If your university is like mine, it has a strategic plan. It put hundreds of hours of work (some of them yours!) into developing it, consulting widely and wordsmithing through dozens of drafts. It shouted excitedly about the release of the plan, and how it prepares the university as a leader into the future. And that plan? Essentially meaningless.
Most of the university strategic plans I’ve seen are pretty similar. They identify some lofty but vague goals,* but not how they will be attained.** They promise all things to all people: we’ll prioritize research, and teaching, and community service, and being an economic engine for our region. They might identify some special areas of scholarship in which the university will attempt to excel – but they’ll combine that with language indicating that they don’t mean it (usually, something about “while retaining comprehensive excellence”), and they won’t identify any area of scholarship that the university won’t pursue. In other words: they’re essentially meaningless. Prioritizing everything means prioritizing nothing; and it isn’t strategic to fight a war on every front all at once.
Why does this happen? Partly because strategic planning is hard, but leaving it there is unsatisfying. More particularly, I think it happens at universities because of our unique governance structure. Universities are, at least in theory, run by collegial governance. This means that there’s value in the strategic plan emerging, or at least being seen to emerge, from a bottom-up process and with the approval of bodies like a University Senate. Collegial governance is good at many things; but it’s spectacularly bad at identifying things not to do – largely because no unit will ever, under any circumstances, vote for a strategic plan that doesn’t identify that unit as a priority. Collegial governance is very bad at focusing a mission. (It’s also, as everyone has experienced, very bad at doing anything quickly.)
That sounds bad, like it’s the Achilles heel of collegial governance. Sometimes it is. But more often, it’s a feature rather than a bug. Universities are under constant pressure to do newfangled things, to become the flavour of the day. Entrepreneurship! Microcredentials! Job market alignment! Experiental learning!*** Sometimes the pressure comes from a government, which pulls funding strings to make it look like they’re doing new things. Sometimes it comes from an upper administrator, who wants to be able to claim credit for a major initiative (you can become an even-more-upper administrator this way; it’s much harder to become an even-more-upper administrator by staunchly defending the very good programs that are already in place). Under this kind of pressure, the fact that universities are very slow to change is definitely a good thing. After all, the central mission of a university – discovering new things about the world, and teaching them to students – hasn’t changed in a very long time. And it shouldn’t.
So meaningless strategic plans, I’d argue, don’t do any real harm beyond wasting some time – and they might (compared to the alternative) actually be a good thing. But if they’re meaningless, why have them at all? I wondered this for a long time, but eventually figured it out. The point – the only point, really – of having a strategic plan is so that when someone asks you if you have one, you can say “yes”. I’m involved with leadership in a number of organizations, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if one of them has a strategic plan. I can tell you how many times I’ve been asked what’s in that plan: zero times. I think there are a lot of people out there who have been told that strategic plans are important, and who feel that they’re demonstrating administrative seriousness by signaling their belief in that importance. A university that doesn’t have a strategic plan (preferably a nice glossy one with some lovely pictures) will disappoint potential donors, new Ministers of Higher Education (or whatever your local governmental equivalent might be), and so on. What’s in the plan doesn’t matter.
And that’s why we all have strategic plans, despite the fact that they’re meaningless. Thanks for listening to my very, very cynical TED talk.
© Stephen Heard December 28, 2021. This post brought to you by my being asked one time too many to participate in a strategic planning exercise.
Image: © Scott Beale/LaughingSquid CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
*^My absolute favourite is that virtually every university has the goal of being in the top 10% (or whatever) in their comparison group. Yes, here at Lake Wobegon University, we’re in the top 10% – and so is every single one of our comparators.
**^You might object that “how you attain the goals is tactics, not strategy”. At least, I’ve heard that objection. But it isn’t true. A strategy (thanks Merriam-Webster) is “a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time”. A goal without any idea of how it’s to be attained isn’t strategy; it’s daydreaming.
***^Which, when it’s time to allocate funding, somehow always means “put students in job placements in the private sector”. It never means “enhance hands-on lab courses” or “make field courses accessible to everyone”. But I digress…