Leadership & Governance

How One College Is Getting Strategic in the Face of Challenges

Kwang-Wu Kim, Columbia College Chicago

January 23, 2015

Produced by Julia Schmalz and Carmen Mendoza


LEE GARDNER: We're here today with Kwang-Wu Kim, president of Columbia College of Chicago. The first thing I wanted to talk about is that Columbia College has, in recent years, faced some challenges that will be familiar to private, nonprofit institutions-- some declining enrollment, some belt tightening. I also know that the college has taken some fairly aggressive steps to turn those fortunes around, including a new enrollment focus website. What else are you trying to do to get the word out?

KWANG-WU KIM: Yeah, to me, what was important when I arrived at Colombia was I was asking questions about why. Why are we seeing this trend? And a lot of the answers that I got had to do with pointing to the outside world. So my response to that was always, look, everyone has those same challenges. But there are institutions that are succeeding, so what are we not doing?

So we started with the website, which we felt really needed a lot of retooling anyway. But that's really just the first stage. our challenge right now, I think, is to examine ourselves at a deeper level-- a level of content. Because we really have to ask the question, is it possible? And I think it's probably likely things that we do may not be attractive slash relevant slash interesting to prospective students. And if so, is that within our purview to make changes?

So we're doing that kind of deep curricular examination. At the same time, I'm in a national search right now for a first ever position at Columbia-- a vice president for strategic marketing. I'm sure you know this, Lee, that it's changing now. But there has tended to be a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the idea of marketing in higher education.

But we have to be realistic. And we need help making sure that we have the central stories well-articulated. And then we have a real strategy for how we get those stories out there. So I'm really thinking that although we have this beautiful new website, it's still, from my perspective, someone inert until it's activated by a different understanding of message and audience. So--

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LEE GARDNER: Well, not just how you present something, but what you're presenting.

KWANG-WU KIM: Right. And I want to always, of course, make sure that the message that we present-- I don't mean to sound cynical, but is true. If the commitments that we're making to these kinds of real curricular examination are challenging, but necessary, then I really want to be able to celebrate what we come up with if we come up with some exciting outcomes.

LEE GARDNER: Columbia College focuses on arts and the media.


LEE GARDNER: And these are two areas of higher education that have been under a lot of scrutiny in recent years, and in more ROI career-oriented oriented landscape, let's say.


LEE GARDNER: What is the case that Columbia can make for the education it offers?

KWANG-WU KIM: So we propose a three-part value proposition for an education at Columbia College, Chicago. And this is how I describe it. On the one hand, the best of traditional arts and media training, which is really focused on skills-- making sure that young people come in and really develop whatever area they're focused on, skills to the highest possible level.

We try to guarantee that our students are in constant contact with industry, so that the learning is also being influenced by what's really happening in that professional world. So that's the skills piece. But we're also credited as a liberal arts institution.

We have a very robust core. We're looking at that core right now to make sure that it continues to be meaningful. But that's the idea that the best of liberal arts-- in other words, the commitment to a piece of the education that allows students in the future to adapt, to re-learn, to rethink about themselves and their relationship to the world, and what they want to do professionally.

So those are two pieces. And now, we've just started talking about the addition of a third piece, which is critically important to me, which is some portfolio of business and marketing skills. We have the largest business of the arts program in the country, and so we have the expertise.

And I would never try to dictate what those courses should be, but my statements have been, we want our students, by the time they graduate, to understand that whatever they do in the world professionally, it's a business. And they have to be able to translate that if they're going to connect their creative passions and talents to reality. So those three pieces coming together, we think, will help to guarantee that our students can be successful in both the near term and over the course of their careers.

The other thing that we're doing in a very robust way is looking at what does it mean for us to hold ourselves accountable to our students achieving employment post-graduation? We don't really have a robust infrastructure right now, and I have colleagues in higher ed who turn their noses up a little bit when you start to talk about jobs and employment. But my feeling is it doesn't really make sense to talk about success if you don't help a student achieve that first success. So we're very focused on this as well right now.

