Q&A with President Mark Putnam
Why did you and the Senior Leadership Team decide to create the strategic plan?
When I was recruited as president began in 2010, what was presented to me—from the point of view of the search committee and, by extension, the board of trustees—was the need for what they called strategic renewal. At that point Central had completed a fundraising campaign, had created a strategic planning effort, which finished in 2010, and was in one of these moments which happens in the life of an organization where you hit the plateau you intended. The opportunity, which was quite appealing to me, was to be able to work on the themes and ideas that would carry us forward.
That first year, what we called the Inaugural Year, was designed to simply open a lot of conversation on campus through all the various events we had throughout the year. The goal was not to answer anything but to see if we could come up with the right questions.
It was an invitation by the campus for me to come in and begin to listen to them carefully and reflect back all the things that I heard. That’s really where this grew from. Some people have said, “It’s interesting that these are things we’ve talked about for years.” This is typically the case in an organization. It wasn’t as if we had come up with a new idea, necessarily. I think we combined things in interesting ways, teased things out in interesting ways, and as a result, we found these academic initiatives to be really suitable for us. That’s why we started it; it was very much a team effort.
Can you talk about the process of creating the plan over the past two years?
There was a little bit of apprehension on the part of the community about a new president coming in. My predecessor had been here for a little over 12 years, so it had been a while since someone had thought in broader terms.
What we designed from the beginning was a three-year experience. The first year would be the Inaugural Year and the second year the Planning Year. The Planning Year was heavy participation; some people call it the three-ring circus. It was getting everything going and having all these planning teams working together. As we accomplished that work, the third year is the Implementation Year.
We established a process that focused initially on the right questions. Secondly, how do we answer those questions? Then, in the third year, how do we animate our answers to those questions in the life of the community?
I think it gave people enough time to become expansive in their thinking again. If you walk into an organization and indicate you want a plan, people tend to be reductive right away. They have a tendency to reduce and think within the confines of what they understand the organization to be at that point. The work of these years has been to diverge and expand and broaden the kinds of things we have been talking about together as a community.
Is there one aspect of the plan that’s most important?
It would be something that runs through all of it. They are all stars in a constellation. If you name the constellation, it’s the integration of the work of faculty and students, Whether we’re talking about global or undergraduate research or faculty development or interdisciplinary studies, these are all things that are about the core teaching and learning process. That was very much our focus.
This is not a plan principally about facilities. It wasn’t principally about operations, though there are things that have consequence on operations. But the plan was really to ask, “What are we doing as educators?” That, to me, is what runs through the whole of the experience from the civic engagement to the sustainability to the global to how we connect faculty and students in these spaces.
Is there a facet of the plan that particularly speaks to your heart?
In coming into Central, what was very strongly presented to me as a hallmark of the college was the global piece. That Central had this long history of study abroad programs. Thinking about how the international focus would evolve became really key.
What I found is that the global conversation was an entry point for many other conversations. It probably had a certain amount of leverage in helping us think beyond what currently exists and to imagine what doesn’t exist yet.
That’s why I think the global was so foundational. It helped to set our understanding around sustainability in a global context, civic engagement that has a global, broad-minded view, faculty development (as you can see in the programs that have emerged) in global settings. We talk about the health sciences, and global health has been an area that has been specifically evolving in our thinking.
Faculty development opportunities, short-term and long-term programs, Ghana, partnering with another campus in Oman—all of those are ways of not feeling confined, but of giving ourselves permission to think outside of the container that we’ve probably, like any organization, found ourselves in after a number of years working on important things.What I liked about the global as an entry point was that it caused us to push back borders, to say that we’re not bound by the set of things that we have been thinking about for so long. Even within what we’ve traditionally understood to be study abroad, this has been a movement to say: “Global experiential learning partakes of something even bigger.”
Why should alumni be engaged with this plan?
The plan, as I have talked to alumni about it, has a strong resonance with them. The thing that I hear back most often is: “This is everything I think about Central.” That was one of the early questions: Are we actually looking at mission? We may think about ways of articulating our mission differently, but are we talking about fundamentally changing mission? And the answer was no.
There is also the notion of being engaged and involved in the world. Central has carried this for a long period of time. There is so much evidence of Central alumni being engaged in the world—their tendency to volunteer, to be active in community life, to seek and pursue new opportunities.
There’s another thing, too, that I think alumni connect with. There’s this phrase I keep hearing a lot at commencement from parents and from students: “I can’t believe I got to do so many things.”When you’ve got a student who is an athlete, who participates in the arts, who studies abroad, who has a double major or a major/minor, they say, “I can’t believe I got to do so many things.”
That is the most resonant, constant theme I hear from parents and alumni: I just cannot believe the breadth of opportunity that accrued for my son or daughter over the years that they were here.
