Strategic Plan

Update on the UNCW Strategic Planning Process

Strengths, Opportunities, and Challenges
Strategic Design and Planning Steering Committee
June 13, 2022

  1. Summary
    At this time of transition, with various pathways possible for our future, the arrival of a new chancellor is an exciting time for the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW). Emerging from the commitment of the citizens of this city to create an institution of higher education, UNCW has evolved a great deal over the last 75 years. In recent decades, the university has experienced significant growth in both enrollment and the size of its faculty and staff. At the same time, we have also faced many challenges that our campus community has risen to meet, including major weather events and a devastating pandemic. Considering these achievements and challenges, the next strategic plan will be a critical step in laying the foundation for the institution’s continued success in the next decade and beyond. A strategic plan must be more than just a list of to-do items. Rather, it should be a roadmap outlining a bold and invigorating future for the institution.

    To this end, in late spring of 2021, Chancellor Sartarelli formed and charged the Strategic Design and Planning Steering Committee (SDPSC) toward developing a new university strategic plan. The existing plan was initially set to expire in the spring of 2021, but it was extended through the 2022 academic year due to COVID-19 impacts. The SDPSC was formed to review, affirm, and refresh the university’s strategic priorities, goals, metrics, and actions. When Chancellor Sartarelli’s retirement was announced in early fall 2021, the committee’s work shifted to also support the search for a new leader. While activities occurred at the university level in relation to the chancellor search process, the SDPSC also worked to conduct a formal environmental scan of the higher education landscape and to collect data for a peer benchmarking assessment.

    During the spring 2022 semester, the SDPSC continued its work by holding a series of internal workshops, discussions, and meetings to review data collected from a feedback survey sent broadly to campus stakeholders as part of the search process. Through these workshops, the committee affirmed the findings from the Search Committee Constituent Input Report, while also refining the data into the most salient elements for the incoming Chancellor. The following is a summary of these findings and the SDPSC’s initial recommendations for next steps in the development of a new university strategic plan.

  2. Strengths, Opportunities, and Challenges
    Through spring 2022, the SDPSC analyzed the major findings from a survey conducted as part of the chancellor search process. This analysis revealed several distinctive characteristics that define the institution’s strengths. The SDPSC also identified several opportunities for determining the best path forward, as well as cultural, political, and structural challenges that may impede these opportunities. Leveraging UNCW’s strengths, the SDPSC asserts that the work ahead will help build upon the remarkable trajectory of success the university has achieved in recent years.

    • 2.1 Strengths
      Over its history, UNCW has always been an evolving institution rooted in the pursuit of excellence and progress. The University is defined by its strong focus on student engagement, its commitment to outstanding teaching and research, and its adherence to shared governance and transparency. Our strengths include ...

      • our commitment to distinguished Academic Excellence.
        UNC Wilmington is committed to cultivating an academic environment in which students of all backgrounds can thrive. The university has experienced remarkable growth in terms of reputation, enrollment, funding, and research, while also remaining committed to academic rigor. Distinction is achieved through a combination of interdisciplinary and traditional programs, as well as strong academic and student support services with a focus on providing high impact practices that foster a rich student experience.

      • our position as the Coastal University of North Carolina with a major impact on the region, state, and beyond.
        Living and working on the coast is at the heart of almost everything the institution does. UNCW’s contributions to the quality of life and economic vitality of the state, region and beyond through its strong, coastal-related programs are unmatched. Whether it is distinctive undergraduate programs such as Coastal Engineering, Marine Biology, and Environmental Science; coastal-related programs and initiatives in education, business, and the health sciences; the PhD in Integrative, Comparative, and Marine Biology and another in Applied Coastal and Ocean Sciences; community and corporate partnerships around the Blue Economy; advanced research activities in coastal-related locales; or the interdisciplinary work at the Center for Marine Science, our service as the coastal university is one of our most important characteristics.

      • our ability to provide exceptional, diverse, and pioneering Undergraduate Student Experiences that foster a strong affinity for the university.
        UNCW’s unwavering dedication to the “integration of teaching and mentoring with research and service” drives us to “create experiences for life.”  With a strong focus on the undergraduate student experience, student affiliation is fostered through experiential opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom. Despite increased enrollment growth, the University has remained committed to maintaining a low faculty-to-student ratio relative to our size. Faculty also provide a rich undergraduate research experience through their endeavors to develop collaborative, creative, and scholarly projects. Staff have created programs and services that have been recognized nationally for supporting a student-centered culture. All these qualities are reflected in the university’s increasing number of first-year applicants, the increasing number of incoming students with strong academic talents, and our commitment to activities such as undergraduate research, international education, athletics, the arts, and applied learning.

