Institutional Planning That Makes a Difference
What works, what doesn't, and why
By Ann Korschgen, Rex Fuller, and Leo Lambert

From the April 2000 AAHE Bulletin

Our colleges and universities have devoted lots of time and money to strategic planning. Some have profited immeasurably from their efforts, charting bold new courses in their missions and programs. Others have failed miserably, with low faculty morale, conflict over the focus of the institution, and even abrupt changes of presidential leadership the result.

Usually strategic planning is a formal process that engages a broad cross section of the organization in an effort to develop a long-range plan. Typically such efforts result in a multiyear written plan that identifies the environmental context for the plan and analyzes strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. For the purposes of our article, we will define planning more broadly and include any effort that is designed to help an organization respond in an effective and innovative way to its environment and constituents.

Our collective experience with institutional planning in higher education is significant, among us having served a total of nearly 12 years on strategic planning committees. (We all three were involved in one planning effort together, two of us served on another two committees together, and one of us chaired an additional committee.) We realized if we invested that much time, so, too, must have thousands of others across the country. This observation prompted us to reflect on some major questions: Does planning have a payoff? What planning techniques have the best chances of success in a higher education environment, usually decidedly different from that of corporate America? And, perhaps most important, do formal planning processes truly reflect how institutions anticipate change and foster innovation?

A Snapshot of Planning Today
To find out what works, and what doesn’t, we examined 27 institutions of higher education, 15 of which were identified as "innovative" institutions by George Kellor and Peter Ewell, leading authorities on planning and organization in higher education. The remaining 12 institutions represent a broad cross section of higher education, including private, public, liberal arts, two-year, comprehensive, and doctoral institutions.

With the assistance of graduate students in an organizational behavior and theory class, we conducted interviews and collected data during the fall and winter of 1998Ð99. Most respondents were presidents, provosts, assistants to presidents, or vice presidents of planning; a few were faculty and staff members. In several instances we talked to more than one person on a campus, and we conducted a total of 40 interviews. Our conversations began with the following types of questions:

  • What type of process does your institution use to plan and to adapt to change?
  • Who are the key players in this process? What has been the role of the chancellor/president?
  • What were the problems or issues that motivated change at your institution? What has been a catalyst for planned change?
  • What do you consider the most effective and the least effective parts of your planning process?
  • How is your planning process linked to the budget process?
  • What were some unexpected outcomes of the planning process?
  • What has led to innovation and effective adaptation to change at your institution?
  • What lessons have you learned?

Aided by an analysis of literature on strategic change and innovation, we proceeded to evaluate the responses we received.

What Works
Knowing Your Clay
Henry Mintzberg, the well-known organizational theorist, was on to something when he said, "Know your clay." Leaders must know their institutions before they can shape them. In other words, they should avoid an "ahistorical mindset," i.e., operating as if history began with their arrival at their institution. It is a fallacy to assume that one can define a planning process without first understanding the culture, the people, and the history of that organization. Our interviews taught us that the planning process that worked best developed from a deep understanding of the institution. This is gained only when the leadership listens.

For example, one new president of an institution that had serious problems with sliding enrollments and morale, as well as a faculty very skeptical of planning, began inviting people to sit on the back porch of his home in the evenings and discuss the issues they felt were important. After many such sessions of informal and extensive consultation, the president formulated a plan to address the issues the faculty and staff had explored — a plan that was widely accepted by the university community.

At another institution, the chief architect of a radical but successful reorganization of a major division reaffirmed the importance of "knowing one’s own institution and what’s right for it, and also recognizing that nothing is sacred."

Leading Change
The significance of the role of the president in leading change was emphasized in a number of ways. First, one of the most important steps a president can take is to set a tone — oftentimes one emphasizing the importance of inclusion. The president makes it clear that the path ahead will be charted with input of many constituent voices, especially those of established governance groups.

Second, from their unique vantage points, presidents bring to the planning process informed views of how constituencies, both internal and external to the campus, view key issues. Effective presidents can help faculty, staff, and students understand expectations and aspirations of trustees, legislators, and alumni. (And the reverse is certainly true, as well.)

Finally, it was evident that the participation of the president in the planning process is essential. The exact nature of this participation varies according to the institution and its culture. At many institutions, the president was deeply involved in all aspects of the planning process. Yet at another successful institution, it is the provost who leads the very effective and long-established process; nevertheless, the president still participates in a significant way by meeting periodically with the planning council.

Changing the Culture
Another important role of the president is to understand when it is appropriate to refocus the culture. For example, one institution gained national visibility by reframing itself as a leading student-centered research university. It did so after a dramatic enrollment decline, which impelled the chancellor to lead a transition from a traditional research university focus to one more fully emphasizing undergraduate teaching and learning. This dramatic cultural change required the chancellor to articulate the new vision and an operational plan to support renewed emphasis on undergraduate education.

Presidents also used symbols, shared language, and symbolic actions to facilitate change. For example, another president successfully led a move to diversify the student body by personally visiting African-

American churches to recruit students and by meeting with African-American legislators.

Other leaders have encouraged the use of shared terminology such as "culture of liberal arts" or "culture of assessment" to convey, in a verbal shorthand, a special campuswide emphasis.

Taking Planning Seriously
What compels a university to take planning seriously? We found that people do not easily engage in institutional change unless they believe it addresses widely recognized needs. In some cases, we learned that an institutional crisis precipitates strategic planning because of the sense of urgency the crisis aroused. Even under more stable circumstances, campus constituencies need to believe that the planning process is authentic and that they have a personal stake in the process and outcomes. At one campus where faculty and staff are working seriously toward common goals, one interviewee said, "Our vision statement speaks to every person on this campus."

