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President's Office | Article: Strategy in Current Issues in Higher Education

Trinity College: Strategic Planning as the Roadmap to Renaissance

This article was published in the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities Current Issues in Catholic Higher Education publication, Winter 2003

When the whistle blows for the tip-off of the Trinity Tigers’ 2003 home opener, the team will inaugurate more than yet another basketball season at Trinity College in Washington. The game will be the first played in the new Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports, a state-of-the-art athletic complex supporting not only basketball and all court sports, but also swimming, tennis, soccer and all field sports, and a range of recreational, fitness and health programs.

Wait a minute. Trinity is a Catholic women’s college — isn’t that an endangered species? From a high of nearly 190 such institutions in the early 1960’s, only about 19 remain today. So, what’s a Catholic women’s college doing building a $20 million sports complex in northeast Washington?

When Trinity’s trustees authorized the construction project — the first new building on Trinity’s campus in nearly 40 years — they were motivated by neither hubris nor hope, but a calculated plan to enlarge Trinity’s capacity for growth on a number of fronts, including the full-time enrollment in the women’s college, the College of Arts and Sciences, which accounts for about 30% of Trinity’s operating revenues. Trinity’s other main revenue streams flow from the School of Education and School of Professional Studies, both of which are coeducational, serving part-time adult professionals

The impact of the new facilities on Trinity’s enrollment has already been dramatic — even before the completion of the construction, enrollment in the College of Arts and Sciences shot up by 25% in the Fall of 2002, with the first year enrollment increasing by 40%. Enrollments in the two other schools also rose. Trinity’s Fall 2002 total enrollment in all degree programs surpassed 1700, the largest headcount in Trinity’s history. Trinity also educates another 5,000+ individuals in a broad range of continuing education and affiliate programs. Trinity is booming today — a transformed institution whose student body is nearly 75% Black, Hispanic, Asian and international as new populations of students embrace Trinity’s timeless core commitments to the advancement of women and the achievement of justice.

The opening of the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports is the latest sign of Trinity College’s renaissance. The future was not always so bright. This proud institution that once thought of itself as the “eighth sister” after the seven sister institutions in the ivy league (Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Wellesley, Radcliffe, Barnard, Smith, Mt. Holyoke) reached a high of nearly 1,000 traditional-aged resident students in the late 1960’s, and then suffered severe enrollment declines in the 1970’s and 1980’s as the Catholic women who once flocked to Trinity suddenly found themselves the darlings not only of Georgetown and Holy Cross but also of places like Princeton, Brown and Duke — and Penn State and Rutgers and Michigan.

[Chart I shows Trinity’s enrollment patterns since 1948.]

Chart 1: Trinity College Enrollment 1948-2002

By the middle of the 1980’s, Trinity came to the inevitable crossroads where so many similar institutions have stood: can such an institution have a future, and if so, what will that future be?
Trinity’s answer was a firm “yes” to the first question, accompanied by a strategic plan to map a future that would look very different, and yet, would retain the essential values and characteristics that make Trinity distinctive.

Most particularly, in the face of so much market data predicting the death of women’s colleges, Trinity chose to retain its primary mission to women and its women’s college as the heart of the enterprise. But ‘enterprise’ is an important word, because the women’s college alone could not sustain the institution. Developing a diversified operational model — a comprehensive university — gave fresh, vigorous life and direction to an institution convinced that the world, and especially its women, still needs this form of education.

Mission: Debate, Reaffirmation

When I became Trinity’s president in 1989, I was the sixth person in eight years to have presidential powers, the second lay president after the brief tenure of the first. Five permanent, acting and interim presidencies in a short period of time left the institution adrift. Restoring internal stability, building a competent management team and raising institutional confidence both internally and among Trinity’s constituencies were immediate priorities.

We began a strategic planning process to map the future — and the process immediately bogged down in the kind of suspicion and conflict that had plagued the College throughout the previous decade. A group of senior faculty for whom I had great respect and affection, because many had been my teachers when I was a student at Trinity, told me clearly that I could last longer than my predecessors so long as you don’t create too much change.

