Considerations for Meaningful and Credible Strategic Planning
Formulating strategic plans is a relatively common activity in higher education. Some institutions have strong traditions in this regard, and all levels periodically engage in this process. Others participate occasionally. Much depends on the interest and motivation of the upper administration. In fact, planning of this type is often initiated when a new leader (department, school, campus) comes in.
Mention strategic planning to faculty and you will get complaints about doing much work to produce a volume that sits on a shelf collecting dust until the next round of planning is launched, or unfavorable comments about making grandiose plans without any resources to implement them. It is true that the process is time-consuming when done well and would be a waste of resources if it were not linked to budgeting or forgotten immediately upon printing and posting on a website. The focus should be on spreading the work while getting the best of many divergent perspectives in developing the plan, crafting the plan in ways that make it more likely to attract the resources required to implement it, developing a practice and/or strategy of using the plan to guide unit initiatives, and being very public about measuring performance against the plan.
At the outset of the strategic planning process, thought usually goes into deciding the list of constituents to invite as participants. In campus planning, most faculty members will have input through faculty representatives. Typically, students are invited, although they do not always actively participate. Alumni and external advisory boards are other groups sometimes brought to the table. There is one group that is often absent from the conversation; that group is the staff.
The staff support all our work in teaching, research and scholarship, engagement, and administration. One could easily argue that they are more knowledgeable than most faculty and administrators regarding things like grant budget administration, academic policies and procedures, and—because of their frontline work with students—are doing a good job in the classroom and could use some help. This allows them to bring a unique perspective to the conversation about opportunities, obstacles, and goals for improvement. In addition, they, like faculty, are “permanent“ employees who have a sense of loyalty and a vested interest in the success of the unit and institution. Contrast this with students who are transient, alumni who are increasingly removed from the institution, and advisory board members who are peripherally connected at best.
Unlike many faculty who feel they do not have the time or do not want yet another set of meetings, most staff would be pleased to contribute to aspects of the strategic plan. This opportunity is regarded as a reward for their professional efforts rather than another work assignment and is a mechanism by which faculty and administration can demonstrate how valuable staff are to the overall enterprise. Of course, staff participation means less effort from those faculty who are too busy or reluctant to take part.
Regarding the challenge of generating a plan that will attract the necessary new resources for implementation, there are no guarantees in today’s world of fiscal unpredictability. Assuming, however, that the local situation is not dire or that the institution has made resources available through painful reallocation, there are some planning strategies that can enhance the chances of winning new resources. How they play out is dependent on whether strategic planning is taking place at all institutional levels (campus, school, department) at the same time or a department or school is initiating planning on its own.
Most strategic plans can be counted on to include objectives for undergraduate students and their institutional experiences, civic engagement, scholarship/creative activity, personal development, and diversity, with research institutions adding graduate program development or expansion, external funding, and other related aspects of scholarship. While goals in these areas may be broad at the institutional level, they become increasingly more specific as they are defined at the school and department levels. The major points in the campus plan are typically articulated with specific language. For example, scholarship, research, innovation, and discovery all may be used as to convey the same priority. For school and department plans, it is most advantageous to replicate the major priorities (at least those for which the unit will be seeking new resources) of the campus plan using the same language. This alignment strategy allows all readers to recognize that the unit’s plan is intimately linked to that of the campus.
Many goals within strategic plans will require new resources. Some, like growing the graduate student population or implementing programs to enhance undergraduate student success, would likely be too costly for an academic department budget to absorb, thus requiring investment from some higher-level source. Funds made available for implementing the strategic plan are almost certainly going to be insufficient to address every unit’s aspirations and thus are likely to be distributed on a competitive basis. To gain advantage in this competition, it is recommended that departments and schools structure their priorities and goals in ways that demonstrate alignment with campus priorities and goals. Again, this goes back to language, details, and efforts to specifically link what you want to accomplish to the points made in the school and campus plans.
The final topic is one related to the prominence of the plan in guiding the future work of the unit, school, or campus. The complaint that once the plan is completed it goes into dormancy until it is time for another plan to be constructed is the result of the failure of institutions, schools, and departments to keep their plans in the forefront even as they implement promised changes and make progress toward goals. Faculty are busy people and quickly forget what is specified in the strategic plan, and they cannot be expected to connect the dots between a goal written in a document three years earlier and some outcome data presented today. This gap in the planning process can be corrected by an “assessment of progress” mechanism that regularly collects data related to the goals of the plan and reports findings to various constituents in appropriate ways.
The responsibility of tracking and reporting outcomes of the department planning falls to the chair, with some elements delegated to members of the faculty. Some of the goals are measured by check boxes of “met” or “in progress.” Examples might be establishing an orientation program for new graduate students or developing a new degree track or certificate. Others will require tracking over time. Examples here might be goals to increase the number of undergraduate majors by X percent, to increase the graduation rate by Y percent, and to increase the number of faculty holding external support by Z percent, all over a five-year period. Goals of this kind will require the long-term vigilance of the chairs and staff (e.g., the grants office) or other faculty (e.g., the director of undergraduate studies). Regardless of how goals may be met, results and progress should be reported (with memos, reports, meeting agendas) to the faculty within the context of the strategic plan to remind faculty that the plan is alive and being followed. In addition, outcomes of the plan should be reported to the upper administration and alumni and displayed prominently on the department website, in each case with a specific link to the related priority and goal of the plan.
At the school level, the associate deans could be assigned to monitor activities in their areas of responsibility (academic affairs, student affairs, research, graduate education, finance, etc.). The dean should set aside some time at each school faculty meeting, start-of-the-year gathering, state-of-the-school address, etc., to report on the progress of the school, identifying those elements that are related to specific goals in the plan. As with departments, there should also be efforts to report results and progress up and out.
In summary, for those who will be engaging in strategic planning, the following recommendations may be worth considering:
- Unit staff may have some insightful perspectives on the development of the plan. For example, advisors typically have the pulse of the student body and have insights into aspects of student success that faculty may miss. Include them in the planning process.
- Structure your plan in ways that match, in priorities and language, the plans of the levels above the unit. Alignment will demonstrate campus unity and improve the ability to garner resources for implementation of the unit plan.
- To make the planning process credible to faculty and to promote buy-in to the process, establish an “assessment of progress” plan at the outset. This will provide a structure that will allow regular reporting of progress toward plan goals and will serve as a reminder that the plan is alive and bearing fruit.
N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.