Strengthening JWU

Strengthening JWU

A look back as we move forward
JWU Magazine Winter 2011 Feature Strengtherning JWU


By Piya Sarawgi ’94, ’02 MBA and Gregory Distefano

Johnson & Wales University’s growing international reputation as a leader in career education has always been tied to the strength of its unique educational approach and the quality of its industry-relevant programs. Continually improving the student experience inside and outside the classroom, while strategizing for the future, however, takes considerable long-term vision and planning, an area in which the university also excels. As JWU approaches its centennial in 2014 and completes its current five-year strategic plan, FOCUS 2011, Tom Dwyer, JWU vice chancellor and executive vice president, offers his insights on the university’s history of academic, financial and operational planning. This “business of education” allows JWU to continually deliver on its promise of a world-class career education while strengthening its foundation and global reputation.

Dwyer, who leads the strategic planning process for JWU, jokes that when he joined the institution in 1978, the budget was tallied on the back of an envelope. “Johnson & Wales built its reputation on being entrepreneurial and opportunistic,” he says. “A lot of what occurred in the school’s first 75 years we’re benefitting from today. But there wasn’t a lot of formalized planning. It just wasn’t part of the higher education landscape at the time.”

But as JWU matured, it came time to formalize a strategic planning process. In 1989, new president, John “Jack” Yena ’06 Hon., saw a fast-growing university with total net assets of less than $24 million and $18 million of debt. The school also wasn’t building its endowment for future growth and stability. Yena embarked on the first of four strategic plans, each designed to answer three key questions: “What do we want to look like at the end of the plan? Why? And what will it mean for our university, students, alumni and other stakeholders?”

Every entity has something it needs to change for its longterm security — either to improve quality, or because it’s identified something it can’t sustain, Dwyer notes. “Most colleges don’t think about their financial plans when they’re piecing together their strategic plan. That’s why many of those plans collect dust,” he adds. “We knew we needed to weave together our mission and strategic objectives with the financial plan, and start with an honest assessment of the institution.”

“With each successive plan JWU has strengthened its commitment to its mission by balancing the challenges it faced as an institution while meeting the needs of students in each respective time period.”

Vision 1994, JWU’s first formal strategic plan, included 13 salient goals to address issues including measured growth, financial security, curriculum expansion and global connections. But more than anything, the plan centered on establishing an identity for JWU.

When Vision 1994 was launched in 1989, the university was scattered in varied buildings throughout downtown Providence, RI. There was no iconic JWU building or space. That same year, when renowned urban architect, Andres Duany, presented a vision for a Downcity rebirth and a broadened sense of community for the city of Providence, Yena immediately saw Johnson & Wales at its center.

Together with assorted government agencies, JWU funded site cleanup, then purchased the land of the burned out Outlet Company building in the heart of downtown. Today Gaebe Commons and its surrounding buildings are the symbolic core of the Providence Campus, and what Yena calls “a protected enclave where students can withdraw and still be part of the urban fabric and green space of the city.” It was a bold and ambitious move. The creation of Gaebe Commons and the adjacent area increased the university’s debt to $82 million by 1994. But, says Yena, “We were positioning ourselves to grow.”

JWU also learned a lesson in strategic planning: Flexibility is a key to success. Seeking accreditation by the New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC) was just such an example. It was not a part of Vision 1994, yet it helped JWU forge a new direction in academic excellence. University Chancellor John Bowen ’77, then executive vice president, agrees. “Pursuing regional accreditation spoke to JWU’s flexibility,” he says. “We’re disciplined, but not rigid.”

The $23 million bond issue that allowed the university to venture beyond Rhode Island and set down roots in North Miami was also not part of the vision. When it became clear in 1992 that tourism and international finance made South Florida an ideal spot for JWU to open a campus, JWU purchased a vacant former hospital and a medical office building, which were transformed into University Center with classrooms, culinary labs, offices, student residences and an academic and student center. Since 1992, through major investment in the acquisition and renovation of distressed properties in several instances, the North Miami Campus has grown to more than 29 acres and 21 buildings, serving more than 2,000 students from 58 countries and 45 states. “We’ve been strategic about opening our regional campuses in a number of ways,” says Bowen. “And we’re committed to urban revitalization.” The creation of regional campuses has worked well for the univesity. The decline in the country’s college-age population has meant a drop in enrollment at many schools. Yet JWU has continued to increase enrollment because of its regional approach. Vision 1994 served as the foundation for Vision 2001 and all subsequent plans, Dwyer says. “It was expensive, but we put together a budget process that was ahead of its time. Members of the accrediting team and our auditors told us it was the best they’d seen in higher education.”

JWU did not step gingerly into Vision 2001. Two years in the making, the plan would bring the university to a whole new level financially, with a bold emphasis on establishing a multi-campus system along with processes and relationships that would benefit students. Administrators also got serious about building the endowment, which the university’s leadership knew it would need to continue delivering the high quality of career education for which JWU was becoming famous worldwide.

With a clear directive, the endowment grew from $40 million to $183 million over the life of Vision 2001. The accomplishment has had a lasting impact. Without that financial target 15 years ago, the university would not have been able to fulfill its current strategic plan. During Vision 2001 enrollment grew quickly, along with net assets — from $24 million to $201 million. JWU also secured its first 10-year regional accreditation renewal from NEASC. With campuses in Providence, North Miami, Fla.; Charleston, S.C.; and Norfolk, Va., leadership took a hard look at infrastructure and asked, “Are we organized appropriately to accommodate Vision 2001?”

The answer from employees was a resounding “No,” so JWU embarked on a major reorganization. Management teams from different areas of expertise were asked for solutions to such issues as retention, financial aid, internships, external partnerships and international affairs.

