Notes from the President

Chris Gray, Ph.D. | Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania

When I was in high school, it was all the rage to talk about the importance of a five- and a ten-year plan. You simply had to have clear and articulable goals, and I think I was asked where I saw myself in five years at every single job interview I attended. This was around the time that Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People first took the world by storm, and everyone was working to “begin with the end in mind” as Covey advised. Working on a Strategic Plan for a new college feels like we should already have an end in mind, but in fact, we focus instead on what we chose first: our mission. Our job from that moment on has been to bring this mission to life and embody its principles in all that we do. Strategic planning is an important step down this path.

As I write, EC3PA is beginning the process of creating the College’s first Strategic Plan. A strategic plan is an important document that codifies an institution’s core mission, vision, and values. The strategic plan lays out the most important initiatives or goals for the College for the foreseeable future. As we work to solidify these ideas, I hope to spend some time discussing what exactly a strategic plan is, explaining the process of how a strategic plan engages stakeholder groups, and finally, imagining how the strategic plan will be used to shape the formation and growth of EC3PA.

Let’s start with the most straightforward element: what is a strategic plan? Generally speaking, a strategic plan starts with a review of the College’s mission, vision, and values. Since EC3PA is so new, our strategic planning process will allow us to review the mission statement and to create the vision and value statements that flow from that mission. We are looking to create a vision and values that embody the principle tenets of our mission. Our Board of Trustees adopted EC3PA’s first mission statement in 2020, which reads as follows:

“The mission of the Erie County Community College of PA is to provide increased access to higher education for the people of Erie County, Pennsylvania, to assist them in achieving their educational goals, to provide a competent workforce for area employers, and to increase both the baccalaureate and associate degree holders in Erie County.”

Mission statements outline the core beliefs and functions of what the institution is and what the institution does. Perhaps the most famous and profoundly simple of all mission statements is the NYPD’s iconic “To protect and to serve.” This example makes it clear that the NYPD aims to protect and serve the communities they protect through policing. Similarly, EC3PA’s mission outlines that we will provide education, workforce development, and degree attainment!

Hidden in EC3PA’s mission are some of the values; the mission statement mentions accessibility, achievement, competent workforce, and proliferation of associate and baccalaureate degrees. While I think I understand what these values are and what the College hopes to accomplish with them, explicitly stating the value and describing exactly what it means in-depth will help the College build programming and services to directly meet that intent. For example, “increased access” could mean access to more associate degrees in students’ hands, or it could refer to increased access for those that are place-bound, or it could even apply to those who have financial challenges. It could mean all of these and more, actually, because there is some linguistic ambiguity in the words “increased access.” Having explicit value statements will allow EC3PA to be very clear about what the intent of these values is.

Along with the mission and values, strategic planning allows institutions to create and share vision statements. At their core, vision statements are really an expression of how the institution hopes to see itself in the future. For example, you’ll see vision statements that will talk about being the premiere provider, industry leader, regional award winner, or national benchmark of some industry sector; there is always some element of aspiration involved when thinking about vision. It’s a mark to be reached and an embodiment of excellence. Those recognition-based vision statements may be appropriate for certain organizations, but I suspect that EC3PA’s will describe more of a functional or operational standard rather than a strictly aspirational one as we have only just completed our first semester of work. When examined in combination, the mission, vision, and values give shape and form to the beliefs and norms of the organization.

Importantly, strategic plans also set goals and help shape the work that the institution will do. For example, the office of the Director of Administration for Erie County has as one of its office goals to “Improve operational efficiency and reduce waste by each department developing and implementing an action plan under the leadership and direction of the County Executive and Director of Administration.” These goals give clear direction to the staff about the ways in which they should be operating.

Strategic Plans are ultimately Board of Trustee documents. The plans have the weight of marching orders given by the Board to the president or CEO, who then uses the plans to build budgets, hire personnel, and implement programming to accomplish the goals. This is an important distinction: the Board sets the direction, and the administration is charged with executing the plan. However, all parties are involved in creating a strategic plan. In planning, we often make reference to stakeholder groups, those groups of people who have a vested interest in the function of the organization. For EC3PA, those groups are widespread. The Board of Trustees is the pinnacle group as they have the legal authority and obligation to establish policy, provide financial oversight, and employ a President who is then charged with overseeing all operations. Along with the trustees, the students, faculty, and staff are also critical stakeholder groups as they work daily within the organization. That said, there are so many other important groups that touch upon the work that EC3PA does. Those groups include our K-12 partners, receiving institutions, faith-based partners, business and industry partners, county government, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Erie County taxpayers, social organizations, economic development partners, and others.

The College has engaged Dr. Angela Long to lead EC3PA through the creation of its first strategic plan. Dr. Long is a recognized scholar of community colleges and experienced in planning and preparing community colleges for 21st-century challenges. Dr. Long will be working with the various stakeholder groups over the next few months to prepare EC3PA’s first strategic plan.

Once our Board of Trustees approves and adopts EC3PA’s strategic plan, my work as president begins. Most likely, the strategic plan will establish some aspirational goals. For example, commonly among community college strategic plans, we see a goal that says something to the effect of “develop curricula that leads to jobs.” That is a lofty goal that involves many other steps and will likely take years. So, from this type of strategic plan goal, I would expect that the College will then develop operational goals, strategies, and tactics that will help us to achieve the larger goal. Using the increased curricula example, a number of strategies could emerge, such as a needs assessment for local employment, a review of current programming, and the charge to have certain programs approved by the Board of Trustees by a designated date. Even at this level, the strategies can be broken down to units which are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound). The SMART goals hold us, the employees of the college, accountable for achieving the Board’s strategic goals. These become the working backbone of how the college will function and how it will allocate its resources.

This process sounds complex and overwhelming, and it is, but it will also be critical to giving EC3PA a clear and focused path forward as we continue to develop. Many of you, as readers of this blog, are stakeholders of the college and may be called upon in the coming months to provide input and/or feedback on our strategic plan as it is being created. After engaging the various stakeholders and taking stock of our current college operations, we hope to present the Board of Trustees with a draft in March or April of 2022. If approved, my team will then quickly begin to develop the associated operational plan and begin to immediately work to achieve the Board’s strategic goals.

Circling back to my personal commitment to student success, it’s important to note that all of this high-level planning and strategizing occurs because we want to do our very best to help our students achieve their educational goals. As we continue to build this plane while flying it, we do so with them first and foremost in our minds. Having a clear strategy that keeps students at the forefront is crucial to E3PA’s forward momentum.