 outcomes for both on-campus students and online students, and we will make sure we deliver those outcomes through continual assessment.

We also will explore ways to increase the flexibility of the academic program to accommodate enrollment goals and provide more individualized programs such as double majors, out-of-classroom opportunities, and joint teaching efforts. In addition, we will enhance service learning options, which build student leaders, retain the best students, and help to make students successful graduates.

“The Strategic Plan is not meant to be a static document, something that we develop and are slaves to – or worse, put on a shelf. It is meant to be a living, breathing plan that we revisit every year.”

In the online arena, we will assess how to expand corporate educational partnerships, whereby we customize curricula or provide CEU opportunities for companies or organizations. We will explore use of hybrid courses, webinars and online “classrooms” to accomplish this goal.

What does the Strategic Plan say about our physical plant?

We will revisit and update the Master Plan of 2006. Some of the projects in that plan, like constructing new labs for sciences and nursing, are of an immediate nature, but beyond that we’ll reassess building plans that we anticipated in 2006 before the economic downturn. In terms of our infrastructure, we will be looking at all renewal and deferred maintenance needs with an eye for improved energy conservation. I signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment a year ago, and we are doing everything that we can to conserve energy and embrace sustainable practices. So when we build new buildings, or do renovations, we want to look at all possible alternative and sustainable energy options.

What about the role of technology?

We will create a single, integrated technology infrastructure by developing two key committees to strategically tackle the platform and technology standards, identify funding sources, and related issues. The biggest item in the budget over the next 3-5 years will be for technology – hardware, software and “peopleware.” We need our teaching resources, databases, web site and more to be as technologically current as possible. Though costly, technology is critical to our success. If we don’t stay current, we undermine education, recruitment, fundraising, marketing – and just about everything we do.

What is the final major goal in the Strategic Plan?

Our biggest asset is our faculty and staff, and we wanted to acknowledge that in the Strategic Plan. The goal states that in order to retain and attract good people, we want to pay them a just and fair wage. We also know that respected, accountable and engaged employees are more productive.

How would you summarize what the Strategic Plan addresses?

Our biggest challenge, enrollment, is also our biggest opportunity. As we engage alumni, friends and trustees to increase our financial resources, we must brand and promote the college effectively to target our markets. We must also operate more efficiently, continually identify the strength of our programs, and evaluate where we may need to make accommodations in resources and programming. In the end, even as we try to increase the number of students and the funds we have to spend, we must deliver quality education.

In five years, who we are shouldn’t change a great deal because we don’t want to lose what makes us special, the essence of what St. Joe’s is. But we should be a little larger. Is it easier to operate financially if we have more students? Absolutely. And I think we can do that if we plan growth carefully, maximizing transfer students, our campus facilities and the strong academic infrastructure we already have in place, both on campus and online.

One thing I would like to point out as we finish this interview is that the Strategic Plan is meant to be a living, breathing plan that we revisit every year. It is not a static, rigid document – or worse, one we put aside on a shelf somewhere. Will we make changes to the plan? Yes. But will we have the plan as a guiding document and accomplish many of the major objectives just as they are? Yes.