A friend of mine from my newspaper days is touring university campuses with his daughter, who is a high school senior. They drove here the other day from Gastonia to take a look at Elon University. Their reaction to the campus?
“This place is amazing,” the dad told me. “I had no idea.”
That’s a pretty standard response these days when people look over the campus at what has become one of the best universities in not only North Carolina and the South but the eastern part of the nation and heading west, quickly.
But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, “This place is amazing,” said no one ever about Elon College in the 1970s when it was a lightly regarded regional school contained on about one and a half town blocks in a sleepy village in Alamance County.
So how did Elon get where it is today?
It took strategic planning. That was the first step and still is. But it also took execution and follow-through. Organizations are usually great about the first part then screw up parts two and three. Governments rank 1 and 1A in botching the crucial planning process. Government leads the nation in this. Most often local government strategic plans get tossed in a filing cabinet never to be seen or heard from again — another waste of time, energy and some highly paid consulting help. Inertia is one part of the problem, a small part. Politicians occupy the rest of it — a huge chunk.
Which brings us to the Alamance-Burlington School System. “This place is amazing,” is seldom heard around there these days — unless it comes to talking about the students, teachers and staff who give the system heart. It’s a school system trapped in old facilities, tired ideas and under the thumb of a county government that at times is wholly uninterested in improving anything at all in this community. It’s a miracle that ABSS has accomplished what it has because of this backward thinking cabal of political opportunists seeking to appeal to the lowest common denominator of voter — people looking at the immediate monetary bottom line as opposed to one that eyes a future for the county, its economy and its improvement. It’s a group that thinks if a school built in the 1940s was good enough for them, then it’s good enough for kids today — forgetting to mention that the school in question was almost new when they were students there.
Last week was a depressing one for people in Alamance County interested in education. I saw tons of howling about it from Board of Education members and parents. I watched one county commissioner defend her actions. Amy Galey, the newest member of the Board of Commissioners, took the position usually staked out by Tim Sutton and Bill Lashley — longtime fixtures on the Alamance County political scene and more tight-fighted then a rookie boxer in a first bout. Their negative responses to a budget proposal for 2017-18 by ABSS Superintendent William Harrison was anticipated. Galey, the potential swing voter, took a tack that caught ABSS board members by surprise. Galey wants measurable outcomes before agreeing to fund the ABSS strategic plan. It’s not an invalid argument. No one wants to waste taxpayer money. But it’s also not possible to measure what might happen, either. The future is a tricky thing that way. But one thing is a given. Nothing will only mean more of the same.
Galey made her point much more forcefully during a preliminary budget proposal by Harrison, which stunned the ABSS board and administration. Harrison, to his credit, handled what seemed to be an ambush very well. And also it should be noted he had planned to present a more modest spending proposal but was directed to bump up the request by a few million dollars by ABSS board members who want to make sure the ABSS strategic plan is funded. The board was right in asking him to do so. Let’s hear some applause for elected leaders who want to follow a strategic plan written with advice from people in the community.
Nearly all the ABSS board of education members weighed in on the Galey response to the budget proposal. I saw a couple of strong ones on Facebook from Patsy Simpson, Pam Thompson and Brian Feeley. I spoke to Tony Rose in passing on the Elon campus — he still recognized me even though I was wearing a tie at the time. All fully endorse the the system’s strategic plan developed a couple of years ago.
And I do, too. The reason? I’ve seen the results of a commitment to strategic planning at Elon University. For the past two decades, Elon has developed forward-thinking plans and then dutifully tried to follow them. Campus sites such as the Phi Beta Kappa Commons or Lindner Hall, the centerpiece of the Academic Village at Elon stand as testaments to the power of strategic planning.
While obviously Elon’s financing is far different than a public institution, it’s also not guaranteed. Elon has worked to find creative solutions in order to meet its goals. As a result, it’s has evolved into a center where students conduct important research, go on to graduate studies at places like Harvard, win Fulbright fellowships or become finalists for the Rhodes Scholarship. I spoke to a student recently whose goal is to be Elon’s first Rhodes Scholar. She’s a freshman and my bet is, someone already on campus will beat her to it.
Yes, students at Elon, like the university itself, are always striving to be more. It’s how future leaders are developed and how communities grow and prosper.
Elon’s remarkable climb to such heights is a direct result of strategic planning — and working to follow those plans. Would it be easy for ABSS to do the same? No, not at all. In fact, it would be almost impossible. But should it try? Absolutely. When organizations on any level — public or private — stop trying they are only failing. We’ve seen the outcome of doing the same old things in Alamance County, decline and decay — a place where people work to get away from, not return to.
Our county will never progress as it should until its elected county leadership wakes up and works to make better opportunities for the people who live here, grow up here, go to school here and ultimately contribute to life here. And no, money isn’t the only answer, but it’s certainly part of the path to improvement.
Harrison leads his post this way . . .
Alamance County is home to successful global industry pioneers with progressive leadership evident everywhere in business, faith-based organizations and non-profits. It is the birthplace of an internationally-known university and a nationally-recognized community college. Alamance County is becoming a community for forward-thinking entrepreneurs willing to wager their futures on self-built ideas. What’s the common denominator for success? It’s the combination of courage, conviction and commitment by experts to examine issues and opportunities with a global perspective to craft a better outcome. It’s bold leadership.
Alamance County can only gain by looking ahead, not living in the past. It’s time to stop mulling what we want our community to be and take important action in a positive direction.
And maybe one day people inside and outside of education circles will be able to say the schools here are “amazing” and truly mean it.