Why are university strategic plans almost always meaningless?

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…

7 thoughts on “Why are university strategic plans almost always meaningless?

  1. Elizabeth+Moon

    I have been through (as participant or interested observer) the strategic planning process in churches, writer’s organizations, and amateur naturalists’ online groups. In the case of one church, it was actually effective in uncovering and eventually removing a toxic nexus of disruption, but was an unpleasant and arduous process for all of us who’d been conscripted into the meetings. Worthwhile, sure: but not surprisingly it resulted in a rupture in relationships, including departures.

    In the case of writers’ organizations, backed by a determination to switch direction in several ways at once, it changed the nature of the organization substantially and thus made it unsuitable for some who had been members..very similar to the church “strategic planning” but without any formal guidance to lessen the carnage. Where toxic disruption had existed before, it managed to exist in both the stayers and leavers post-change.

    I had retreated to what I foolishly thought would be the safer haven of listservs for those interested in particular taxons of wildlife, only to find that the butterfly listserv (butterflies!!!, not just the listservs for birds, dragonflies, or beetles) had its own contentious, bitter, individuals, ready to rip the group to pieces to expel someone who held a different opinion and jettison, or threaten to jettison, the whole thing to gain control. Human nature, in its social form, seems to like making plans, arguing fiercely about them, and setting groups within a larger group at odds, as a way of “moving forward” or “growing into our potential. ”

    So I view academic strategic planning through that very streaky lens and agree with you. As commonly practiced, strategic planning is a hot mess, and the more committed to following all the plans some group in power come up with, the more likely to have lots of unexpected (and undesired) negative outcomes.

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  2. Philip Moriarty

    Hi, Steven.

    I’ve read your recent Twitter thread (helpfully linked up there to the right) on the dangers of promoting negativity via social media. And although I agree with the general thrust of that thread, I’m afraid I’m going to add, in a hopefully productive way, to the negativity you didn’t want to foster.

    So meaningless strategic plans, I’d argue, don’t do any real harm beyond wasting some time

    But that *is* doing harm! We all have more than enough on our plate without having to endure the latest mindless corporate university bol**ck-speak. Time spent dealing with that nonsense is time lost on doing productive, worthwhile things like teaching, research, and public engagement/outreach. Moreover, universities across the world claim that a core goal is to improve the critical thinking skills of their students. And yet senior management routinely trots out the most generic, uninspiring, bland, uncritical boilerplate and expects staff to take it all seriously. That’s hardly the best example to set to students, government (not *all* politicians are taken in by this guff!), or the general public.

    “What’s in the plan doesn’t matter.”

    That’s a fairly damning indictment of the modern university management, wouldn’t you say?

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  3. Elizabeth Moon

    More thoughts on ‘strategic planning’ from your essay, this time about the misuse of military terminology and thinking in civilian contexts. (I’m stopping myself from suggesting the motivations of the civilians involved…I hope!)

    “Strategy” is a specifically military term, and makes sense in the context of open conflict: warfare. In creating strategies, it’s necessary to specify and discuss “the enemy” that strategy is intended to frustrate or destroy, and it’s necessary to specify “victory conditions”–what your side will accept as “winning.”

    These essential parts of strategic planning–defining the “enemy” and defining “winning”–are not often given utterance in civilian “strategic planning” sessions. There’s a big difference between warfare and ordinary competition for resources (money, prestige, increased student numbers) in academic terms) and the non-monetary costs of treating other academic institutions, other departments, other individuals or groups as enemies can be much greater than anticipated.

    Industry adopted military terminology eagerly and the results of considering competition as warfare (they other company is the enemy), employees (because they “lower profits”) as the enemy, and must not be allowed to unionize, even customers as the enemy if they get too fractious and become “disloyal” to the brand. It’s far too late–the usage is too widespread among civilian organizations–but the dangers of adopting it wholesale should be considered before embarking on something called that. My opinion, not currently substantiated by references or actual research, just observation (that’s what you get from an amateur naturalist: observations…)

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      This is actually something I thought about, superficially, making that aside about not fighting a war on all fronts. I would push back gently (but only gently) by pointing out that just because the word “strategy” originally carried its meaning in a military context, that doesn’t mean that it carries that meaning now. Words and their meanings do shift! (And now, having said that, I’ll retreat (look! more military teminology!) a little and admit that I don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of your argument here; only a bit with the etymological part 🙂

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  4. Jan O. Murie

    Having been exposed to several strategic plans, I fully agree that what the plan actually says doesn’t mean much. It is like a “maguffin” in theatre–something around which the action swirls, but unimportant otherwise. As one of the links above points out, it is the process of consultation in developing such a plan that is important–the process can be a meaningless time-waster for those being consulted (perhaps the most frequent outcome) or it can lead to some positive outcomes such as enhancing communication among levels of organization, establishing a new esprit, and the like. Sadly, making a strategic plan doesn’t guarantee any such positive outcomes.

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