Published on 2016/07/22

Strategic Planning and Shared Direction: More Important Than Ever in Higher Ed

The EvoLLLution | Strategic Planning and Shared Direction: More Important Than Ever in Higher Ed
Given the perfect storm of challenges and changes occurring in the higher education space today, it’s critical that college and university leaders work collaboratively with their communities to create strategic plans that help them to map their institutions’ path forward.

Strategic planning is nothing new in higher education, but it has never been more important. Developed properly, it is a powerful tool for focusing the energies of a college community upon the institution itself—on what the institution’s goals should be, how it prioritizes those goals, and how it can differentiate itself in a highly competitive environment.

Implemented properly, it is an effective instrument for making sound strategic decisions that move an institution in a unified and constructive direction. Assessed properly, it is a touchstone for measuring progress and success.

To many, this is self-evident. But strategic planning has not always been so necessary, and many faculty members still struggle to understand the relevance of this process. Traditionally, higher education has rewarded those who work best alone. From the time we were undergraduate students, we were encouraged in many ways to become intellectual individualists. Through much of the latter half of the 20th century, this model worked well for the academy. Although a preference for collaboration began to develop in some disciplines, scholars in many areas received the largest rewards—tenure, promotion, merit pay—for their individual work.

This mindset carries over into the workings of the larger institution as well. The best faculty members often have little interest in the college as a whole, except as a place of asylum for their scholarly endeavors. Although service has for decades been one of the three criteria for promotion and tenure, it typically has been the least important of the three.

All this unfolded in a time of plenty for American higher education. Enrollments nationwide swelled as a result of the GI bill, the Baby Boom, and various subsequent Boomlettes. For many years, the administrators charged with overseeing the institution itself had relatively abundant resources to work with and the luxury of permitting, encouraging, or sometimes simply ignoring faculty individualism.

Times have changed. There is a perfect storm brewing of:

  • Changing student demographics—both a nationwide decline in traditional college-age students and an increase in students with much higher financial needs);
  • Rapidly changing information delivery platforms;
  • A belated recognition of change and variety in the ways students learn;
  • Greater government scrutiny and less government funding;
  • Greater public demand for accountability and return on investment; and
  • Greater competition now requires all hands on deck if an institution hopes to thrive, or even to survive, into the future.

Colleges that fail to differentiate themselves, fail to establish clear and distinctive missions, and fail to understand the needs and interests of a new generation of students will be much less likely to succeed in the 21st century.

Preparing for success today requires new forms of collaboration and a collective institutional will. A well-executed strategic planning process can be invaluable in mobilizing faculty, staff, administrators, board members—even alumni and students—to work together for the common good. So, what does a well-executed process entail?

1. Authentic vision from college leadership

At my institution, Columbia College Chicago, the current strategic plan began to take shape in an inspirational inaugural address delivered by then-new President Kwang-Wu Kim three years ago. A year later, he followed this up with a well-received white paper, Redefining Our Greatness, explaining his vision and rationale for the future. These documents served as the starting point for developing the plan, and from these documents six clear and potentially transformative strategic goals were developed. Ideally, this all begins with the college mission and brand, and strategic planning and implementation are the means of delivering on the brand promise.

2. A representative body to create the plan

The next step at Columbia College Chicago was to develop a group that was truly representative of the entire complexity of the college to create the plan. This was one of the most critical stages of the process in shaping a shared vision and direction. Our strategic planning committee included a mix of faculty (both full-time and part-time), staff, students, administrators, and board members. It was divided into six sub-committees, one for each of the strategic goals. Sub-committees worked primarily on their assigned goals, but there were multiple occasions when the entire group was brought together to discuss overall progress.

3. A broad and genuine data-gathering process

Members of a college community are much more likely to support a strategic plan when they have had a genuine voice in developing it. We realized early in the process at Columbia that we needed to use multiple venues for eliciting feedback from anyone in the community who wished to participate. This included a series of roundtable discussions, an anonymous comment form, and most importantly, the use of a proprietary social media platform, the Civic Commons, to create nuanced virtual discussions around each of the strategic goals. Columbia is a community that relishes engagement. We set a record for engagement with the Civic Commons site, and in fact traffic was so heavy one weekend that we temporarily brought the site down. The opportunity for this level of engagement was essential for establishing a genuinely shared foundation for the strategic plan.

4. Deep and wide engagement in implementation

Once the final strategic plan was developed and approved by the Board of Trustees in May 2015, it was important that we immediately began implementation. This is the step where many strategic plans fail and which can foster cynicism about the process. To ensure that the Columbia community felt confident this plan is real and will not be gathering dust on a shelf, we developed six implementation committees, each consisting of a broad array of faculty, staff, students, and administrators, and each given a clear annual charge. These committees began their work at the beginning of fall semester 2015.

5. Ongoing communication about implementation

Even though our implementation committees were highly representative, the entire campus community needs easily accessible information and regular updates. Consequently, we worked closely with the Strategic Marketing and Communications team to develop a series of stories that communicated the numerous initiatives launched in our first year.  We shared these at town hall meetings and assemblies and through campus media. As we enter year two, we are strengthening our communications to ensure that the community has a comprehensive view of the progress we are making.

6. Meaningful and useful assessment

As the strategic plan is being implemented, each committee also is charged with developing assessment plans. We also are reviewing the implementation through a variety of institutional assessment instruments. With proper assessment, it will be possible to determine if the strategic plan is delivering the expected outcomes and to make mid-course corrections where necessary.

Strategic planning at Columbia College Chicago, while a stimulating and engaging process, has not been without obstacles or controversy. This is natural given the wide range of viewpoints and the shared perception of external pressure and scrutiny that creates uncertainty for anyone working in higher education. But we cannot shy away from such pressure and scrutiny when so much is at stake.

Strategic plan implementation is bringing about a much needed renewal at Columbia College Chicago. As I have said to my colleagues throughout this process, the road ahead can be broad, but we must travel it together so that five years from now we will arrive at a common destination. And in doing so, we will have had a shared hand in shaping new standards for a 21st century education.

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