      • our High-Quality and Resilient Faculty and Staff.
        After several challenging years at the institution involving multiple hurricanes and a pandemic, it is apparent that UNCW’s most important asset is its people. At the heart of this lies the resilient nature of our faculty and staff, who, despite unexpected and often seemingly insurmountable hurdles, thrive when supporting student success. They have shown a remarkable ability to adjust to circumstances and a willingness to go above and beyond to provide service to our constituents. Through creative collaboration, our faculty and staff promote a culture of well-being for our campus community to ensure a sense of belonging for not only the students but for all who make up our community. This is a foundational strength that should be a cornerstone of any strategy for the future.

    • 2.2 Opportunities
      Opportunities abound for UNCW’s immediate and long-term future. As a comparatively young institution, the university is known for its entrepreneurial and creative spirit, which fosters an ability to organize and act nimbly. As the institution prepares for the coming decades, defining our identity as a diverse and representative body of students, faculty, and staff, as a Doctoral University with High-Research Activity, and as an institution that values its connection to the community will position us to succeed for many years to come. Our opportunities include ...

      • fostering the campus environment regarding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for all faculty, staff, and students.
        The tragic elements of Wilmington's history are important to acknowledge, and UNCW seeks to work with community partners to explore and inform about this history in ways that foster cooperation and good will. Although the institution has been committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, there remains much to do in this arena. Our next strategic plan can provide a roadmap for this progress so the university can continue to serve the emerging and diverse constituent populations whom we serve.

      • reinforcing UNCW’s standing within the community.
        As previously noted, UNCW is a young and ever-evolving institution with an entrepreneurial spirit. With this comes an ability to continuously redefine who we are and evolve as an institution. While this nimbleness is a strength, there remains an opportunity to firmly entrench UNCW among the great institutions in the country. The opportunity to redefine who we are in our local community while emphasizing our coastal location and our various programs and services is a significant one for our future. We must improve how we are perceived by our external constituents through strong engagement with our community in a persistent and continuous effort. We view this as an opportunity to demonstrate UNCW as a distinctive learning organization that fosters close relationships among our students, faculty, staff, and those important partners across our local community.

      • improving faculty/staff Compensation, Benefits, Culture, and Working Environment.
        Although resilience among faculty and staff is a significant strength, exhaustion, burnout, and disengagement are of utmost concern, especially after several years of hurricanes, the pandemic, and a work environment that is constantly in flux. Centering the employee experience as a critical component of academic distinctiveness is essential. The next strategic plan provides an opportunity to focalize actionable steps that promote a positive workplace culture, recognize, and reward the efforts of faculty and staff, and advocate for compensation and benefits with the UNC System Office and the North Carolina General Assembly. The institution should strongly consider more flexible and remote work schedules while still meeting student demand. Striving to be a family-friendly workplace that is a sought-after locale for employees will strengthen our efforts to recruit and retain the very best.

      • evolving as a prominent Research University.
        UNCW was recognized as a Doctoral University with High-Research Activity in 2018, which is a remarkable accomplishment that should be at the forefront of our next plan. Although this development had been underway for decades, the institution must continue its fundamental work to embrace this distinction and to create sustainable support for its expanding mission with more emphasis on graduate education, research, and innovation. Identifying strategic focal areas in which UNCW research and innovation can rise to prominence, address regional challenges, and provide global impact are critical pathways for our future.

      • strategically enhancing and developing Academic Programs that align with state needs, career opportunities, and student interests.
        UNCW has been strategic in the growth and development of academic programs, and as the UNC System funding model changes, the opportunity to review our academic portfolio, respond to emerging needs within various disciplines, and still focus on excelling in teaching and learning at both the undergraduate and graduate levels is an important one in our trajectory. The institution can maintain its existing high-quality programs, while strategically enhancing new, emerging fields, through a focus on interdisciplinary programs and offerings. Of note, the next SACSCOC Quality Enhancement Plan is centered on the impact that interdisciplinary teaching and research will have on student learning. A strategic plan that articulates this pathway can lead us to further excellence.

      • deepening Community/Corporate Partnerships.
        Because UNCW emerged from the commitment to and by the community, we have always strongly reciprocated that commitment our partners and agencies in the region. However, as the counties of Southeast North Carolina expand and evolve, it is imperative that UNCW engage with new partners, both in the community and in the corporate sector, to ensure that our success brings success to others. Two areas, among many others, that could be leveraged for this opportunity are UNCW Athletics and the Arts, which have strong connections to community and corporate partners.

