May 10, 2005 – The strategic planning process for the next seven years at the University of the Virgin Islands began last fall. Since then, the UVI community, educators, businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, legislators and donors have given their input about the university's direction into the year 2012.
Now, at a series of town hall meetings, the community at large is entering into the dialogue. Tuesday evening, the most recent meeting took place at the Palms Court Harborview Hotel on St. Thomas. Deborah Fontaine, special assistant to the president, said the university officials like what they're hearing.
"We've identified areas of interest, and now we've been getting feedback, a lot of strong affirmation," Fontaine said before the meeting. "What's most important for us is making sure we function as a high-level institution at every level." She pointed to the areas of student learning, teaching and research. "We want to be a leader in the community."
About two dozen community members attended Tuesday's meeting. Their comments ranged from praise to the university for being an innovative and dynamic entity, to the more practical concerns of training workers for specific jobs.
"I have an interest in the issue of the future of workforce development," said one man. "How clear is UVI on what's happening with the challenges of work?"
Fontaine said the planning is happening in relation to the community's needs. For example, unemployment is at 8.6 percent in the territory, and the average income is going down.
"The territory needs to help its own people," UVI president LaVerne Ragster said. She added that often jobs pay less when compared to what more qualified people from off-island are earning. "We have to pick the standards. We should know the level of certification for accountants, for taxi drivers, for everybody. We're looking at demand-driven courses." Ragster continued, "We can't do it alone. We need to have partners in the public and private sectors."
Fontaine gave the statistic that 46 percent of the workforce nationwide lacks the necessary skills to do their jobs. That led to the question from the audience of addressing failures in curriculum. "How do you get decision makers to make changes?" asked one concerned citizen.
"It's not only about more resources, but maybe you are going at it the wrong way," said Ragster, who believes flexible workers with more cross training are among the most valuable. "You need someone who can work across the range and who can work with other people."
Other issues raised from the audience included becoming more competitive with online and distance learning, and making classes more accessible to non-traditional students. More than half of the university's 2,565 students are part time, and are fitting their class schedule in around full or part time jobs.
Fundraising continues to be of concern for the university. "People with the capacity to give are not linked to UVI," Ragster said. While there are loyal donors to the university, the increase in dollars the past two years have to do with EDC companies making larger contributions, she said.
The last planning session covering 2000 to 2005 created Community Engagement and Lifelong Learning, better known as CELL, which has trained thousands of people in the last two years.
"It's been wonderful. The community has been receptive to what we've been doing and are asking for more. We're making money. We've trained thousands of people," said Ilene Garner, CELL director. "But more important than the money is the role we're playing in the community."
The first town hall meeting was Monday evening on St. John, and the last will be at 5:30 p.m. on May 18 at the St. Croix Botanical Gardens.
The strategic plan should go before the board of trustees in June. If approved, implementation will begin in October.
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