Alcorn State University Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Alcorn State University has released a strategic plan that aims to help the historically Black land grant university “achieve preeminence through transformative teaching and research excellence.” Some faculty and alumni say they wish the plan contained more specific, measurable goals. 

The plan identifies several goals the university would like to accomplish by 2026, such as increasing enrollment and making the U.S. News and World Report’s list of top 20 historically Black colleges and universities. 

The 36-page document also provides an overview of the current challenges that Alcorn and other universities in Mississippi are facing: Facilities instability due to the pandemic, a decline in the number of high school graduates in the next decade, and a “wider variability in the talents of admitted students, their academic preparation for college.” 

Felecia Nave, Alcorn’s president, wrote in a letter that the plan is intended to help the university address these challenges. 

“Alcorn has been transforming the way the world lives, thinks, and learns since 1871,” Nave wrote. “This plan positions us to do that for the next 150 years.” 

Alcorn started developing the plan in December 2020 with support from the Woodward Hines Education Foundation and SmithGroup, a consulting firm. Over the course of a year, SmithGroup helped Alcorn conduct a survey of the university’s strengths and weaknesses that garnered 1,300 responses. Alcorn also held open forums on campus attended by about 370 stakeholders and created an advisory and steering committee, which reworked the university’s mission statement. (When asked how much Alcorn paid SmithGroup, a university spokesperson directed Mississippi Today to file a records request.) 

“During this process, we became aware that our future will be characterized by global connections, filled with diverse peoples and perspectives, and dominated by the fast pace of technological change, especially in learning and teaching,” the report says. 

Strategic plans are meant to serve as high-level guideposts as university administrations make decisions that impact an institution’s future. Strategic plans, now ubiquitous in higher education, are essentially a business approach to leading colleges and universities, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education

Some faculty and alumni told Mississippi Today they wished the strategic plan contained more specifics. The report groups Alcorn’s goals into five broad categories. Each of those categories contain more specific goals like increasing student, faculty and staff diversity by 10% andimplementing a 10-year master plan for campus facilities. 

“I think most of the goals sound great. Many of them I agree with,” one faculty member told Mississippi Today. “My main concern is that the document does not provide really any details about how those goals are going to be achieved in any real, practical sense.” 

A recurring theme in the plan is better engagement and support of faculty.Under the goal “transformation through innovation,” the plan says that Alcorn wants to see a “25% increase in faculty and staff engagement in faculty/staff development.” The plan says that Alcorn will achieve that by establishing “the Office for Faculty Affairs/Center for Faculty Innovation” but does not say how “engagement” will be measured. 

“Where is the money going to come from for that?” asked the faculty member, who requested anonymity because they do not have tenure. “Right now we have no conference/travel funds at all and our library resources/databases are so limited.” 

Faculty have repeatedly asked Nave’s administration for more transparency, and some hoped the strategic plan could provide that. In a memo to Nave and Ontario Wooden, the provost, members of the faculty senate last month addressed their “ongoing concerns about issues that affect the academic integrity (i.e. quality of teaching and learning) on this campus.” 

Specifically, faculty wrote they still do not know the outcome of an accreditation visit in March 2021that was “of direct relevance to us.” Faculty also wrote they have yet to receive a copy of a compensation study that Nave’s office said it would provide in November 2021. 

The memo also said that at the start of the spring 2022 semester, Nave’s administration again canceled classes with low enrollment, including ones that students needed to graduate — an issue faculty members repeatedly raised over the course of the past year. This semester, Nave’s office sought to ensure students could still graduate on time by providing independent study in lieu of the cancelled course, the memo said. But that created more work for some faculty, who were “asked to conduct independent studies for students who need to graduate, with no additional pay.”

The memo recommends that Nave’s administration “cease from relying on an authoritarian, ‘chain-of-command’ style of leadership. Instead, focus on building collaborative relationships with faculty, who are highly educated, intelligent and competent peers/colleagues of members of the administration, with expertise in areas related both to the academic profession and teaching and learning.” 

Editor’s note: Woodward Hines is a financial supporter of Mississippi Today.

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.