    • 2.3    Challenges
      UNCW will face a number of challenges in the coming years, both external and internal. For example, external challenges include shifting demographics, competition from other institutions, and labor market conditions; internal challenges include operating within a new budget model, adjusting operations to support our evolving status as a national public research university, and meeting the needs of a new generation of students who may have different expectations than previous student populations. The Strategic Design and Planning Steering Committee identified key challenges as …

      • meeting necessary Investment in Talent among Faculty and Staff.
        UNCW is a people-centered organization, and therefore investing in existing and additional faculty and staff will be critical to sustaining and advancing our mission. Yet both the external labor markets and our internal system guidance and policies have the potential to erode our ability to provide competitive salaries, limiting our ability to define work benefits more broadly and inhibiting professional development opportunities for our faculty and staff. Without these investments – in combination with recent natural disasters and the pandemic that tested our resilience – UNCW employees are less engaged and more fatigued. In such cases, our ability to retain these employees is a challenge, especially with opportunities in the labor market growing regionally, as well as opportunities for employees to use modern and changing work environments that align more effectively with their goals and lifestyles. The institution must recognize this challenge and deploy tactics, such as flexible work schedules and a dedication to professional development, to foster talent in our diverse workforce in the coming years.

      • ensuring the high quality of the Student Experience.
        We have observed over the past several years major shifts in the expectations of our incoming students. At the same time, the university has grown tremendously, while resources to ensure continuity and enhancement of the support services provided have not kept pace. For example, the pandemic has demonstrated that UNCW must thoughtfully and responsibly address the mental health issues our students, faculty, and staff face, which stresses existing service infrastructure in this area. We must also recognize that our growth in graduate education and online programming creates new types of service needs that are necessary for a high-quality student experience – e.g., providing affordable housing and healthcare options for graduate students; ensuring one-on-one faculty-student mentoring relationships in an online environment; fostering a diverse student body; and building new programming around student engagement to increase first-year retention and four-year graduation rates. However, these areas of growth should not come at the expense of our strength at the undergraduate level. A commitment to ensuring quality for all UNCW students should be front and center in the coming years.

      • managing the relationship among Affordability, Quality Experiences, and Inclusive Opportunities.
        Although one of our challenges is delivering a high-quality experience for students, this challenge is made more difficult due to multiple factors like the looming shifts in demographics, inflation, lengthy time between raises for faculty and staff, and new budget realities that threaten our ability to support these services and programs. As a public university, one of our primary goals is to ensure affordability for our students (and thereby minimize student debt upon graduation); yet some of the necessary support services we need to provide students will bring additional costs to the University and require additional revenue streams. We will need to explore additional opportunities for revenue generation including, but not limited to, the expansion of extramural sponsored programs and an increased donor funding base, as we work to meet the expectations of our students, faculty, and staff – as well as to achieve the major goals of our next strategic plan.

      • maintaining an environment where UNCW is “The University of Choice” for Prospective Students.
        Given the increased competition for students among higher education institutions (particularly considering the demographic shifts in college-age populations in the coming decade), UNCW will face the challenge of competing with other institutions in being a “university of choice” for prospective students. Currently, UNCW has healthy enrollments, strong programming, and an attractive location, but the higher education landscape is dynamic and shifting, and universities across the nation are implementing approaches to increase enrollment using a variety of strategies. UNCW must stay agile and nimble in this competitive landscape, and define the distinctive value proposition (i.e., a university “like no other”) that it offers students of all types – undergraduate/graduate, traditional/non-traditional, military-affiliated/veterans, part-time/full-time, etc. Additionally, UNCW must find ways to expand opportunities for growing diverse student populations in order to attract and retain the best among all those we seek to serve.

      • optimizing Organizational Structures and Processes.
        To be as effective as possible under the changing landscape mentioned above, UNCW must address its own operations and create efficient and responsive policies, practices, and organizational structures. UNCW must not be afraid to challenge the approach of “This is how we’ve always done it.” We need to recognize how policies and practices affect faculty, staff, and student engagement and satisfaction, and we need to build our policies and practices around a collective set of principles that emphasize transparency, efficiency, equity, and effectiveness, among others. Along with improving our policies and practices, we must also evaluate and adapt organizational structures that ensure the institution can provide optimal platforms for implementing our next strategic plan. How we consider things such as risk management, process improvement, and institutional oversight are areas that require discussion and reflection. The possibility for tension exists as resistance to change and bureaucracy are natural reactions for most individuals. 

