Think Big initiative shifts from thought to action

Contact: Erin Flynn
A young man looks off into the distance.

"Western has prepared me to follow my dreams by giving me well-rounded training in all aspects of musical theatre, as well as making sure I am prepared for the business side of performing," says Kobe Brown, a theatre major.

Western Michigan University is not a place to go, it's a place to become. That's the mantra emerging from the Think Big initiative, which is reimagining the University's brand and its promise to students.

"I love the fact that we're trying to differentiate ourselves," says Claire Herhold, a doctoral candidate at WMU studying public history.

That differentiation isn't just about exploring new concepts, says Tony Proudfoot, vice president for marketing and strategic communications. WMU, like institutions across the country, is facing a stark trilogy of challenges: changing demographics, the rising cost of tuition, and the changing nature of work.

The Challenges

Nationwide, the number of public high school graduates is on the decline. It's even worse in Michigan, where high school graduate rates are expected to slide 14% through the year 2031—nearly triple the national average.

"Our enrollment is perfectly correlated with this trend," Proudfoot says. "We must do something different, and we must become more competitive, and break free of demographics being our destiny."

On top of that, the funding structure has dramatically changed for Michigan's public universities. Decades ago, about three quarters of funding came from the state. Today, only about a quarter of a public university's budget is supported by the state—the rest comes from tuition and fees.

Along with that rising financial burden, students are facing a career future that's changing faster than ever before. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, 25% of jobs in the United States are threatened by automation, and 85% of the jobs that will be available in 2030 don't even exist yet.

"A lifetime of change is coming for our students, and we need to prepare them," says Dr. Jennifer Bott, provost and vice president for academic affairs. She highlights the benefits of a liberal arts education in making students better critical thinkers and problem solvers and more effective communicators. "We have the ability to prepare our students to constantly adapt."

The Method

A group synthesizes ideas during an exercise at a Think Big town hall.

The five-phase Think Big process has been far-reaching and intensive, enlisting the expertise and experience of students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members and other WMU stakeholders. More than 6,000 people have participated in various town hall sessions, design groups and surveys since November 2018.

"This is not our work, this is your work," says Proudfoot, who is leading the initiative alongside Bott and Diane Anderson, vice president for student affairs. "We are just the facilitators."

Throughout the process, participants have distilled more than 300 ideas to create a shared vision that encompasses four core values: a WMU student journey will focus on purpose, career and well-being, all rooted in the foundation of flexibility.

The University plans to differentiate itself by making student mental, physical and academic well-being its top priorities. It also aims to increase career preparedness by ensuring that students have an opportunity every year to have an experience they can add to their resume.

Dr. Carla Koretsky, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, works with her design group.

Now that they have direction and the "Big Idea" is taking shape, University leaders are beginning to create plans to put big aspirations into action.

"This part, about what we can do if we realize this promise, is incredible," says WMU President Edward Montgomery. "It can offer us the kind of hope and vision for where we want to go as a University that keeps the things that make Western special and builds on them and delivers them across the educational experience.

"We will become that rare university that is a high-quality research institution that cares about its students and its teaching, about their experience and their growth, and prepares them for the rest of their lives."

Taking Action

There are some plans that are already being developed and implemented in alignment with Think Big.

In fall 2020, the Counseling Services at Sindecuse Health Center will introduce a stepped care model to better address increasing student mental health needs.

"The good news is the stigma of going to the counselor is no longer real; students are fully utilizing our counseling center," says Anderson. "We just need to make sure that we get students the resources they need."

Counseling Services will add four intake counselors to connect students with the most effective and least resource-intensive intervention available for their specific needs.

Another concept expected to launch in fall 2020 is One WMU. It will consolidate centralized career counseling and advising to provide resources to students who have not declared a major or who are transitioning between majors.

"I changed my major in college my senior year," says Herhold. "I wasn't student teaching until my senior year, so I wasn't really in the classroom figuring out if I liked it. I also had an outside job at a museum. Those two components helped me realize I didn't want to be in classroom education. It would have saved a lot of heartache if I would have had those in-classroom or field experiences early on."

One WMU could also involve the creation of "meta-majors" so that students can explore a broader field of study without being locked into a specific major early on.

"One of the things that is very important to this effort is the acknowledgment that exploratory is not a sign of lack of preparation," says Bott. "Our students are uncertain (about their major) and their parents are increasingly okay with that. We need to celebrate that so students can find their passion without having to extend their time here."

What's Next

Now in the fifth and final phase of the Think Big initiative comes the work of developing the creative platform to launch the brand. In this phase, the Think Big team will put the finishing touches on the Big Idea by responding to feedback from town halls and expert reviews and begin implementation and promotion. Phase 5 and the Think Big initiative will conclude with the brand launch at the start of the next school year.