Union College eyes community liaison in 5-year strategic plan

Plan also calls for programming around major issues, an emphasis on financial aid and squeezing more learning into student downtime
Union College President David R. Harris before cutting a cake celebrating a new strategic plan..
Union College President David R. Harris before cutting a cake celebrating a new strategic plan..

SCHENECTADY — Union College is looking to “transcend disciplinary boundaries” and “reimagine the curriculum” as college officials roll out a new five-year strategic plan.

The new plan, which the Board of Trustees affirmed last weekend, is the culmination of work started when Union President David Harris took charge of the college in July 2018 and outlines a vision of what the college plans to focus on in the coming years.

The plan also eyes the creation of a staff position to serve as a liaison with the broader Schenectady and Capital Region community, coordinating volunteer, intern and other opportunities on campus and serving as a point person for community groups looking to work with Union.

“There are already Union students all over Schenectady and the Capital Region, but it’s not well coordinated across the school,” Harris said during a Tuesday interview. “There’s no one with responsibility, the Kenney Center has some of it, Greek Life office has some of it, athletics have some of it, individual classes have some of it, but there’s not coordination.”

Harris said the liaison could be an existing staff person who is liberated from other responsibilities or an altogether new position. He said he hopes to have at least a temporary solution for the liaison position within the next six months. 

The plan, which Harris described as “both revolutionary and evolutionary,” aims to leverage Union’s strengths as a liberal arts college with strong engineering and science programs, while also expanding the ways the college strengthens student life skills outside of the classroom. One section of the plan calls for the college to develop campus-wide initiatives that “address a series of big questions and grand challenges.”

Harris said the college, for instance, may pick a major theme for a school year that would serve as a framework for hosting speakers and seminars as well as guide the development of courses and student programs. The college could devote a year to climate change, gun violence or questions of identity, Harris said as examples.

“While you are taking these courses, there’s value in collectively engaging some of the big issues of our day,” he said. “It’s a way of bringing the campus together on these big questions while they’re involved in this range of liberal education.”

The plan acknowledges and outlines the challenges facing Union and colleges across the country: a shrinking number of high school graduates, continued public questioning of the ever-increasing costs of college and a broad challenge to the value of truth-seeking and academic institutions.

“These are interesting times in higher education,” Harris said.

Emphasizing Union’s position as a traditional residential college, Harris pointed to the fact that students spend just about half of their time either on academics or sleeping, leaving many students with hours of unused time that could be used to build skills and knowledge.

“If you deliver on the full potential of being a residential college, then you ask yourself, ‘How can we help students use some, not all, some of that 49 percent of discretionary time to build on the things they learn in class but also to develop competencies, like resilience, for example, that will help them as they go through their lives?’”

The strategic plan also focuses on increasing the socioeconomic diversity of Union students, increasing donations earmarked for student financial aid, boosting that aid for families who can’t afford to cover the costs financial aid formulas say they should cover and ensuring students can afford to take full advantage of what Union offers while at school.
“It’s not just tuition, room and board,” Harris said. “There are other costs that you confront in college that if you can’t pay those costs you don’t have a full Union experience.”

The plan specifically calls for expanding the college’s new Making U Possible initiative, which aims to raise money to support students on campus who need help paying for activities and other campus opportunities that come at a cost above and beyond tuition and housing. Harris said over 100 incoming freshmen were given funding under the new program to participate in the college’s pre-orientation program.

“We need to make sure this great institution is a place that everyone who comes here can achieve to their full potential,” Harris said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County


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