Alumni should see the things they value most in Central in this plan now refreshed, expanded, renewed in various ways but authentic to the tradition that has been here for decades.
How will the plan improve the ways students study, learn and live at Central?
You see various aspects of the connections between faculty and student. When the plan speaks about pedagogical innovation, that is the notion of having a scholarly community and the work of faculty, which is principally about teaching here. (There’s a lot to do with advising, as well, and we care about their scholarly work because that helps to inform their teaching and engage students in their research and work.) What’s really important about this is the direct connection between those thematic ideas and intentionally facilitating learning, whether in the classroom or the lab or the studio or the field station or wherever it is.
That’s amazing in itself. Now you add the Liberal Arts Seminar, the capstone course that they’re teaching, again in an interdisciplinary way. They come from all different departments, and they’re dedicating courses to be able to carry this forward. It’s stunning. The faculty, while they care deeply about their disciplines and the things they’ve given themselves to, are thinking beyond the scope of their discipline into the overall learning experience of students.
What I find to be the most impressive example of this is that the faculty created the Intersections program. Many people would look at it and say, “Well, it’s a freshman seminar program; most everybody has that.” But not this scale. Not where you have 24 members of the faculty whose departments are actually giving up a course and who are eager to be involved and to teach with somebody else in an interdisciplinary format.
All of that is aligned with the notion that we are learner-centered. I say this to students all the time: We go to many of the same places in life, but we all take different journeys. No experience at Central College is the same as any other. Every experience is unique because students craft their experience in relation to the advising they receive and the kinds of courses they select, how they choose to participate in study abroad, where they take on internships, what their major/minor combinations might be, how they participate in extracurricular activities. Nobody has the same experience, even though we are going through this together.
To me, that is what an academic community is about.
What will Central look like in 10 years?
First of all, some things will be the same. In 10 years, Central will be a liberal arts college that is intentionally residential, has deep roots in the liberal arts tradition and strongly connects faculty and students. Core values are the things that you’re simply not going to compromise on.
We will likely have an increasing blurring between and among disciplines. A lot of the faculty enjoy living at the edges of their disciplines, so that psychology is really interested in biology and biology becomes interested in computer science. All of these different fields begin to interplay with one another.
I think the role of technology will continue to evolve. Textbooks will become increasingly electronic. One of the biggest impacts of MOOCs won’t be on colleges and universities as much as on publishers. MOOCs in the end are about course content, not course delivery.
The advance of technology will continue. Our use of these things will continue to reshape how a classroom is managed, how student learning is facilitated, the ways in which we will use different practice settings and experiential settings and global settings to expand and reinforce learning.
It becomes a different kind of teaching environment that is a lot more about organizing, integrating and facilitating the experience of student learners. But it doesn’t in any way diminish the role of the instructor or faculty member to make that a meaningful learning experience for students in this context.
Because education can’t be one-size-fits-all. We will see more and more pedagogical techniques that are partaking of many different environments and many different delivery mechanisms—from the traditional lecture and marker on the white board to more advanced technologies.
We will see a lot more emphasis over these next 10 years on the importance of student scholarship and student undergraduate research. It’s evidenced in the plan, obviously. It places students in a context where they have to be generative. They are going to be posing a problem or addressing an issue or taking on a task of some kind that will put them in that experiential space that stretches them.
I think our global context in 10 years will evolve into many different platforms.
This becomes less about students from Central or cooperating institutions deciding they’re going to go to Paris. It becomes students—along with partners and faculty and even a broader set of adult education opportunities that may grow into an international framework—taking on short-term and long-term and thematic and multi-site opportunities.
Take a theme like international law or global economics. The University of Leiden, where we have partnership, is probably the leading institution in the world on international law. You’re 45 minutes from Amsterdam, 30 minutes from The Hague and two hours from Brussels.
So you can begin to see these platforms build. You are about 3 hours by train from Paris. And so now you bring in UNESCO. You start to broaden the reach and say: “How do we start to understand some of these global movements in international law and political theory, like how Europe is going to be changing?
These are thematic ideas that might take in multiple sites.
You could also do something in the arts. Paris becomes critically important, as does Vienna, and maybe London. You start thinking about how you can craft experiences for students that will help them, in the same way you do on campus. You consider ways in which they can take advantage of this resource base that we have in order to develop an experience of their own. I think that will be a changing landscape over the next 10 years as we continue to build it.
Anything you want to add?
One of the things to note is that this plan involved a couple hundred people, and we invited a lot of comment and participation from people in our alumni base, as well. We were trying to capture the sense of tradition and innovation. How do we honor Central’s mission and purpose and how do we animate that for the future?
That could only have been done effectively by involving a broad array of people as part of the process. So we are deeply indebted to so many folks on campus and those who by extension were involved in creating ideas and commenting and opening up our thinking to new possibilities. That is the best of an academic community’s work.