      • ...creating a Collective Sense of Our Identity and Distinctiveness as a large, national, public research university.
        UNCW has undergone tremendous change throughout its existence, and as such, the university has seen its identity evolve in sometimes unexpected ways. The transition from a small college in downtown Wilmington, to a regional comprehensive university, and then to a large, national research university has created questions about who we want to be. We are challenged, through this next strategic plan, to answer that question and build a collective sense of identity that speaks to various audiences in a meaningful way. We also are challenged to tell our story through an increasingly competitive media landscape. Finding our distinctive identity - “like no other”- and being true to that identity that most describe as a “tight-knit family” will allow us to focus our attention and energy on those strategic initiatives that matter most to us.

    • 3     Recommendations
      The best strategic plans connect strengths, opportunities, and challenges through a related set of pathways, priorities, and strategies. Rather than a group of individual goals and outcomes, a strategic plan should be a powerful tool for change for the institution and its stakeholders by being focused, dynamic, interconnected, and intentionally designed. We envision a system map of priorities, goals, and strategies that leverage strengths and opportunities, while acknowledging the challenges that the institution may face. As such, the SDPSC is eager to continue its work in the coming year with significant input and leadership from the new chancellor. As we celebrate the accomplishments of our 75 years, we are also ready to prepare for the next quarter century. Our recommendations for next steps are as follows:

      • Reissue the charge to a refreshed SDPSC.
      • Replace members of the SDPSC as needed due to work commitments or campus departures.
      • Use summer 2022 to prepare for the fall. This could include the formation of working committees comprising representative members of the campus community. Co-Chairs should consult with the new chancellor while the full committee meets monthly to discuss progress and next steps.
      • Review institutional data, survey results, and constituent feedback across campus to incorporate into the formation of the plan.
      • Review, revise, and reaffirm the institutional mission statement providing a clear and concise description of who we are.
      • Affirm the institutional value statements among key stakeholders.
      • Establish the institutional vision and the top priorities for the next strategic plan.
      • Create metrics, action plans, resource allocations, and responsible individuals/units for specific priorities and strategies.
      • Incorporate and align with the UNC System metrics and performance goals
      • Build a “systems map” that connects strengths, opportunities, and challenges with these action plans and strategies.
The SDPSC looks forward to discussing these recommendations with the new chancellor and developing a process for AY22-23 that will ultimately lead to a new strategic plan for this great university.




Share Your Input about UNCW’s Strategic Design and Planning

May 2, 2022


Many thanks to the Seahawks who were able to attend UNCW’s Strategic Design and Planning webinar on April 27. If you missed the webinar, the recording and a copy of the presentation are available online 

Input Requested by May 18
We value your thoughts about the strengths, opportunities and challenges the committee presented. 
Please 
share your input via this anonymous survey managed by Institutional Research and Planning. The opportunity to offer feedback through the survey will be available throughout our strategic planning process; however, the committee requests your input for immediate review by Wednesday, May 18, so they can incorporate into work over the summer. 

Thank you, 
Committee Co-Chairs 

Dr. Nathan Grove, Faculty Senate President & Professor, Chemistry  
Susan Smith, Former Staff Senate Chair, Member Services & Operations Coordinator, Campus Recreation  
Dr. James Winebrake, Provost & Vice Chancellor, Academic Affairs


UNCW Engaged in Strategic Design and Planning Process

In spring 2021, UNCW launched an inclusive strategic design and planning process to build on the success of the current Strategic Plan, which was extended through 2022. The extension provides the university with time to plan for the next phase of UNCW’s future while also navigating the effects of the global pandemic.

The Strategic Design and Planning Steering Committee

Chancellor Jose V. Sartarelli announced formation of the Strategic Design and Planning Steering Committee. The SDPSC comprises faculty, staff and students from across UNCW to represent a diverse set of experiences, backgrounds and perspectives. The committee co-chairs are:  

See a full list of the Strategic Design and Planning Steering Committee.

Committee Activities 

  • Review key literature and participate in trainings, workshops and discussions related to design thinking and strategic planning principles. 
  • Develop timeline and framework for strategic design and planning work through the 2021-22 academic year.  
  • Facilitate the collection of information from key campus stakeholders, including hosting campus fora and/or public discussions. 
  • Participate in regular meetings. 
  • Represent their respective constituencies through transparent communication. 
  • Translate input from constituents into overarching problem-solving and strategic priorities for campus. 
  • Identify campus constituents to comprise various workgroups related to problem-identification and strategic priorities. 
  • Collect information from workgroups to design strategic actions, goals, targets, and objectives.  
  • Craft and review draft reports that will ultimately lead to the final plan. 
  • Solicit endorsement from campus governing bodies. 

See more information about the SDPSC's activities.

Campus and Community Involvement Needed

When members of the SDPSC reach out to you for your input and support, please assist them in this important work. Your voice matters throughout this process. Have questions? Please contact one of the co-chairs.