Disruption. The new normal. VUCA. Whatever you call it, the truth is the same: The pace of change is rapid and constant. The world that higher education serves today is vastly different than 10 or 20 years ago. “Business as usual” is a luxury few can afford; higher education institutions are asked to prove their worth, redefine their purpose, and respond more quickly to society’s needs.
In this new normal, higher education strategic planning is no longer an empty exercise or a leadership vanity project. It is imperative for each institution to survive … and thrive.
Strategic planning is a deliberate, disciplined effort to produce fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an institution is, what it does, and why it does it.
The college or university strategic plan provides guidance for institutional decisions, both long-term and day-to-day, and makes sure that decisions and operations:
The components of every strategic plan will vary according to an institution’s culture and needs but generally include:
Higher education strategic planning helps an institution focus on its future success. How is the world changing, and how do we need to respond? What opportunities do we have to make a difference? What changes do we need to make today so we’re ready for tomorrow?
It gives an institution an opportunity to reflect on its performance. Is the institution achieving its vision? Living by its mission? Serving students in the ways they need? What should we start doing? Keep doing? Change? Stop doing?
The strategic planning process needs to be adapted to an institution’s culture and operations. For example, a tightly controlled top-down process may face challenges in a highly decentralized institution.
Strategic planning processes need to include the following activities and characteristics:
Strategic planning should involve the input and participation of the entire campus community—both internal stakeholders (faculty, administration, staff, students, alumni) and external stakeholders (community members, employers).
The planning committee or team leads the process. Since strategic planning can be a long, complex process, there may also be additional committees or task forces to tackle different topics or parts of the process.
Most strategic plans are cyclical. As one strategic plan nears the end of its horizon (the length of time a plan covers), a new planning process begins for the next strategic plan.
A plan’s horizon depends on the institution and its needs. Most strategic plans cover five to 10 years, but some may cover as few as three and others as long as 20.
If a new president assumes leadership of the institution, the new president will often conduct a new planning process that reflects the president’s priorities.
Higher education institutions are complex. The success of any initiative—from improving graduation rates to creating a more inclusive environment—requires expertise, time, and work from multiple units. At the same time, each unit has its own activities and work that it’s focusing on. By building relationships across departments, integrated strategic planning prevents duplicate activities (or initiatives that work against each other), creates opportunities for collaboration, and makes sure that time and effort are spent on initiatives that realize the mission. Integrated strategic planning saves an institution’s resources while improving its work.
Integrated planning also helps with a strategic plan’s implementation. An integrated university or college strategic plan reflects the beliefs and experiences of the institution’s stakeholders, motivating people to change and experiment. It’s linked to the budget, so there are resources to implement plan strategies. It’s informed by assessment, so the strategic plan can adapt and stay relevant.