A bold future together
With the launch of a new strategic plan, the next chapter in Western’s future takes shape
By Kris Dundas, BA’94, MA’95
Photo by Andrew Campbell
Following months of consultation, Western has released its new strategic plan, Towards Western at 150. President Alan Shepard sat down with Kris Dundas, BA’94, MA’95, to discuss the plan and what it means for the university.
One of the key goals in the plan is to ‘grow strategically’. Why is growth important for Western?
Western is a strong institution with superb resources, brilliant faculty, strong staff, and among the best students in the world. We also have the fiscal resources, a beautiful campus and excellent facilities.
There’s a strong correlation between the size of an institution and the amount of impact it can possibly have. It’s particularly true in Canada, where funding models are tied to the size of the institution. It follows if you want to have more impact then you need to grow. At Western, we need to grow our research, scholarship and creative activity. To do that, we need to grow faculty and staff complements along with funding and facilities. Then we need to grow our student body, while providing the supports they need to thrive. Students then graduate and engage with Western as alumni, partners and life-long learners around the world. All of this contributes to impact.
In the midst of, and now coming out of, a pandemic – why was this the right time to create a new strategic plan?
There was a pent-up hunger to think about Western’s future, and there was an eagerness not to wait. Although we delayed planning by about six months, there was strong interest in moving ahead and not letting the pandemic distract us from our longer-term vision.
You chaired a 36-person strategic planning steering committee. Why was a group with broad representation like this so important?
The committee had a strong balance of students, staff and faculty, and representation from the Board and Senate, and senior administrators. We wanted a broad-based group that would represent the Western community’s ideas, visions, and concerns. The group was extremely collaborative and forward-looking, and we had lots of productive debate.
And when the members of this group conducted the nearly 100 consultations with the larger Western community, the facilitators were from the group we were consulting with. They were from their faculty, they were fellow students – there was a simpatico element to that.
In general, what are your impressions of Western’s research strengths and potential moving forward?
We’re a large, complex institution and we have dozens of strengths. We have some that have received a lot of attention historically – areas in which we are still strong.
But I want to be careful going forward. We certainly need to make investments right across the board, but to keep all of our areas as strong as they can be, we’re going to need to make some ‘super’ investments in areas where we think we have a chance to really stand out internationally.
It’s also important to have balance. Some of these areas are of great importance today, and some will be critically important for the future. We’re trying to balance between, for example, fundamental research and applied research, between a technology-driven view of the world, and an arts and humanities view of the world, and so forth.
There are many different kinds of contributions that can be made in research, teaching and service to the public good. And they all matter.
There has been a lot of discussion about online teaching and learning during the pandemic. What have we learned that can be applied long term?
We’ve learned we can pivot from face-to-face to online. We’ve also learned, that for most of us, online is a supplement and not the primary model for learning.
Online learning will likely emerge more strongly in continuing studies or life-long learning, where people are past traditional university age, perhaps raising families, working full-time or have other circumstances that limit their ability to devote themselves to full-time study or to be in London.
For undergraduates, we’ve learned online work is supplemental to, and not replacing, face-to-face instruction and engagement. Much of what you learn happens in a classroom, but a lot happens in the libraries, labs, studios, with friends, with instructors in their offices or in the hallways. Throughout the pandemic, we have been craving and missing that.
Enriching the student experience is an important part of this plan. What might that look like?
The student experience at Western is already strong and, of course, our hope is that we protect what’s great about it and continue to build on it. The new strategic plan calls for new investments in career advising and development, and in experiential learning opportunities. These experiences are meaningful and we know students deeply value them.
The notion that Western is still a face-to-face, residentially intensive university means we need to continue to invest in the physical structures of the university to support the student experience. For example, we’re building a new fieldhouse, where students can run and play soccer in the winter months.
The plan also calls for new investments in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). That includes access for marginalized groups and first-generation students – those who may not come from privileged backgrounds and who, historically, might not have considered coming to Western.
That leads nicely to the second theme of the plan, which is about people, community and culture. You mentioned EDI – what did the committee hear from the community on this specifically?
We’ve heard the Western community is ready for – and I would say demands – greater institutional attention to EDI.
We also heard about demands for greater attention to sustainability, which might seem at first blush to be unrelated. But it’s actually quite related because it’s all about social justice.
We found a strong interest in social justice, broadly, and in developing a strong institutional focus on combating structural inequities in our society and in university education, specifically.
The third theme area is about Western’s place in the world. There are strong commitments to London and region in the plan. In a global world, why are local connections so important?
The previous strategic plan called for internationalization and a lot of progress was made on that front. Western went from roughly two percent international students to 14 percent today. That’s important because all universities with great impact are magnets for students to come from around the world.
This plan calls for a renewal of that emphasis on internationalization, with a goal of achieving a 20 percent target for international students. What’s important about this is that you create a blend of domestic students and international students who learn from each other, who might represent different economic systems, different religious faiths, different ways of seeing the world, different languages. They’re all coming together to build their own lives, but also to help build Canada and the world.
At the same time, it’s critical to remember that Western operates in a particular place – London, Ontario – and that we want to do public good locally as well as nationally. The community has a huge amount to offer us, and we have a lot to offer as well.
During the strategic plan consultations, the committee heard a lot about innovation. Why is innovation important to Western?
All universities need innovation.
We’ve started a new program in data strategy and a certificate and degree programming in data analytics is emerging. That’s just one example. As the world changes, Western needs to change with it and, when we can, be leaders in that change.
Interdisciplinary academic programs are especially appealing to our students. We have a new climate change program that integrates science, social science and the humanities, an ideal example of interdisciplinary work in which a student could study in four or five different departments. Not 20 courses in a single discipline, but much more kaleidoscopic, personalized programs of study where students can put together their own programs that dovetail with their academic interests and their sense of the future for themselves and for the world.
The more you get people invested in their own education and making those choices, the more meaningful their experience and engagement will be.
Alumni contributed to the strategic planning consultation process – what role do they play in helping Western achieve the goals in the plan?
Alumni bring with them their education, their skill set, their experiences, but also the sense of the reputation of the institution. After they complete their degree, they continue to be part of our ecosystem. As that ecosystem gets stronger and stronger, and alumni are more nationally and internationally engaged, everybody wins. It’s good for alumni to have Western be strong; it’s good for Western to have our alumni be strong.
Our alumni have gone on to great careers, and commitments of volunteer roles and leadership in many different arenas. There’s a circularity to that system in which their achievements and their successes help build Western and Western helps build the next generation of alumni citizens.
Are there any other important aspects of the plan that you wish to touch on?
I want to talk about entrepreneurship. We want innovation in curricula and degree programs, but we also need change outside the curriculum.
Not only will we make new investments in career advising and getting people ready for life beyond university, but also, we will teach them some interesting ways of seeing the world around entrepreneurship, including social entrepreneurship. As a university we want to serve the public good – our students are eager to do the same when they graduate.
In the end, what will it take to ensure this plan is successful?
This plan reflects not only what the Western community told us was important to them, but I also think it anticipates where postsecondary education is headed. At the end of the day it will be the students, faculty, staff and alumni that have made Western a special place to learn and work that will make all the difference. We need everyone to embrace the plan. To bring their ideas, their intellect, their creativity and an open mind. As a collective, if we can harness all that energy, we will be successful.