Change, I quickly learned, is the most reviled term in higher education. What also became clear, as the planning process evolved, was that the marketplace was not necessarily Trinity’s biggest problem. Rather, Trinity was drowning in a deep conflict over the meaning of Trinity’s mission, manifest in a struggle for pre-eminence among the component parts of mission. So, for example, one school of thought believed that the phrase “liberal arts” really defined Trinity the most, viewing the Weekend College created in the mid-1980’s, with an emphasis on part-time adult education in business, as a grave intellectual threat to the ‘real’ Trinity.

Others argued that “Catholic” was the immutable characteristic, with a definition of “Catholic” as narrowly sectarian, wondering if the rise in the number of African American students might be diluting Catholicism. “We’re all in favor of diversity,” one critic declared to me, “so long as Trinity is still Catholic.”

Others claimed that the mission to women must prevail, all the while muttering sotto voce that the idea of the “Catholic women’s college” was oxy moronic. Others hinted that it would be preferable for Trinity to go coed as an antidote against too much feminism which, in their view, undermined Catholicism.

Several Middle States visiting teams in the 1970’s and 1980’s perceived these struggles and urged Trinity to resolve the conflict over mission and change for the sake of its own survival. Provocatively, one visiting team chair asked the most fundamental question of all: “How far can Trinity travel from its white, upper-middle class roots and still retain the loyalties of its alumnae? How much can Trinity change and still retain the essential qualities of Trinity College?”

As I learned more about this struggle, I realized that many of the good people who cared so deeply about Trinity were missing a very important point: rather than parsing apart the elements of mission, the mission only made sense when integrated. What makes this institution different and distinctive is the way in which the elements of our mission relate to and energize each other to give the student a learning experience characterized by the full integration of the values expressed in those mission words: liberal arts as the platform for professional life, Catholicism as the integrating force giving meaning to the learning process in a diverse and ecumenical community, women’s education as illuminated and enriched by the values of our faith and tradition and, in turn, giving those values the rich voice and perspective of women’s experience.

One group was not at all confused about Trinity’s mission. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Trinity’s founding congregation, have a 200 year-old mission established by St. Julie Billiart to educate women and to serve the poor. Sr. Julia McGroarty, SND and the founders of Trinity believed deeply in the right of women to receive a higher education equal to that afforded men in the late 19th and early 20th century. Trinity was founded because Catholic University did not admit women in 1897, a fact that Cardinal James Gibbons termed “an embarrassment” in a letter he wrote to Sr. Julia encouraging her work. The idea of a college to educate Catholic women was controversial, and the SNDs incurred public criticism from those who associated Trinity’s founding with the “Americanism” heresy accusation also directed at Catholic University in the late 1800’s. Because of this criticism, Cardinal Gibbons specifically directed the SNDs to create Trinity independently of Catholic University so as not to fuel the rumor of the potentially scandalous ‘mixing of sexes’ at the university. Gibbons wrote to the Apostolic Nuncio, “Trinity College will have no official organic connection whatever with the Catholic University,” a great grant of independence that gave Trinity freedom to develop in directions appropriate for its mission.

But one hundred years had passed since those heady days at the dawn of the 20th century. Now, facing the realities of the educational marketplace at the beginning of the 21st century, where the dreaded ‘mixing of sexes’ had long since occurred, did women still need Trinity College?

Illuminated by the perspective of their worldwide ministries in Africa and South America in particular, and their social justice commitments throughout the United States, the Sisters of Notre Dame reminded us that millions of women throughout this nation and around the world still do not have the same access to higher education that middle-and-upper class American women have today. Rather than focusing on trying to ‘reclaim’ a population whose educational horizons have become virtually infinite (thanks in no small measure to the success of their mothers and grandmothers at Trinity and other Catholic women’s colleges), Trinity needed to focus on new populations of women for whom the idea of a higher education is still, too often, an elusive dream.

The decision to continue the women’s college at the heart of Trinity’s enterprise had several far-reaching implications. First, it meant that the full-time residential student body would no longer be the majority population on campus as we reached out to educate the women of Washington in our backyard. Second, the embrace of new student constituencies dramatically changed the face of Trinity’s student body. Those who equated mission with white, Catholic, middle and upper class women were in for a shock; in a short period of time, as enrollments grew with the new emphasis on the urban students at our doorstep, a majority of Black and Hispanic women filled Trinity’s historic Marble Corridor.

