The Truth About Strategic Plans

Talk to most college leaders long enough, and they will eventually invoke their institutions’ strategic plans, sometimes as blueprints for specific improvements, other times as almost talismanic documents that will increase enrollment or diversity through their existence alone. Talk to others in higher education about strategic plans, though, and you’ll get a different reaction — that such plans are wastes of time or cynical pretexts for predetermined outcomes.

They can be met with fury, which is what happened, in 2019, when the University of Tulsa acted on part of its 2017 strategic plan that called for a sweeping academic reorganization, including cutting 40 percent of its programs. The resulting uproar led to a faculty vote of no confidence in the president and provost.

Or they can be seen as irreplaceable, especially for a college leader joining a new institution. Kent Devereaux started a strategic-planning process last fall, about a year after he took over as president of Goucher College, a private institution in the suburbs of Baltimore. He found strategic planning invaluable. If you don’t have a plan, the budget ends up becoming the plan, he says, with short-term financial considerations — not the mission — shaping decisions.

But plans don’t always deliver on that premise. Even experts who work with colleges to develop strategic plans see how often they’re flawed in conception and execution, says David Strauss, a principal of the Art & Science Group, a company that consults for colleges. “There’s a disturbing number of college and university strategic plans out there that, in our view, are neither strategic nor plans,” he says.

The truth, based on conversations with those who advise colleges on strategic plans, those who use (or disavow) them as tools to run institutions, and those who’ve worked under them, lies somewhere in between those views. They can serve as road maps to transformation, under certain conditions, but other times they can wind up as bureaucratic dead ends.

Another truth: Strategic plans are a fact of life in higher education. Accreditors require some form of strategic planning. Boards of trustees often expect them. Many colleges now face a landscape more challenging than any current leaders have ever known, and need adroit strategies to steer toward thriving futures.

What makes one strategic plan a success and another a waste of time? The answer often depends on the process under which it was developed, the thinking behind it, and how ambitious it is.

Strategic plans fizzle for many reasons, but their failure is often tied to a few key factors, says Nicholas R. Santilli, senior director for learning strategy at the Society for College and University Planning, or SCUP. One of them is insularity. Strategic plans are often devised by “a small number of individuals, mostly senior administration or members of the board, who then deliver a plan to the campus, where the campus had no stake in the development,” he says. If the leader most identified with the plan moves on after a few years, any momentum behind it follows her or him out the door.

Strategic plans may also make promises the institution can’t deliver on. “I’ve seen plans where they’ve really wanted to be aggressive in developing new programs,” Santilli says, “but they don’t have faculty on campus, nor the allocated lines to hire faculty, to be able to execute an academic program, so people resent it and it gets the reputation of, Oh, we’ve developed this plan, and it sat on a shelf.”

A plan can also be undermined if institutional leaders make big decisions that aren’t connected to the plan, or if members of the broader campus community can’t see how their work relates to strategic goals, says Felecia Commodore, an assistant professor of higher education at Old Dominion University, a public institution in Virginia. That expensive new campus construction project, for example, might get less pushback if its larger purpose were clearer. Without a connection to both the big expenditures and the daily efforts on a campus, she adds, a strategic plan is “just kind of rhetoric that’s put out.”

Some college leaders believe that’s all strategic plans really are — rhetoric, grandstanding, a bother. S. Georgia Nugent, president of Illinois Wesleyan University and former president of Kenyon College, says she’s never led a traditional strategic-planning process and has no intention of starting one anytime soon. “And happily,” she says, “currently, my board chair feels the same way.”

In the mid-2000s, Nugent led a fund-raising campaign at Kenyon, held gatherings to discuss ideas and aspirations, and set goals and spending priorities. “In my mind that belied the need for the thinking that you would put into a strategic plan.” She cites the distinction Henry Mintzberg, a scholar of management, makes between strategic planning and strategic thinking. The latter is “a continual process, and you’re continually re-engaging with your changing circumstances,” she says.

Covid-19 has served as a case in point that the strategic-planning process is, Nugent says, “kind of nonsense, because the world is going to happen, and to believe that you can fix it in some way that’s going to remain viable, I just don’t find credible.”

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that colleges don’t always excel at, or feel comfortable with, strategic planning. The process isn’t endemic to academe — it comes from the business world, Commodore says, though she thinks it can benefit any complex organization. “It really is: Let us step back as an organization and think about where we’re currently located in the marketplace,” she says.

