Innovation, Transformation: A Playbook for Success

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, Principal
Hyatt-Fennell

Dr. Scott Miller ,  President
Virginia Wesleyan University

For nearly thirty years, we’ve written extensively on higher education best business practices for College Planning and Management and Enrollment Manager. We’ve also shared important thoughts as publishers via a major national presidential thought series, President to President.

Scott and Virginia Wesleyan University have received attention recently for application of these practices and the major transformation that has occurred on the VWU campus since 2015. A CEO of a national leadership organization commented recently that “what you’re doing at Virginia Wesleyan is a compendium of all the best practices you’ve suggested through the years – I’m sure this will make for a great chapter or book.”

Earlier this month, Aramark Higher Education released a new case study highlighting Virginia Wesleyan’s transformation “in a time of  unprecedented competition in higher education.” The study credits Scott’s experienced leadership for strengthening the curriculum, launching new construction, and substantially increasing enrollment and fundraising. The results drew national as well as regional attention. Last winter, Dwyer Education Strategies’ Enrollment Manager featured VWU in a cover story, “The Commonwealth is Witnessing a Major Transformation at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach,” and in May Virginia Business chronicled recent success.

How did this astonishing transformation of a liberal arts institution on a 300-acre, parklike campus come about? Scott’s new administration had to look back before it could go forward. Over the previous 10 years, enrollment and fundraising were flat even as tuition rose yearly. Logical
initiatives were overlooked in a region where eight colleges and universities competed for the same students and resources. The bottom line was that Virginia Wesleyan was a well-kept secret—negatively so.

Arriving during summer 2015, Scott charted a plan of action that followed many of the steps we’ve outlined in our writings. Early on, this included a comprehensive Institutional Review and overhaul of the enrollment process – a risky endeavor in an intensely competitive market place seriously impacted by military sequestration and a declining number of high school graduates. The local community college, the least expensive institution in the region, had declined by some 15,000 students since 2012. With its antiquated business processes, lack of tuition controls, and weak revenue streams, Virginia Wesleyan seemed destined to fare no better.

Develop a Vision –
By the time of his arrival as Virginia Wesleyan’s fourth president, Scott had worked with the Board of Trustees to take the institution on a bold new course.

Institutional Review – The Board commissioned an Institutional Review, led by noted author and higher education consultant James V. Koch. The IR assessed he current condition of the institution (celebrated strengths and acknowledged limitations) and provided a framework with priorities for the first year.

The Priority:  Enrollment – John Dysart, President of The Dysart Group, was retained to conduct a comprehensive enrollment audit that included staffing and processes. The firm also assisted with identifying new leadership for the program.

Three-year recruitment goals and objectives included defining the ideal size and quality of the incoming traditional class and establishing new programs for early enrollment, transfers, community college graduates, a
graduate program and online division, dual-degree graduate programs with prominent partners, and a campus-based laboratory school and honors college.

Focusing on affordability, the new plan addressed:
• Establishment of the endowed Honors College in year two.
• Opus, a work program for financially atrisk students in year two.
• A tuition freeze in years three and four.
• In partnership with Tidewater Community College-Virginia Beach, establishment of the Virginia Beach Access Scholarship for local commuters.
• A fifth-year tuition guarantee.

Brand Analysis/Market Share—With professional assistance, the institution completed a brand analysis and market share study which led to new logos and themes, an improved website, and overhaul of all marketing that now emphasized the location in a thriving metropolitan area—home to the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and abundant student-internship potential.

Meanwhile, a space-utilization study and condition assessment became part of a 10-year Master Plan with recommendations that immediately caught the interest of donors. Virginia Wesleyan applied for Level III status
and approval to become a university. University College became the  umbrella for not-for-credit, online, and nontraditional initiatives. Donors funded $600,000 in corrective maintenance and stepped up with gifts for
construction of the new Susan S. Goode Fine and Performing Arts Center, enhancements of athletic facilities, and even a makeover for a landmark bell tower corroded by the area’s sea air. Virginia Wesleyan University was no longer a well-kept secret.

Within three years, the results were impressive: the award-winning Greer Environmental Sciences Center; the new Frank Blocker Youth Center, serving the Tidewater Collegiate Academy during the academic year and YMCA Camp Red Feather during the summer; landscaping and other physical improvements for traffic flow and campus security; a public-private residential complex; improvements to the Kenneth R. Perry
baseball field; the new Tom and Betty Broyles Field at TowneBank Park for VWU’s NCAA national champion softball team; the new Betty S. Rogers Track and Field Center, and relocation of the University’s Alpine Tower to the athletic complex.

Virginia Wesleyan’s experience demonstrates the importance of bold, visionary leadership followed by effective planning. Working together, Scott and VWU’s Trustees identified vital issues early on. Then, with the aid of consultants, comprehensive planning and fresh approaches to branding and marketing led to success in enrollment and fundraising—paving the way for institutional transformation.

Following a realistic “playbook” ensures that change is managed, often leading to positive outcomes that exceed expectations for a promising future.