Using Data Benchmarking
Several campuses in our study used a data-based approach to planning to prompt ongoing self-examination. At one campus heavily invested in student learning assessment, data are regularly used to examine and update planning and programs.

Another campus used a marketing research approach to inform its planning process in order to determine whether public perceptions of the institution reflected the change in mission that the institution had engineered.

Communicating Openly
It is evident that institutions successfully implementing change place a great deal of emphasis on communicating the process and the resultant plans, not only to internal constituencies but also to important externals, such as alumni. Several institutions have their plans on their websites. One president began an email dialogue with the entire campus about the planning process. Other leaders sponsored breakfast sessions for discussion of the process, open forums where progress reports were given to the campus community, and visits with campus groups to talk with people and to dispel myths that might arise. All this was very time-consuming but very effective in communicating the planning process.

Encompassing the Culture
We found that successful planning was always linked to the institutional budgeting process. While it seems self-evident, it’s worth repeating: New planning initiatives not linked to the budget process will die and thus increase campus skepticism about planning. Some leaders had specific strategies they used to redirect base resources to new initiatives. For example, one college is reinvesting 10 percent of its budget over five years by reallocating 1 percent, 2 percent, 3 percent, and 4 percent in four successive years to the new initiatives.

Linking budget with planning also helps advancement offices by giving them clear priorities for fundraising. If institutional funds will be committed to causes that are clearly top priority for the campus, donors may be more likely to support the institution.

Finally, many campuses have set aside R & D funds, funds for innovation, or new program venture grants in order to ensure that creative ideas can "bubble up" from the faculty, staff, and students.

What Doesn’t Work

Adopting Overly Formal Plans
We found that the imposition of rigid and detailed planning processes without regard for institutional cultures or histories was a key reason for failure. In one example, a new president decreed the process to be used without making any effort to integrate it with the needs of the institution. Tremendous turmoil, resistance, and, finally, major changes in top leadership resulted.

Another problem we discovered was unyielding adherence to a plan that was no longer relevant. For example, one institution had a plan in place for several years that failed to fully address the advent of new academic programming needs. When a new program was developed in response to these needs, the first response was, "It is not in the plan." Thus a plan can become an excuse to stifle innovation rather than be a catalyst for change.

Expecting Too Much
People complained when their plans had too many objectives with no one knowing who should be responsible for them. As one president said about the plan the institution was executing, "We need a better sense of priorities. We need a careful assessment of what we’ve achieved to date with a view to dropping some objectives and combining others."

Some institutions were having difficulties setting priorities with the planning team approach. A comment on one campus, "Many faculty have a hard time leaping up to the ‘Big Frame’ needed to engage in institutional strategic thinking. There is a fallacy in higher education to think that really smart people can do anything — we suffer from a very egalitarian culture."

At other campuses people were exhausted from their efforts. It was said of the efforts at one campus that had embraced a huge initiative, "Our process really takes a toll on people. We are required to think beyond our skills. People are worn out. One person here said it is like ‘building a bicycle while riding it and going downhill.’"

Planning or Initiating Change for the Wrong Reasons
A serious problem on some campuses was that the planning process was used to execute a hidden agenda. For example, at one university, an unsuccessful president reportedly arrived with five preconceived goals and then used a planning process to validate them. The planning process ended with "a lot of people worried about their jobs and not a lot of change." Later, when a subsequent president discussed beginning a planning process, the faculty members were almost universally suspicious and resistant to any effort because of their previous experience.

Another problem is having no agenda. Frequently new leaders arrive on campus and change directions simply because, as one campus source said, "New people rarely hold on to the instruments of the old." Planning processes that commence for the wrong reasons — such as planning just to have a plan — generate mistrust and even fear. As one faculty member said, "We’re in recovery from the first plan; don’t start another now."

A Surprising Finding
In almost every institution that was recognized for being innovative, the president had been there for a long time. The average tenure was 13 years.

When we asked faculty and staff on these campuses what they thought about these long tenures, they agreed that consistent leadership had a strong, positive impact on planning and change. For example, at the institution where there had been a very successful shift in the campus culture under the guidance of a long-term president, two of the staff members said, "If a leader really wants to change an institution, he or she has to make a long-term commitment to it."

Given that change can come slowly in higher education, it follows logically that good leadership needs to remain consistent to ensure both the implementation and the execution of change. At the same time, a steady stirring of new ideas was also seen consistently in innovative institutions. One president who recognized this said, "People need to be continuously pushing the edge and looking ahead. I see myself as responsible for ensuring the university community does not get too comfortable."

A Final Note
Overall, it appears that the most effective planning processes were tailor-made to the campuses — and the more simple and focused the plan the better. Often these processes began with presidents communicating with many campus constituencies about institutional issues; establishing broad themes regarding the direction of the institution; receiving input about these broad themes; examining key resource and budget questions; and, finally, expecting those responsible for carrying out the themes to paint in the details and execute the plans.

This article is based on the authors’ 1999 AAHE National Conference presentation, "Reconceiving Institutional Planning: How Innovative Institutions of Higher Education Are Managing and Adapting to Change."

Ann Korschgen is interim dean of student development and academic services and a graduate faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She can be reached at

Rex Fuller is dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He can be reached at

Leo Lambert is president of Elon College and a member of AAHE’s Board of Directors. Previously he was provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He can be reached at

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