An executive summary of a forthcoming report from RHB, a company that consults with colleges on strategic planning and marketing, offers an illuminating glimpse of how colleges plan — and sometimes don’t.

For example, the 108 active strategic plans reviewed in the report covered a median span of five years. Plans are often instituted by new leaders, and a half decade allows time to make progress on a plan’s goals within a leader’s tenure. In 2018 the University of California at Davis announced a 10-year strategic plan, which was one of the plans reviewed for the RHB study. Members of the strategic-planning committee settled on the longer span “because 10 years was just far enough out that people wouldn’t feel saddled with whatever particular issues of the day are, whatever their budget is, or whatever space constraints they have, so they can think further out,” says Gary S. May, the chancellor. “At the same time, it’s not so far out that it’s a fantasy.”

May says, however, that he’s seen strategic plans with 25-year spans. “If you write a 25-year plan, nobody who’s writing it is still going to be there,” he says. “So they don’t care about the outcomes and are just kind of making wish lists.”

The plans surveyed by RHB set a median of five strategic goals, a number that seems appropriate to B. David Rowe, a former president of Centenary College of Louisiana and practice leader for private higher education and foundations for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. “Three to five is really good to have for the purposes of keeping people focused,” he says. But many of the plans surveyed by RHB set strategic goals in the double digits — one institution even had 22 of them. A plan with too many goals “looks like you have just recorded what everybody hoped you would,” Rowe adds, “and therefore you’re just moving in the direction of validating all of the things that you’re currently doing and not necessarily making hard choices.”

The survey also uncovered evidence of the kind of opaque strategic-planning processes that experts say can be counterproductive. Nearly 60 percent of the plans reviewed included no information about who had sat on the planning committees, and nearly half of the plans gave just vague descriptions of who had contributed to the committees. Such factors could be indicators of a less-than-transparent process that may be unlikely to win broad buy-in across a campus.

So what does seem to work?

SCUP recommends colleges use an inclusive strategic-planning process, known as integrated planning, Santilli says. The more an institution can involve its internal and external stakeholders in the planning process, he adds, the more likely it is “that you can create a plan that is reflective of your campus community” and will be supported by it. A more-collaborative process is also more likely to build relationships and align resources across the institution to make it succeed.

Making the process inclusive can help fend off several problems, according to Aimee Hosemann, a writer and researcher with RHB and a co-author of the report. “One of the things that we saw really clearly in a lot of plans is that we weren’t sure who was supposed to read them,” she says. Aspirational language hosted on a university web page might sound inspiring, “but who would ever go looking for it?” she asks. The plans identified as being the most strategic among those surveyed were the most “intensely person-centered and audience-centered,” says Hosemann, who is trained in linguistic and sociocultural anthropology. “They are focused on the ways that people live their lives through a particular institution, and it speaks into their ability to see themselves in the plan and to feel like they themselves have a clear role and responsibility.”

More-inclusive plans may be more likely to meet the needs of students and the community. The RHB study found that 64 percent of the plans examined were the product of planning committees that included students. But the mere inclusion of students in a planning process didn’t mean that it addressed their concerns — a point that was raised by a graduate student who was the first reader of all 2,500 pages of the plans. “The lack of student-centeredness was very apparent for us,” says Rob Zinkan, vice president for marketing leadership at RHB and a co-author of the report.

The most common goal by far among the strategic plans surveyed was improving diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging on campus, sometimes as a singular goal, sometimes integrated throughout other goals. “The best way to do that is to involve students in those discussions so that they can talk about, and have influence over, what the day-to-day experience is like,” Hosemann says. Students are often effective advocates, too, because they can be “actors in moving plans forward themselves.” Improving community outreach was another very common strategic goal, and yet only 11 percent of the plans that identified committee members had people from the local community on their committee.

Faculty members are typically involved in the strategic-planning process — all of the plans surveyed by RHB included faculty contributions — but involvement may not equal actual engagement, says Hans-Joerg Tiede, director of research for the American Association of University Professors. A survey this year of faculty-senate chairs and other faculty-governance leaders at about 1,400 four-year colleges found that while 57 percent of respondents felt as if faculty members at their institutions had some opportunity to participate in strategic planning, 22 percent felt that strategic planning had been handled unilaterally by the administration. “That raises questions about what does it mean to have faculty on these committees,” Tiede says, “if in the end there may be a sense that their impact is not as great as faculty wish it were.” (Tiede says he’s “alarmed” that nearly 7 percent of the plans reviewed by RHB included donors on their committees, seeing such people as unsuitable to help set a university’s long-term plans. “I’m glad to see that it’s not more common,” he says.)