And what of Catholicism? Baptists, Methodists, Unitarians, Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics and more sit side by side in our classrooms today. In fact, from the day it opened in 1900, Trinity had no religious limitation on the students who could be admitted, something the opposition to Trinity’s founding tried to use to stop the effort. But from the time that Julie Billiart created her order to educate poor girls left orphaned by the French Revolution, the mission of the Sisters of Notre Dame was never limited to Catholics only. The “Catholic” idea in their mission and Trinity’s mission is the enlightenment of the human personality and soul through the work of education without discrimination against the person. The extension of Trinity’s mission to new populations of urban women who had previously been left out of higher education became a true social justice ministry, a revitalization of Trinity’s articulation of the mission of the Sisters of Notre Dame to serve women and the poor. Along the way, Trinity’s Catholicism grew deeper and richer in its welcoming of other faith traditions who also bring synergies of moral values and dimensions of spirituality that have enlarged the totality of faith expression on campus.

Toward Trinity 2000

By 1993, Trinity was ready to adopt its first modern strategic plan, Toward Trinity 2000, a document that proved to be a force for both unification of the Trinity community behind the mission of the College as well as, ironically, a means to leverage the diversification of Trinity’s programs more completely. The plan set forth six goals related to mission, and six goals that formed the basis of the business plan. The mission goals spoke to the empowerment of women through grounding in liberal arts, and liberal arts as the platform for successful professional studies; construction of a diverse community, and the essential spiritual center in the Catholic faith tradition and mission of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

Toward Trinity 2000 recognized an important fact with profound implications not only for structure but also for revenue streams: Trinity was permanently diversified programmatically, and multiple revenue streams insulated the institution from enrollment fluctuations in any one program, including the historic women’s college. As an articulation of mission and a sound business proposition, no longer would Trinity deliver its mission through doing just one thing, namely, providing undergraduate liberal arts education to a predominantly 18-22 year old residential population. Trinity was ready to mature into a new institutional form, giving a place of honor to the traditional college while building upon it to expand programs to better serve new populations. The manifestation of this maturity was the creation of two distinct academic units: the College of Arts and Sciences, as the historic women’s college; and the School of Professional Studies, which in its early form housed both the graduate teacher preparation programs as well as the undergraduate adult education programs of the Weekend College.

Of course, not everyone thought these changes were good or necessary. So much change was unsettling for some faculty and alumnae. A critic denounced me in the Washington Post for being the architect of a “flaccid feminist curriculum” and for building a “temple of political correctness.” And all along I was simply trying to shore up the leaky roofs and sagging floors! From the opposite direction, criticism also rose among the increasingly large population of Black students who felt that Trinity had not changed enough in curricula and programs to give space to the new perspectives and voices on campus. The noise was sufficiently loud at times on both sides to keep most of what we were doing well balanced.

In 1996, Trinity hosted another visiting team from the Middle States Association. This decennial comprehensive accreditation visit was the first such visit since the low points of the 1980’s. Toward Trinity 2000 was the basis of the self-study and team visit. While Trinity had many challenges remaining, we were able to report much progress in restructuring Trinity and improving enrollment and finances. By the end of the visit in 1996, the visiting team commended the strategic plan and stated that, “Trinity College has creatively and effectively reached out to serve new populations in new ways.”

Beyond Trinity 2000

Buoyed by the encouragement of Middle States, we launched the next phase of strategic planning. Beyond Trinity 2000 was in formulation for three years; every administrative division and academic program established benchmarks and measurable goals arising from assumptions based on market research. The new strategic plan clearly established enrollment growth in all programs as the key goal, with all other goals contributing to enrollment. The enrollment goals are ambitious, albeit necessary: from a starting point of 1500 in the Year 2000, Trinity seeks to grow to 2700 headcount by 2005, including 700 each in the College of Arts and Science and School of Education, and 1300 in the School of Professional studies. Detailed annual goals for new enrollment and retention in each school supported the plan, and as of the Fall of 2002 we are on track in the annual plans.

Goals for program development, technology, services and human resources provide the framework for strategies to meet the enrollment goals, along with a very large commitment to improved marketing, enhanced financial aid, and significant investments in facilities and technology.

Programmatically, Beyond Trinity 2000 sparked the development of enhanced offerings in International Affairs, including a new track in intelligence studies; creation of majors and concentrations in computer science, information technology and information assurance in both the School of Professional Studies and College of Arts and Science; and new programs in educational technology for teachers in the School of Education. An M.B.A. with an emphasis on women’s executive leadership was immediately oversubscribed. The opening of the Trinity Center is also sparking the creation of corollary academic programs in sports management, athletic training, health and wellness.

