At first, the task seems to be not overly difficult: gather the answers to nine rather brief questions.
At second thought, however, once one realizes that the future of the University of South Dakota and, in turn, quite likely the future of the Vermillion community will depend on those answers, the questions are anything but easy.
The Vermillion City Council took its turn at answering questions posed to it by two members of the University of South Dakota Strategic Planning Task Force – Travis Lettelier, a visiting instructor at the Beacom School of Business and director of the SD Council for Economic Education, and Kathryn Birkeland, co-chair of the task force and chair of economics and decisions sciences at the Beacom School of Business at USD
Lettelier and Birkeland visited the council at its special noon meeting Sept. 3 in City Hall.
Aldermen were asked to not only answer five rather general questions that had been sent to them earlier, but also to give their input on four additional questions that are more specific to the role and interests of the city council and the city of Vermillion.
Literature distributed by the two task force members describes how USD is launching a new vision for its future through a five-phase strategic planning process that allows the Strategic Planning Task Force to think and plan collaboratively with input from on- and off-campus stakeholders.
The collaborative strategic planning process is broken into five phases and is expected to be completed in 2020. The first phase – Getting Organized – occupied the first two months of the process. Currently, the task force is in its second phase – data gathering and engagement, which is expected to take three months and will conclude soon. Task force members will meet with internal and external stakeholders across South Dakota until the end of October.
After October, the third phase of the planning process will begin – Making Sense of the Issues. This process is expected to take two to three months.
It will be followed by a fourth phase known as a Vision Conference, which will take one to two months, followed by the strategic planning process’s fifth and final phase – a Goals Conference, which is also expected to take one to two months.
“We felt it was very important that the city government, especially since you have your ear to the ground probably more than anyone else in the area for what’s going to be coming up in the next several years – that it was vital to get your input in this process,” Letellier told the aldermen.
He asked the council members and city staff members to work in groups of two to answer questions distributed during the meeting. He said the five questions sent to aldermen in advance of the meeting were “not my favorite questions, because they’re very vague.
“I felt, personally, that if we have this opportunity to visit with the city council about some of these major issues, I added a few more (questions),” Lettelier said. “I added about four more questions that might be a little bit more relevant to city council. We obviously are not beholden to these questions at all; they’re might be a question that I’ve completely missed that you think is vitally important to USD.”
Below are the questions posed to the city council members and the variety of answers the aldermen provided:
How does USD fit into the big picture?
Aldermen stated that the university is important to the Vermillion community’s economy, serves as the city’s largest employer and provides entertainment in the forms of plays, sports and concerts. They also noted that USD is a regional flagship university, is integral to the community and that Vermillion benefits when USD does well.
Where do you see USD in five years?
City council members stated that envision the university will be continuing to grow, and will offer more in the field of technology. Aldermen also humorously noted that it will still be in Vermillion.
What does USD do well?
City officials’ responses to this question included a well-kept campus, and great faculty and programs, including its College of Arts and Sciences, business school, law school and medical school.
What could USD do better?
Lettelier and Birkeland learned that city officials believe the university could improve its retention of students and faculty and do more to provide opportunities for spouses of faculty and staff, perhaps by working more closely with the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company on finding those opportunities. The university, they were told, should work on making people of color feel more welcome and not feel that they need to live in neighboring communities.
Other feedback to this question includes greater accessibility to all donors to the university and greater ADA compliance on the campus due to the lack of elevators and ramps. On-campus parking was also identified as an area that needs improvement, as well as better informing the community of happenings on campus.
What is USD’s claim to fame?
Answers to this question include: oldest university in the state, home of the law and the medical school, its business school, the National Music Museum and Old Main.
How can the university support city government in its goals? Are there areas where the interests of the city and of the university might come in conflict with each other?
Answers to these questions include USD supporting outside activities, such as local museums or efforts to attract outside organization’s meetings to the community. Replies also included emphasizing involvement in the community and city to faculty and students more and including the city in USD’s decisions, particularly when infrastructure improvements or additions are made on the campus.
Aldermen also replied that the university should make sure there is strong communication and liaison relationships between city government and university leadership and that the university should be involved in projects that are important to the city, such as downtown, or the proposed community center – areas that would benefit both city and campus populations. It was noted that the city and university may come into conflict in the areas of expansion of territory.
Other responses noted that long-term planning for USD is essentially unknown by the city and that there is a lack of communication about a variety of issues ranging from planning and parking to utility needs. It was also noted that there also things that the city does and that the university could support that would go a long way in terms of retaining students and staff.
“In our notes, I think we’re going to really highlight that (the communication issue) as a theme that’s really coming through pretty strongly,” Lettelier said.
What are three big issues that will impact the city of Vermillion in the next 20 years?
Answers to this question included continued support of the National Music Museum as it benefits both the university and the city and increased support and attraction of regional sporting events, beyond USD sports, to the Vermillion community.
Addressing city growth, housing needs and workforce needs were identified as major issues affecting Vermillion in the future and that USD will play a role in each of those areas. Other issues mentioned included the possibility of someday having the city be the university’s electrical power source and forming a stronger relationship with the university police department and more shared spaces, such as in a new community center in the city.
Lettlier and Birkeland were also told, during the input gathering exercise, that Vermillion needs to better know what the Board of Regents is planning for the future.
They were also told that the continued expectation of undergraduate growth in undergraduate classes seems problematic when high school graduation rates in the state are declining. This means USD must figure out ways to grow student population from out of state or find a way to grow in a way that’s not directly related to incoming class size.
Discussion also noted that perhaps faculty should receive incentives of some type to live in Vermillion. Many faculty currently live out of town and such an incentive arrangement could be opportunity for a partnership involving the city and the university.
Aldermen also said that faculty involvement in the community also should be incentivized in some manner because many faculty members aren’t aware of Vermillion’s amenities.