Over the years, Graceland has always prided itself on being able to change with a changing world. That was true early in the twentieth century, when Graceland transformed from a two-year college to a four-year college. It was true yet again in the 1960s when students and administration recognized the need for belonging for ALL, not just for some, prompting the creation of Graceland’s house system which is the backbone of our student life experience. In that same decade, Graceland added a Bachelor of Science in nursing so a nation of RNs could provide better care to their patients. At the end of the twentieth century, Graceland changed yet again, from a college to a university to serve learners who wanted advanced degrees.
The common thread through all that change is that Graceland is continuously looking forward, seeking ways to transform itself into a university that meets the needs of students and prospective learners in our world because the world needs more Graceland graduates.
Now, Graceland faces another inflection point.
Schools like Graceland – rural, faith-based, private liberal arts – have consistently faced a multitude of threats and have been challenged to adapt to a changing world. The needs of students in the 21st century are rapidly changing. Those changes have been accelerated by a global pandemic, but many of these threats were visible prior to 2019. Colleges and universities across the country have also been preparing themselves for a demographic cliff that is predicted for 2026, when there will be a steep drop-off in potential first-time full-time first-year students.
Why the drop-off? 2026 is 18 years after the 2008 recession. Economic downturns are typically followed by a sharp decrease in birth rates, and this is no different. Not only that, but the birth rate in the United States is also at its lowest rate in history according to Pew Research, which will likely be further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This predicted decrease in students prompted Graceland to undertake a significant exploration of its strategic plan over the next several years.
In its 125-year history, Graceland has weathered many existential threats, usually because of the willingness of its administration, faculty, staff, students, and alumni to work hard and do whatever it takes to reverse the threats they faced. I was challenged by the Board of Trustees to meet this moment prior to the pandemic. We convened a two-track effort focused on determining what the next version of Graceland would look like. A cross-functional group of trustees, administration members, and faculty convened to form the Next Version of Graceland Task Force. Their work was informed by data, and their aim was to make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees that would put Graceland on a pathway to sustainability despite the coming challenges.
The final report was presented in early August and was approved by Graceland’s Board of Trustees. The plan’s focus is grounded in an overall philosophy of growth and innovation. Detailed analyses were completed to determine areas for investment and growth, taking a close look at how Graceland innovates across the university. Part of that work was also analyzing programs that are not attracting students to Graceland. Existing academic programs were determined to be in growth categories or to be phased out.
However, the new model is dynamic, and we expect the current state to change as we move forward. Nine majors were identified at this time to be phased out over the next four years. These majors have seen declines in interest from incoming students. These academic areas were charged with innovating during the phase out period to propose changes that will be more attractive to future students to Graceland. Those majors are:
- Hispanic Studies
- International Studies
- Social Media Marketing
The Board of Trustees approved the adoption of the Next Version at their August 7th meeting. We then began meeting with faculty members in the affected areas last week in one-on-one sessions and had planned to roll out the full plan to staff at our annual State of the University on September 2. We had also planned a listening session for students to follow the State of the University, but as rumors began to spread across the Lamoni campus and social media, we have had to adapt. The student forum will now be held Monday, August 30, prior to the State of the University with the hope that we can ease student concerns and listen to their feedback.
There are a couple of important points that I hope to get across to our students, faculty, and members of the larger Graceland family, including our dedicated alumni:
First, Graceland remains committed to the visual and performing arts. The Shaw Center is one of the best facilities in the region and we plan to continue to have choir concerts, recitals, plays, and musicals, well into the future. In fact, as part of the growth, we will be looking to add more ensembles that students have been requesting like show choir, gospel choir and more.
The elimination of the music and theatre majors is based on a declining interest in people majoring in those programs, not the interest in the programs themselves. Just this year, Graceland has 57 first-year students attending on some sort of visual or performing arts scholarship. However, only eleven of them have chosen theatre or music as their major.
For the first 75 years of Graceland’s existence, music and theatre were not official majors. They did not receive that designation until 1972 and 1973, respectively (theatre as “speech and drama”). Phasing out these majors will not result in the elimination of homecoming plays or choir tours or band concerts – those important student experiences will remain an option for all students, regardless of major, as they always have.
Second, Graceland will continue to provide an education that is rooted in the liberal arts. Like music and theatre, the phasing out of majors does not mean we will no longer have classes on literature or philosophy or the humanities. These courses are extremely popular with our students thanks to our amazingly talented faculty, but demand for these majors, especially with incoming students, has been declining for years, unfortunately. Several reports have shown students turning away from the traditional liberal-arts majors. One such report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences noted that bachelor’s degrees in the humanities represented 17 percent of all degrees conferred in 1967, compared with 5 percent in 2015.
When I met with each of the faculty groups affected by these changes, I charged them with thinking about how to grow the university and attract new students to Graceland. That might mean a reimagining of how those majors look or how they are structured.
Graceland has outperformed our own expectations and the national averages when it comes to enrollment growth on the Lamoni campus over the past two years thanks to the hard work of our recruiting team led by Deb Skinner. This growth, however, has not been found in the areas that we listed above. And while our growth over the past two years has been encouraging, we still lose many students because we do not have the academic majors that they are seeking. By reallocating our resources toward growing programs that are appealing to students, we hope to grow our enrollment by 10% per year over the next 5 years.
This type of growth will require creative thinking – the kind of thinking that we teach at Graceland – nimble, critical, and original. It will require all of us to work together to help strengthen the University for the difficult days ahead. I am confident in our ability to adapt because the history of the University shows us it is possible.
In times of challenge, the Graceland community has always responded to the threats and charted new paths forward. What worked then was a sense of shared commitment to the mission of the college: to create learning communities where students develop their potential for meaningful and productive lives. That was and is the Power of Together.
Our environment and our world today are much more complex and complicated than the founders of Graceland envisioned 125 years ago. We have challenges that they would never dream of, and yet we are made of the same stuff that they were. Like them, we can work hard to keep the promise that as an educational institution, we have implicitly made to the young people who still come to our campus as first-year students but leave to become difference makers and agents for change in the world. So, the call is not only to work hard, but to work smart and be willing to face today’s challenges with clear eyes and minds willing to implement creative solutions. This is not the job of just administration, or just faculty, or staff, or students, or alumni. It is a job for all of us – together – agreeing that what Graceland offers young people is worth strengthening and, in fact, growing in the years ahead.
The next version of Graceland borrows wisdom from many disciplines and industries, which will help us more closely define the issues we face and enable us as an institution to be more nimble in evaluating our solutions and determining whether they are meeting not only the needs of today’s learners, but tomorrow’s as well.
For everyone who is saddened by this news, we hear you, we see you and we honor your feelings. For many of you, these programs helped shape your experience at Graceland and the idea of these academic majors being phased out is difficult to digest. Please know that we do not take any pleasure in phasing out any majors and remain committed to growing the programs which so many of our students participate in while on campus. We do, however, hold tight to our commitment to strengthen Graceland for the future. We are the stewards of the University for this moment in time and with that awesome responsibility, we take this step with our greatest intentions to build a Graceland that serves the future and serves our students in the best way possible. Times of transformational change also allow for the opportunity to be a leader in our field. By building on our heritage and values, focusing on the needs of students, and preparing graduates for professional and life success, we can send out Gracelanders who can create the positive changes so desperately needed in our society.
The world needs more Graceland graduates. This is our plan to meet that need.