More than 30 years ago, Stephens College seemed the logical choice for a young Annie Potts.
After all, her mother and sister had gone to Stephens, one of the nation’s oldest women’s colleges and an institution known for its tradition of innovation. The school had been gaining steam since 1920, when Werret Wallace Charters was hired as director of research to build what was touted as “the strongest curriculum found in any women’s college in the world.”
But the pull went deeper than her legacy status: Potts — now well-known for her role on “Designing Women” — wanted to be an actress, and the home of one of the country’s oldest theater programs seemed like just the right place to start.
Potts found herself at Stephens during its heyday, when enrollment was up and, because of the heady social changes under way across the country, the talk at women’s colleges turned naturally to the role of women in America.
Today, leaders at Stephens are seeking a return to the energy of those times. A fixture in Columbia since the mid-1800s, the school is taking a hard look at its past and present as it searches for a niche to survive in a world in which women’s colleges are few and often do not rank as favorably with prospective students as they once did.
With a new president and a new mission statement, Stephens’ new goals include attracting more students, improving financial stability and becoming a closer partner with the community, said the school’s president, Wendy Libby.
“The spirit here is sensational,” said Libby, who took over the school’s top job in July. “We all know that we are reinventing ourselves. And we’re making sure that in that reinvention, students and faculty are smack in the middle of the decision making, and that is a great source of encouragement for everyone.”
As Libby works to lead the school in a new direction, one of her first orders of business was to come up with a five-year strategic plan. The strategic planning process was launched in September; much of the plan is being drafted and is expected to be presented to the college’s Board of Trustees in May. Some changes have already been made.
One was the revision of the school’s mission statement, which now includes the school’s “Ten Ideals."
Defined as the “core values that enrich women’s lives,” such as leadership and creativity, the Ten Ideals have been a hallmark of Stephens education for more than 80 years and might soon be an integral part of a new marketing campaign for the school, according to the strategic plan.
Libby — formerly vice president for business affairs and chief financial officer of Furman University in Greenville, S.C. — was hired in part for her long-term planning abilities.
“I really wanted to find someone that had a strategic way of looking at the institution, which is a long-term planning horizon,” said George Ann Harding, chairwoman of the Stephens College presidential search committee.
“People had settled into habits before (Libby) got here because things had been the same way for nine or 10 years,” said Emily Heffner, president of the Student Government Association.
“It was nice to have someone new in and everybody immediately go, ‘OK, remember that we’ve been innovative.’ It gave us that boost of energy that we all needed to take the next step and to be active instead of passive in experiencing Stephens,” she said.
Changes are key to Stephens’ future. A January interim report on strategic planning noted that if it continued to operate on its same track, the school as it is now known would have to close within three years — meaning that unspecified changes would dramatically alter the school.
As part of the strategic planning process faculty, staff, students, alumnae and trustees have formed four workgroups to look at the school’s academic programs, student affairs, enrollment and marketing efforts, and facilities and finance issues.
“(Libby) sees that Stephens needs to change,” said John Blakemore, a member of the search committee and the faculty. “And she’s got the backbone to do it.”
Outlined in the interim report is a goal to increase enrollment from its current 577 to about 900 undergraduate students in the next five years.
“I would love to just see more people,” Heffner said. “Bottom line, a lot more people here — to see that vibrancy, to see people excited about the Stephens experience.”
In terms of enrollment, the school has had two heydays. The first was in 1947, when there were 2,368 students. The next came in 1969, when enrollment was at 2,150. Since then, enrollment has declined dramatically.
The report does not offer specifics on how to attract more students but does say, “The college will bring marketing into the mainstream of its decision making and reaffirm that recruiting and retention is everyone’s job.”
Current and promising programs, as well as partnerships and opportunities for accelerated graduate degrees, will be emphasized, the report states.
Although the new enrollment goal is to almost double the number of undergraduate students, it is still well below the enrollment of the 1970s. The idea is to have a rational goal, Libby said.
“Women’s colleges today, although they do great things for women, and have, I think, competitive advantages for women, simply don’t get to be more than 900 or 1,000 students,” Libby said.
With the hope that there will soon be more students to serve, the school is considering revamping its general education program to make better use of resources. The interim report notes that a switch from a “menu model” to a “cohort network model” is under consideration. That means students would move through general education requirements as cohorts, or groups, of 20 students who take classes revolving around a specific interest area.
It would guarantee an enrollment of 20 students per class, rather than the much smaller enrollment seen now in some courses.
“The idea is to try to link the skills that get taught in a typical general education class with content courses in the major,” said Rex Stevens, vice president for academic affairs. “General education then would not be seen as an obstacle course that everyone has to get through in order to get to the real stuff, the stuff they actually came here to study.”
As with the entire strategic plan, decisions regarding the continuation, expansion or streamlining of academic programs will be made with student input, Stevens said.
"I'm going to insist that any changes in the curriculum go through the students and also that the faculty considers student opinions," said Stevens, who joined the college this year. "We really want to build some programs here that are attractive not just in some superficial way, but they meet the needs of young women
Another of Stephens’ goals is to become more financially secure. For the past few years the school has operated at an annual deficit of $3 million to $4 million on a $14 million budget, according to the interim report.
To become financially stable, the administration “will immediately begin determining which real property holdings should be part of a program for improvement, lease or sale,” the report says.
Included in the workgroup reports to the strategic plan’s steering committee is the suggestion to sell Hillcrest Hall and Apartments, a residential complex built between 1965 and 1970. Valued at $3.5 million by attorney and Stephens trustee Craig Van Matre, the building is one of the “few marketable properties the college has that is not directly tied to the heritage of the college,” according to the report.
If Stephens were to sell Hillcrest, the school would need to keep the currently vacant Columbia Hall and mostly vacant Wood Hall — both built in 1918 on the school’s historical quadrangle — for residential expansion, the report states.
Sampson Hall is also suggested in the report as a marketable property. Most of its occupants, such as the Registrar’s Office, are scheduled to move into newly restored Lela Raney Wood Hall. Money for the restoration is coming from “The Campaign for Stephens: It’s Her Turn,” which is expected to reach its $35 million goal this spring.
Although many changes are planned at Stephens, the goal is to implement the strategic plan without losing the essence of what’s going on in the classroom, Libby said.
“What’s important to me is that we not turn our backs on that tradition but reinforce it,” the president said. “We are looking once again at how to ensure that we are doing things that will make a difference in women’s lives.”
That tradition is part of what drew Annie Potts back to campus to appear in a December performance of “A Little Night Music.” And last month, the 1973 graduate was named to Stephens’ Board of Trustees.
“I just couldn’t say no, so I said yes,” she said. “I’d like to think its real heydays are ahead of it.”