Bowen recalls that while people were forced outside their comfort zone, it was necessary for the university’s overall success. “If you don’t, you have a stagnant organization,” he says. Administrators began thinking more strategically about operations by creating leadership teams, senior management training and streamlining internal processes to improve student services. The university took a giant geographic leap as well, looking to establish a presence beyond the East Coast. Denver, Colorado’s largest city and a cultural center, was the perfect metropolis in the West for JWU’s entrepreneurial spirit. “Denver was the first time we were invited to open a campus in another city,” says Dwyer. “This too was a mark of maturity.”

Civic leaders, particularly the Coors family that generously supported the university’s mission and expansion into Denver, recognized JWU’s educational approach. In 1999, JWU acquired the 10-acre campus that once housed Colorado Women’s College and later the University of Denver Law School. In 2003, JWU purchased the remaining 15 acres of the campus. Since welcoming its inaugural class of 325 students in 2000, JWU has invested nearly $50 million in additional construction and renovation to enhance and improve classroom facilities, culinary labs and residence halls on campus. Today more than 1,500 students from all 50 states and 11 countries are enrolled at the campus.

Virtually every goal of Vision 2001 was completed a year ahead of schedule. The process of developing Vision 2006, with input from every constituency, was underway in 2000. An array of 13 goals outlined a theme to increase quality on many fronts.

For the first time in its history JWU invested in systems to enhance student services and career opportunities for students. The outlay allowed the university to make more data-driven decisions, an approach that continues to inform the work of FOCUS 2011. In keeping with the past, one “unplanned accomplishment” emerged during Vision 2006 as well. In 2002, when civic and community leaders in Charlotte, N.C., were looking to partner with a university to promote economic and community development — and produce graduates primed for employment in the expanding city — they turned to JWU. The university’s programs and approach seemed perfect for the business and hospitality industries that anchor the regional economy. Recognizing that its smaller, leased campuses in Charleston and Norfolk were less than ideal environments for continued, strategic growth, JWU accepted the offer of public-private partnership. The state-of-the-art, $110 million Charlotte Campus opened in 2004 with an enrollment of 1,100 students and quickly grew.

“Charlotte took a lot of energy. But what JWU is most proud of is that not a single student missed the opportunity to complete their degree and graduate,” says Dwyer. “We fulfilled our promise to every Charleston and Norfolk student, and employees who chose not to transfer to another JWU campus were given generous severance packages.”

As in 2001 the discipline of the plan did not overshadow the need for flexibility. During Vision 2006, JWU doubled plant assets from $330 million to $606 million, while borrowing $70 million to pay itself back on added investments in Denver and plant needs in Charlotte. “Vision 2006 gave us the courage to take on what we needed to in FOCUS 2011,” Bowen recalls. It forced JWU to look beyond facilities and at the quality of work and experiences inside the university.

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FOCUS 2011
Enrollment was still growing in 2005 when the university was formalizing its current strategic plan. Leadership took a hard look at JWU’s standing against the general higher education landscape. While the institution was successful in many respects, there were major changes needed to remain competitive going forward.

Even before the global recession took hold in 2008, JWU knew it needed to address affordability as well as first-to second year retention. In line with higher education in general, the university’s reliance on private loans was growing. Nationally, the private loan market had increased from $1.7 billion to $17.1 billion over a 10-year period. In September 2005, JWU students borrowed more than $40 million in private loans, many of which carried high interest rates and unfavorable repayment terms. “We had to create not just a successful financial model, but a sustainable enrollment model that addressed the increasing issue of affordability,” says Dwyer.

By design, JWU enrolled smaller, more refined classes, and created a Strategic Enrollment Team (SET). SET evaluated 97,000 student records, identified students who would not be successful in JWU programs and denied them admission. At the same time, the university committed to holding steady on merit aid and significantly increasing need-based aid to help students and their families. Since the inception of FOCUS 2011, JWU has increased aid from $72 million to more than $121 million in 2010 to support four-year level funding. The history and discipline of past strategic and financial plans allowed for the major investment in students.

Improved selectivity and the resulting reduced admissions numbers have been offset by the increase in student retention without negatively affecting the diversity of the student body. But sacrifices and discipline were needed to succeed. Capital projects were delayed and new programs limited. Throughout the shift, investments in students and faculty were not compromised. During one of the most financially debilitating economic times in recent history JWU survived without additional borrowing.

With each successive plan JWU has strengthened its commitment to its mission by balancing the challenges it faced as an institution while meeting the needs of students in each respective time period.

The success of FOCUS 2011 has been recognized for its contributions to both JWU’s students and to the field of higher education. Following its scheduled 2008 NEASC accreditation visit, JWU was invited to deliver the keynote address at the 2008 NEASC conference in Boston, Mass. The university has also been asked by NEASC to document for others how its efforts toward increased affordability and selectivity are leading to substantial improvements in retention.

There’s an esoteric element to the equation that other institutions may not be able to emulate, Dwyer notes. “We have something very special at Johnson & Wales which is hard to define. It’s the mentality of our university community and the dedication of our faculty and staff to our students and to our strategic planning goals. That’s our biggest competitive advantage.”

Vision is nothing without a sense of history. Dwyer advocates intergenerational responsibility. “JWU graduates of the 1980s and early 1990s may not have benefitted from everything our current students enjoy. In a sense their gratification is delayed … But our alumni should take as much pride in our growing reputation, because they’re equal beneficiaries of the strength of our institution,” he says. “The value of their JWU degree is growing exponentially. We’re attracting students who have a better chance of achieving the success our alumni enjoy, and that’s a plus for everyone.”

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