Carnegie Mellon University

The Piper

CMU Community News

Piper Logo
November 18, 2014

Shaping Our Own Destiny

A Recap of the First Town Hall Meeting on the New Strategic Plan

By Michael Yeomans


How does a university renowned for its role in inventing the future shape its own destiny?

That was the challenge issued at the first university-wide town hall meeting for the 2015 strategic plan development on Nov. 17 at the Posner Center. 

Interim Provost Nathan Urban paraphrased a quote from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who said that great players don't skate to where the puck is; they skate to where it is going. He said the strategic planning process is designed to collectively determine where the university should be in five years, ten years and beyond.

"We hope this process triggers a lot of conversation across campus and the wider CMU community," he said.

Urban was joined by co-leaders of the plan's three focus areas, including Jim Garrett, dean of the College of Engineering, and Michael Murphy, vice president of Campus Affairs.

Interim Executive Vice President John Lehoczky, recalling his 45-year experience at CMU, kicked off the town hall by reminding that planning processes under previous CMU administrations have guided CMU into the ranks of the world's elite universities by focusing college and school departments around specific research areas in which they could carve out a leadership position; by building intercollegiate collaboration into the university's DNA; and by investing heavily behind improved undergraduate teaching.

The focus area leaders have established committees with representatives from all of the schools and colleges, including students and alumni. They will be reaching out to groups on campus, such as Staff Council, the Faculty Senate, Student Senate and others.

A second CMU community town hall is planned for January to update progress and continue receiving feedback.

"If you belong to a group that has something collectively to say about this initiative, please reach out," Urban said.

Urban said his "Transformative Teaching and Learning" thrust, which he co-leads with Richard Scheines, dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, will be tackling questions such as how to better integrate technology into CMU's teaching; defining the right mix of graduate students versus undergraduates, and the right mix of domestic versus international students; and whether and how to engage alumni in continuing education initiatives, or to serve as teachers and mentors to current students.

His thrust will also explore changes to the way education is delivered at CMU, such as whether to reduce the time students spend at the campus, or whether to certify educational outcomes in smaller "chunks" than full courses.

Jim Garrett, dean of the College of Engineering, who co-leads the "Transformative Research, Creativity, Entrepreneurship and Innovation" thrust with Farnam Jahanian, vice president of research, said they have divided their focus area into two subcommittees: "Research and Creativity" and "Innovation and Entrepreneurship."

He said they would spend the remainder of the year identifying issues and brainstorming ideas and will be sending out a questionnaire to collect broad commentary and suggestions. In early 2015, they will begin meeting with interested stakeholder groups, both internally and externally in small groups and in larger town-hall style meetings. By March, he said, they plan to begin drafting recommendations with approximately five high-level goals, for which they will solicit additional feedback.

Rick Siger, director of Strategic Initiatives and Engagement, said that a draft of a complete plan is expected around May. The document will be refined through the summer months and released in final form in September 2015.

Urban said that it will be a working document that will be modified as changing internal and external circumstances require, and will be measured on a yearly basis to track progress toward goals.

The open disussion began by asking what makes CMU distinctive.

Jelena Kovacevic, head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department in the College of Engineering, said she has been struck by the relative lack of hierarchy at CMU that makes collaborating across colleges and even between CMU and other universities, particularly the University of Pittsburgh, "seamless."

"I find that very unusual compared to other universities," she said.

Another faculty member pointed to the entrepreneurial "tinkering" spirit that pervades the university: "We are not afraid to try something. If we don't hit the mark the first time, we try again."

Don Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute, said that since its founding by Andrew Carnegie, CMU has been a place where "people make things" pointing to a comment made to that effect by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on a visit to CMU when asked why he recruited so heavily from CMU.

Carter also urged that the plan address the university's heritage of engaging with the communities, specifically the Pittsburgh region, in which it operates.

A freshman student from Texas said that he has been amazed at the willingness of his fellow students to help each other, citing a time when he struck up a random conversation with a fellow student at Hunt Library wearing a Google intern t-shirt. The student spent the next 20 minutes giving him tips on how to improve his chances at getting a similar internship.

"From what I have heard from my friends at other schools, they don't have that same level of camaraderie," he said. But he added that CMU needs to do more to be as well-known as competing institutions such as MIT and Harvard. "I wish CMU came to my high school," he said, adding that neither his parents nor his classmates had ever heard of CMU.

Mary Ann McCullough, director of Constituent Insights and Business Operations for Alumni Relations & Annual Giving, said that to help ensure that CMU is better known, it should better leverage its 93,000 living alumni. But at least one faculty member, Rebecca Nugent, warned that some alumni, while valuing the skills and knowledge they acquired at CMU, don't have positive memories of their undergraduate experience at CMU.

"We need to be honest with ourselves about some core values we may be missing," she said.

Michael Murphy, co-leader of the Transformative CMU Experience focus area, said a hard look at areas where the university needs to do better must be included in the process.

Illah Nourbakhsh, professor of computer science, said some of CMU's biggest accomplishments have been redefining academic boundaries, such as pioneering fields like human-computer interaction, robotics and machine learning and the melding of the physical and digital worlds through the arts with technology.

"What are the several departments that need to be born to define new boundaries?" Nourbahksh asked.

A debate began over whether to continue CMU's global expansion over the past 10-15 years, which has seen the emergence of a campus in Quatar and programs in Rwanda, Portugal and Australia, and how such programs might better integrate into the university as a whole for the benefit of all CMU students.

Vice Provost for Education Amy Burkert said CMU has been deliberate and selective on its way to becoming one of the most internationally diverse university's in the U.S. But she warned that starting new programs in other countries carries the risk of becoming a financial drain and may lead to fragmentation of the university.

Physics Professor Manfred Paulini agreed. "As we think about expanding our presence globally, we have to ask why? What are we from a strategic perspective going to gain from that? How does it help us in research and teaching? We have to be thoughtful about it," Paulini said.

Keeping with the global theme, a student suggested that CMU must produce students who are not only technically competent, but who are prepared to interact on a global level and have the tools and grounding necessary to have the biggest impact on society after they graduate.

Another student suggested that students also need better pathways while at the university for identifying opportunities to gain such entrepreneurial and/or global experience.

Paulini suggested that in order to keep faculty focused on their research, CMU needs better processes for handling the bureaucratic burdens of applying for and complying with research grants.

Related Links: Watch a Video of the Town Hall Meeting | Learn More About the Strategic Planning Process