Framing Fearful Symmetry: A Tiger Teams Update

By: Henry R. Broaddus, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives & Public Affairs, ELT Tiger Teams Sponsor


Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
“The Tyger” by William Blake

What does one do when faculty raise two big ideas — each with high potential to affect positively both the university’s mission and finances — prior to the launch of formal strategic planning? What does one do when the ideas’ complexities require exploratory work to understand the range of possibilities for implementation? What does one do to begin building a body of knowledge about these ideas — to frame the boundaries, identify the challenges and sketch the opportunities?

The two big ideas, easy to explain but difficult to execute, are a summer semester and a continuing education enterprise. And if you are President Katherine Rowe in January of 2019, you assemble two tiger teams.

Not, in fact, a reference to Romantic poetry, “tiger team” is a term borrowed from NASA. A tiger team is a group of people with subject-matter expertise who work together to solve a problem. A William & Mary tiger team is not intended to be a representative group of stakeholders; rather it is a group of people with particular knowledge and experience. The “fearful symmetry,” in this case, is the composition of the formidable teams and the shapes of the ideas they work to refine.

Throughout the 2019 spring semester and into the summer, both teams (and, in the case of continuing education, a hired consultant as well) gathered information from across campus and beyond, and produced two white papers for the president:

In November, the summer semester was the subject of one of President Rowe’s strategic planning fora. The session generated ideas to inform a field consultancy completed by a team of MBA students, a faculty member and two executive partners at our business school. The team performed customer discovery work with current and prospective students to validate the incentives necessary for a summer semester to appeal to students. One potential model would include working with local companies to incorporate case studies in the summer and guaranteed internships the following fall. The provost intends to launch a small, targeted pilot for summer 2020, probably on the order of 20-30 students, as a trial run to learn more. The findings from the pilot, the field consultancy and ideas from faculty about what they could do without the constraints of a traditional semester will inform future steps.

The continuing education tiger team’s work identified the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area as the most promising market for such offerings. The D.C. metro area is more than twice as large as the markets for continuing education in Richmond and Hampton Roads combined. D.C. is a fiercely competitive market; many other universities already offer established and highly financed continuing education programs there. Provost Peggy Agouris, who came to us from that territory as the dean of the College of Science at George Mason University, has observed that William & Mary enjoys all or most of the brand recognition of any of the universities located in the area. Not having any expensive overhead in place could also be a competitive advantage if William & Mary can find lower-cost delivery mechanisms with partners. Partnerships would enhance W&M’s capabilities through access to online platforms, branch locations and other needed resources. The tiger team recommended moving forward with an RFP to identify the right partner or partners to stand up a continuing education venture. Excitingly, this would be a return to continuing education for William & Mary, which issued a surveyor’s license to an off-campus learner named George Washington all the way back in 1749.

The ultimate outcome of these tiger-team projects remains uncertain and in progress, even though the tiger teams have concluded their work. The teams’ findings and recommendations will be incorporated into strategic planning and carried forward in the coming year, and the paths these tigers blazed while burning bright illuminate exciting possibilities.