As the university academic year comes to a close, students aren’t the only ones scratching their heads and staring at their notes to decide what their futures will hold. The colleges and universities are also facing an almost contant state of reinvention through strategic planning processes.
A journey, not a destination
In recent years, universities have transitioned from the traditional 5- or 10-year strategic plan in favor of 3-year plan. The reason for the switch being the ever-changing ebb and flow of their primary consumers the students.
“Historically it has been something where we would go through planning process, then the plan would exist for a period of time, then we would come and revisit it when the plan was coming to an end,” Jeff Malanson, an associate professor at Purdue Fort Wayne who leads strategic planning initiatives, said. “But with student demographics changing thoughout the country and with state support definitely not growing to match the rising costs of everything, universities need to be more thoughtful and strategic of where they invest their dollars.”
The University of Saint Francis, according to its president, Sister Elise Kriss, does things a bit differently. A strategic plan is crafted every five years to determine the university’s direction, with annual check-ins. The university is currently in the process of creating its newest plan, which was last updated in 2014.
“Every few years we do the big review,” Kriss said. “But then also between 2014 and 2019 we did an annual review or an institutional annual plan off the strategic plan, so that keeps us on track to accomplish the goals of the strategic plan.”
Most university officials pointed out that their plans, whether three years or longer, are not static. Instead, strategic planning has become a continual process that is constantly evaluating and tweaking its goals and methods.
“It needs to be a living breathing plan,” Andrew Flamm, vice president of advancement and marketing at Grace College, said. “And it needs to be rebooted to make sure the initiatives we had six months ago are still the highest priority or are there new things going on that need new dynamic ideas.”
Reinvention over revenue
Strategic planning is a common occurrence in most any business, company or nonprofit organization as a way to get everyone on the same page to work toward a set of common goals. Planning in the world of higher education differs a bit, though, as revenue is commonly not the primary intention. Their success is measured by student success both during their time at the school and when they graduate and enter the career world.
“We have a really long product cycle,” Dave McFadden, president of Manchester University, said. “Our students come to us for four years when they sign up for something we offer, it is longer than most products. (Also) for years and years colleges and universities have been fairly place-bound…that’s changing for a lot of us.”
Malanson added that, unlike businesses, which often tend to look inward when building strategic plans, universities work outward.
“There’s a lot of conversation about how the university fits into the place it exists and how it can advance the region in a variety of ways,” Malanson said. “Which is especially important for public universities, where such a large part of our budget relies on taxpayer dollars.”
More importantly, a university relies on strategic plans to prove to regional accreditation groups that it is keeping its commitment to quality education and has the means and ideas to propel students forward.
“Across the board, all regional accreditation bodies look at the strategic plans of a university and the process and people involved,” Earl Brooks, president of Trine University, said. “They want to know some time has been spent on both short-term and long-term plans.”
The range of voices included in these planning sessions has expanded over the years to include not only the people with the ability to permit or decline the use of university resources, but the faculty, staff and students who spend the majority of their lives on the campus and have an intimate look at how it works for them.
The practices of gathering this feedback differs from campus to campus. At Trine, Brooks said, much of the feedback is done electronically through emailed surveys, but they also take time to meet with professors and student groups to synthesize the data they gather and shape it into an impactful plan.
“It’s important to know what student expectations and needs are in the process,” Brooks said. “Certainly we hear from faculty regarding needs and changes and classes ... as we go forward and that builds right up to administrators, board of trustees ... There’s opportunities for input across all bodies.”
The strategic plans at USF tend to make its way down the ladder one rung at a time. Kriss stated that the board of trustees usually goes on a retreat to craft the strategic plan. The president’s cabinet then picks it up and finds ways to achieve the goals set out by the board. Once at least a preliminary strategic and operation plan is drawn up, town hall meetings are organized for students as well as ones for faculty and staff to hear what they have to say about the USF strategic plan.
Grace and PFW have invited students to join the planning process on a more involved level, asking them to consider parts of the strategic plan that may or may not be written out yet and determine the best direction the schools can move toward as one unit.
“When you have the administration of a university, student governance and faculty input on their programs, it becomes a lot more of an inclusive activity,” Flamm said. “You need a lot more input from a lot of different areas. The hard, important part is boiling that down into the main things we are going to focus on.”
Making it happen
Knowing that every corner of campus has been invited to express their thoughts about where the university should go next is crucial for the “buy-in,” as Brooks called it, which is, in turn, crucial to the actual implementation of these plans. Like all things, though, there needs to be a balance between including everyone on every decision, and being able to actually execute plans in a timely manner.
“Higher education is where people expect to be involved, consulted with, engaged in the process of planning today,” McFadden said. “Which makes it more difficult because there are times when we need to make decisions in a very short amount of time and we don’t have time to do focus groups. But at the same time we benefit from lots of new technologies ... that people can use to reach us.”
A more continuous, engaged process of planning has resulted in universities embarking on large-scale changes that came from student or faculty suggestions.
Kriss pointed out that students are always highlighting the quality of instruction they are receiving, which has encouraged USF to double down on those programs to make them bigger, better and even invest in new buildings to let those programs grow.
Manchester students advocated for better WiFi access in the dorms, while Trine, students were instrumental in challenging the way administrators looked at libraries.
“We are going away from stacks of books to having more study and group meeting spaces,” Brooks said. “To enhance more technology to do research as opposed to books on shelves and creating conducive environments for students to study together and prepare for presentations.”