To manage all of the programmatic and service implications of Beyond Trinity 2000, Trinity reorganized into three distinct schools, separating teacher preparation from business to create a School of Education independent of the School of Professional Studies, and making both fully coeducational. The historic women’s college continued as the College of Arts and Sciences, strengthened by reaffirming its place at the core of the enterprise. This new structure has enhanced Trinity’s ability to market its diverse menu of programs more effectively. In addition, it has strengthened management capacity for each unit, each of which has a dean and modest administrative structure. From a governance perspective, the paradigm has recognized the distinctive needs of each school and faculty to make decisions in ways that are responsive to the ‘local’ needs as much as possible.

[Figure I shows the strategic paradigm for Trinity’s current organizational structure.]

Figure 1: Trinity College's strategic paradigm for Trinity's current organizational structure.

Faculty, staff and alumnae embraced the new plan with enthusiasm. Unlike the planning struggles of the prior decade, this new plan was instantly recognized as a springboard to the future and a mature way of organizing Trinity’s life in the early part of the 21st Century.

Along with the new plan, we created a new mission statement, using the term “comprehensive university” publicly for the first time, even though our Carnegie Classification had changed ten years earlier to reclassify Trinity as a Masters Comprehensive I institution because of the large number of master’s degrees awarded each year. While our name remains “Trinity College” for now, the institutional community strongly affirmed its agreement with the open declaration of our new form as a comprehensive university.

Building Trinity Anew

On November 4, 2000, one hundred years to the day of Trinity’s opening, more than 400 members of the Trinity family and friends gathered to break ground for the first new building on Trinity’s campus in nearly 40 years. Alumnae and benefactors hoisted shovels alongside today’s Trinity athletes and children from the neighborhood. D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton praised the plan for the new Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports as an example of how a university should engage with its city to improve the neighborhood for all citizens. This athletic complex will support programs for children and neighbors in the local community as well as Trinity’s athletics and recreation programs, and auxiliary activities.

Toward Trinity 2000, the strategic plan from the early 1990’s, laid the foundation for the new athletic complex and the master plan that envisions broad campus renovations. Beyond Trinity 2000, the current strategic plan, added a significant commitment to technological renovation to the mix of capital projects. Among the many important results of both plans was a strengthening of Trinity’s management and financial structures to make it possible to attract major gifts, grants and loans to finance the facilities and technology infrastructure improvements. In the last few years, Trinity received nearly $3 million in federal and private grants for technology, including a major partnership with America Online for teacher education. The Centennial Campaign for the Campus Center is close to meeting its $12 million goal, the largest campaign ever in Trinity’s history.

Satisfying as these successes have been, Trinity cannot stand in place. The reality for small, private, under-endowed institutions today is the imperative of continuous innovation and careful attention to market position and climate. Halfway through Beyond Trinity 2000, the plan that runs through 2005, we are already benchmarking and developing projections for the next plan, Trinity 2010. While any statement of specific goals would be premature, it’s safe to say that Trinity 2010 will place an even greater emphasis on endowment growth to create greater leverage for infrastructure investment; distance education and new programs for new markets to grow enrollment even more; and new campus facilities especially those supporting science and technology.

Catholic women’s colleges like Trinity have always been on the edge — the leading edge of women’s education. We were founded by change agents who dared society to accept the idea of educated women at a time when that notion invited scorn in some quarters. We are still a radical idea today in a culture that views the women’s revolution as “so over.” Not. We persist not as museums to our glorious pasts, but as activists on behalf of the women who still need this form of education so very much.

Trinity and our real sister colleges —- the College of New Rochelle, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, the College of St. Elizabeth, Rosemont College, the College of St. Catherine, Mt. St. Mary’s in Los Angeles, and others — have educated hundreds of thousands of women over the course of the last century, influencing countless families and lives. Such institutions will persist because we are creative, flexible and resilient, yes; but even more important, because of our firm belief that women must continue to have the option to receive this extraordinary educational opportunity in places dedicated to their personal and professional success through intellectual and spiritual fulfillment.

Patricia A. McGuire is president of Trinity College in Washington.

Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email:



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