Keeping Teaching and Learning at the Heart of Strategic Planning
As the result of two years of budget cuts, Bemidji State University’s finances became unsustainable, forcing the elimination of more than 30 full-time positions, representing approximately 15 percent of the university’s budget.
Toward the end of this recalibration of the budget, Martin Tadlock came to the institution as provost and vice president for academic affairs. His challenge was to help move the university forward “without losing its heart and soul.”
During this time of low morale, extreme caution, and anxiety, Tadlock sought to restore trust and reengage the university community in rebuilding in a new direction. At the same time, a new strategic planning process was initiated by the university president, and Tadlock was asked to co-chair that effort.
An unusual approach
There was no master academic plan, and Tadlock thought that completing a master academic plan before the strategic planning process began would be a good way to engage faculty and put teaching and learning first “to help drive the strategic planning process for the university. That’s very unusual,” Tadlock says. “The idea came from and reading the landscape of the university and seeing that traditionally this institution has always been about teaching and learning first and putting the student at the center of every decision. That’s what people espouse, so my thought was if that’s what people say they are all about here, let’s put teaching and learning truly at the center. Let’s start with the master academic plan and define where we’re going to go programmatically.”
The president agreed to this approach, and each academic program was asked to participate in a self-study. “The faculty stepped up. They became very engaged in the planning process. We had a lot of open forums on campus, and they were well attended. We had a lot of input from faculty who knew this was an opportune time to really set the direction that we want to go academically, and that was going to be at the core of everything we do in the future, including the strategic planning process,” Tadlock says.
The master academic planning process was open to the entire campus. As the master academic plan went through various iterations, those were distributed. “When the steering committee for the strategic plan was put together, all the members of that steering committee were already familiar with the master academic plan. Since everyone was familiar with the master academic plan, that informed their direction in terms of how they went about the planning process for creating the strategic plan, and I’m sure it informed everybody’s thinking about what should be the mission, vision, and values of the university based on the mission, vision, and values found in the master academic plan,” Tadlock says.
A plan for growth
Although the master academic plan and strategic plan were completed in the context of the recalibration, “it was made clear from the beginning that it is a growth plan,” Tadlock says. “We are planning to grow the university, planning to grow existing programs, and add new programs. That was clearly stated, with the onus falling on the administrators to assist faculty to find external funds and creative budgeting internally to implement parts of the plan that are all about growth. The plan also included some programs that may be reduced in size or phased out. That was included in the plan as well. Even though it’s a growth plan overall, there are some internal reallocations that will happen as a result of the plan as well.”
The plan also includes a new budgeting plan that allows departments to grow on a revenue share basis using funding from the university that the program pays back to the university over time. It gives faculty an opportunity to launch new distance-based programs and share in the revenue generated with the university.
The master academic planning and the strategic planning are on a three-year schedule and are aligned and synchronized. (The final version of the university strategic plan will be completed this fall.) “Even though we have a three-year plan, to grow strategically it will be revisited constantly. It’s not ‘set in stone’. I don’t think anyone in higher education can do that anymore. You have to be ready for the changes that are occurring all around you. That’s what we intended when we put the plan in place,” Tadlock says.
Indicators of financial sustainability that will be monitored include number of annual graduates within a major or standalone minor, graduate placement rate in related career or graduate school, student graduation rate for the program (fall juniors of the three most recent years’ graduation within a total of six years), average enrollment in upper-division courses, student FYE generation per faculty member, cost-study analysis (per student cost), program assessment data and currency, state and/or regional employment opportunity data, program essentiality to the university mission and other indicators related to academic excellence, evidence of student learning, potential for improvement, and other considerations from the college and department.
Shorter planning cycles: the new normal
The three-year planning cycle is a shorter cycle than in the past, something Tadlock sees as becoming the standard throughout higher education. This is reflected in the ways accrediting agencies currently operate. For example the Higher Learning Commission (the accreditor of BSU) used to operate on a 10-year review cycle. No longer. Now, the institution provides documentation every four years and a has small-team visit every seven years. “It’s more about constant, continuous quality improvement. If accrediting bodies are looking at it that way, there’s a reason, and I think that impacts our thinking about planning. You can have a long-term vision and mission that drives the institution for a long period of time, but how you address that mission and how you realize that vision is going to be thought of as more short-term planning Universities need to be a little more nimble, a little more responsive now than in the past because the rate of change has accelerated. We have multiple opportunities coming from all directions that we need to sort and prioritize. Which ones do you let go by and which ones do you grab?”