Institutional Planning That Makes a Difference
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
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:
Aided by an analysis of literature on strategic change and innovation, we proceeded to evaluate the responses we received.
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 ones own institution and whats right for it, and also recognizing that nothing is sacred."
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
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
Using Data Benchmarking
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.
Encompassing the Culture
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 Doesnt Work
Adopting Overly Formal Plans
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
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
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, "Were in recovery from the first plan; dont start another now."
A Surprising Finding
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rex Fuller is dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Leo Lambert is president of Elon College and a member of AAHEs 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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