LEE GARDNER: Columbia College is embarking on creating a strategic five-year plan.


LEE GARDNER: And I know that this comes at a fairly critical time. What are your goals going into this process?

KWANG-WU KIM: So I'm letting everyone in the college know constantly, over and over again-- I'm always referring to it right now as a strategic action plan. Because it's very important that what we end up with is a plan full of pieces that are specific enough that we can actually do something with them. We decided to use a somewhat, perhaps, unusual-- a slightly unusual process.

So we started with the new president's first big white paper that I published last spring to kind of test the water to see if my thinking and the college's thinking, if there is such a thing, sort of were in alignment. And we seemed to be in alignment. So we derived six key, strategic areas of focus from that paper and made those the basis for the plan without a lot of details attached.

Then, because we recognized the need for as much input as possible-- basically, last semester, we contracted with a firm who designed a social media platform for us. We had six weeks of 24 hours a day, seven days a week real time feedback and give-and-take on social media, as well as a very robust series of face-to-face meetings, very traditional meetings. We gathered huge amounts of input.

So now, we are at the phase of all that feedback and input has been analyzed and categorized. Now, we're taking the six areas and developing the specifics-- the first pass at the specifics. Then there'll be another iterative process where the whole community will be reacting to it online in probably about a month and a half. Our target is that the whole thing will be ready for the trustees to review by the end of April, so that we can, over the summer, create the implementation plans.

LEE GARDNER: It's interesting to hear you say concrete action plan. Because one criticism I sometimes here of strategic plans for colleges is that they're actually more like wish lists. They're giant lists of things that you hope will happen somehow. What specific steps are you taking to try to make this much more something with concrete goals and concrete steps to take?

KWANG-WU KIM: Well, the current-- if I can use this word-- instructions for people who are now in the process of being able to write and conceptualize-- is that every objective has to attach to it a timeline, some estimate of necessary resources, and a statement of who's responsible, so that we begin to really build into each statement enough specifics that we can develop some sort of action plan.

And the way I've tried to help our community not be overly burdened or alarmed by this process is to really reassure everyone that we understand that this is going to have to be revisited on an ongoing basis. It's not finished, done-- now we can go back to life as usual. And I've also led by saying that a critical part of how I am evaluated as the president is our consistent ability to deliver on the plan.

I wanted the community to understand I take primary responsibility. That seems to have helped people-- that it's not a situation in which the president's going to be pointing at everybody else. But that really, I see myself as personally responsible. I don't see any other way to really get a community to pull together around this very complex planning process. And this is new for Columbia. We don't really have an ongoing culture of developing these sorts of detail plans.

LEE GARDNER: Being a college president these days seems to me to be as much a performative role, in some ways, as an administrative one. And I was curious how your own background as a concert pianist-- has that given you any insight in performing as a president?

KWANG-WU KIM: I think it's a huge advantage. I am, in some ways-- I have probably several primary comfort zones as a human being, and one of them is on stage in front of people. So the pressure to be ready to speak about my institution kind of at a moment's notice is really natural to me.

The other thing is that what you learn as a performer is, of course, to gauge the feedback of your audience. That's very helpful, too. Because I hope-- I don't know if it's true or not-- but I hope it's true that it doesn't feel to people, when I'm speaking, that I'm talking at them. Because I was never really a lecturer, and I really see it as kind of an interaction.

And then, the ability to kind of-- I don't mean this to be glib, but to make it up. Because as a performer, you're constantly facing bizarre, weird challenges, but you still have to do what you were supposed to do. That's very true about being a college presidents. So that's very helpful to me that it takes an awful lot to phase me. And I think that's helpful.

LEE GARDNER: Sounds like it. Well, thank you for being here.

KWANG-WU KIM: Thank you very much, Lee.

Lee Gardner writes about the management of colleges and universities, higher-education marketing, and assorted other topics. Follow him on Twitter @_lee_g, or email him at lee.gardner@chronicle.com.