When professors are closely involved, they often feel as if they’re being included as window dressing, or they’re included in such small numbers and isolated from peers so that administrators “don’t really have to worry about the fact that there are actually disagreements,” Tiede says. “The net result of this can sometimes be what I’ve called the Stockholm Syndrome of shared governance, where the people are sequestered and then identify with the administration more than with the faculty who they’re supposed to represent.”

There is, however, such a thing as being too inclusive, says Strauss, of the Art & Science Group. If a planning process becomes about making sure all parties feel as if their wishes are represented, the resulting plan is likely to be unfocused and unsuccessful. Strauss recalls a college president who told him and his colleagues how proud she was of her strategic plan. “We asked her, ‘So what basis do you use to judge that it was successful?’” he says. “She said, ‘Well, it had the input of 5,000 members of the campus community.’ Her objective was to include people, not to devise a strategy to move the institution.”

College leaders must thread the needle, soliciting input and genuine participation while working toward an effective process and plan. “You want to have a healthy mix of fresh ideas and experience,” says May, the UC-Davis chancellor. But you need to choose carefully, he says; otherwise “you sometimes get people who are naysayers and spend time telling you why you can’t do things as opposed to why you should try to do things.” Setting a tight schedule and sticking to it is also key, says Devereaux, of Goucher. “We could take forever to research it more,” he says, “but we’ve got to make decisions, and we’ve got to deal with the information we have at hand.”

Sometimes, though, the information on hand isn’t as complete as it could be. The authors of the RHB report found that 63 percent of the strategic plans they reviewed didn’t mention using environmental surveys or data about the campus climate, perceptions of the institution, community conditions, or student interest in academic programs.

Colleges may also fall short of strategic success because they haven’t defined what success looks like. Among the strategic plans RHB reviewed, 73 percent included no specific metrics for measuring progress toward their goals.

The absence of external data did not surprise Strauss, who saw two reasons for it. “One is just a hubris of thinking whatever we do, our markets will come along,” he says. “The other is a shallow understanding of what information we need from our markets.”

Just because other colleges and universities have had successes in starting nursing programs, for example, or adding online courses doesn’t mean that such moves would be right for a particular institution. “It’s one thing to look outside at the beginning and say, Here’s what’s going on out in the world, how do we want to fit into it?” Strauss says. “It’s another to say, Now, the ways that we think we might fit into it, will they work for us?”

The lack of metrics is likely to keep a strategic plan from changing an institution’s day-to-day operations. Without specific goals, such as raising the graduation rate by x percentage points or increasing the endowment by y dollars, says Zinkan, the RHB vice president, employees don’t begin to get “that clarity to know, as a member of this university or college community, what am I supposed to do differently than I’m doing today?”

Clarity also helps when communicating the plan. Leaders may need to frame the same discussion in different ways for different groups of stakeholders. As James T. Harris III, president of the University of San Diego, puts it, “You have to be bilingual in your approach.” When talking to trustees about a student-success goal, for example, he might focus more on talking about freshman-retention statistics, graduation rates, and other hard metrics. Those numbers matter to professors, too, but they’re also interested in students’ classroom experiences and their ultimate learning outcomes. A plan, says Harris, “should have in it language that the key constituents can understand.”

Boards of trustees or administrators may want to hire consultants to help with the process of strategic planning. Consultants come at a price — up to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on how involved they are — for their expertise in areas like gathering data. They also bring a different perspective. “Sometimes, the internal constituents tend to focus so much on what’s going on internally that the institution doesn’t do as good a job looking at the external environment,” Santilli says, “or ask the hard questions of themselves.”

Consultants can also come with risks because they can create “optics problems” and inflame tensions, Santilli says, “especially if there are some people on the campus feeling that there is expertise existing on campus that can do the work.” And the more the consultants do, the more the plan may be seen as the work of outsiders with a limited commitment to the institution. An AAUP chapter in the University System of Maryland has spoken out against its current strategic-planning process, which the faculty group says “pays almost no attention to the people who work” on the system’s campuses.

In a statement, Jennifer King Rice, senior vice president and provost at the University of Maryland at College Park, said the university had already consulted more than 250 faculty members, staff, students, alumni, board members, and external constituents as part of its own strategic-planning process, and had hired the Huron Consulting Group “to engage stakeholders internal and external to the campus, and conduct an environmental scan” and other analyses.

Outsourcing the work of strategic planning can also bypass one of the potential benefits of doing the work internally — fostering conversations and cooperation across campus. One incidental upside of the Covid-19 pandemic, Santilli says, is that it compelled people in different units who might not ordinarily talk much to meet and work together by videoconference. Many will continue to do so. “That is the heart of integrated planning,” he says, “that connectedness that comes in alignment, that comes out of collaboration.”

For all of the optimism about and resistance to strategic plans, perhaps the biggest knock on them is that they can amount to elaborate exercises in maintaining the status quo. If strategic plans are supposed to distinguish your institution, many of them fail, Zinkan says. RHB did the strategic-plan report, in part, because he and other staff members were so struck by the similarities among the ones they read. If, as the report argues, strategy requires “changing one’s behavior or making choices that others do not,” then many strategic plans, consciously or not, reinforce institutional continuity. The plans often suggest, essentially, that the college “enhance” or “strengthen” or “grow” enrollment or the quality of its education, rather than do something new or different.

Many aspects of higher education foster the status quo. Take accreditation, for example. “The continuous-improvement rhetoric and mind-set that a lot of accreditors lay on top of institutions when they talk about strategic planning really reinforces a lot of that,” says Rowe, of the Association of Governing Boards. “It just says, Take what you’re doing, and do it better.”

But that’s a tactical improvement, not a strategic change, Zinkan argues. The report suggests that college leaders filter strategic goals through a logic test devised by Peter Eckel, a senior fellow in the Higher Education Division of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania: Take an action you are considering, and consider doing its opposite. Would that decrease the quality of the education you offer? If not, then increasing the quality of education, with no further distinction, would probably not be a successful strategic goal.

But change tends to happen in its own time on a college campus. “A strategic plan is a change document,” Santilli says, but “if we think back about higher ed’s culture of change, mostly, it’s incremental.” Institutions like Southern New Hampshire and Arizona State Universities have made radical strategic moves, “but those transformations took decades,” Santilli adds, and most colleges will be unlikely to repeat their success. Instead, leaders may need to look for the “5-to-10-percent opportunity you have to change something on your campus that can actually begin to move the institution in another direction.”

Harris, of the University of San Diego, knows firsthand how slow-burning transformation can be. People look for “that miracle moment,” he says. “‘Oh, you’re going to dramatically transform,’ ‘we’re going to go from this to that.’” His institution is now looking at an opportunity to expand one of its academic programs, the details of which he can’t discuss publicly yet. It wouldn’t have been possible without years of gradually adding students and faculty members and building up the facilities; now the university is in talks with a major donor and an outside organization “that can dramatically catapult this program,” Harris says. “I couldn’t have said five years ago that now we are going to have this additional piece to this program, but we’ve been very deliberate.”

A successful strategy is often less a matter of how radical a departure it represents from the norm than whether the plan is authentic to the institution’s identity. It doesn’t have to be anything new at all if it’s done in a committed way with a concrete indication that it will succeed. “Doubling down on something and deciding you’re going to do it really big can be a strategy,” Strauss says, “if it’s the right thing.”

Goucher’s new strategic plan calls for doubling down on two key ideas: global education and diversification. You won’t see them as major headings in the actual document, but they undergird everything, says Devereaux, the president. Goucher already sends every one of its students abroad, but it hasn’t been making the most of its international connections as a recruiting tool, especially for international students themselves — right now, for example, the institution has only about 10 athletes recruited from abroad. Increased international recruiting will help with diversification, a concept that applies not only to the student body, faculty, and staff, but also to the college’s revenue streams. Goucher has historically been an undergraduate-focused college, he says, but for the last 10 years its graduate programs have been growing at about 7 percent a year. “So that’s also a big component of our strategy,” he says.

If the college can make progress on those two fronts over the next five years, “we will fundamentally change the nature of the campus experience,” Devereaux adds, and strengthen Goucher’s financial position while staying true to its mission. “So we felt like that’s it,” he says. “That’s what we’ve got to focus on.”

Ideally, the ultimate product of all this planning isn’t just a plan that succeeds or fails, Santilli says, but adopting a planning mind-set. “It is an organic process,” he says, “that never ends.”

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