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Business Officer Magazine

The Artful Strategic Plan

The professional skills used to create an exhibition—when applied to higher education strategic planning—can lead to the new perspectives so critical to organizational improvement.

By K. Johnson Bowles

While serving as a fellow at the American Council on Education (ACE) recently, I wanted to use the experience to understand the overarching ideas found in today's higher education strategic planning. Because I'd spent some years as director and curator of the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts at Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia, I decided to focus my fellowship work on identifying activities that reflected effective curating on campus.

A survey of some 60 higher education institutions, at various stages of strategic plan development, revealed various unifying elements, which—when emphasized, as they would be in an exhibition—provided a greater understanding of the planning process and its results. These characteristics can be grouped into the "salient six" themes that describe and address today's challenges:

  • Academic excellence.
  • Affordability and access.
  • Globalization and internationalization (including diversity and inclusion).
  • Sustainability.
  • Civic engagement.
  • Place-based distinction.

The distillation of numerous institutional strategic plans into these themes is not intended to provide a checklist for creating a strategic plan. Nor is this an exhaustive compilation of all the distinctive and innovative ideas that exist in today's higher education planning efforts. Rather, it is a bird's-eye view of the general landscape and paths being forged. Yet as a rule of thumb, almost any recent strategic plan in higher education contains many (and sometimes all) of these elements. (For more detail on the "salient six" themes, read "Curating the Campus," in December 2013 Business Officer.)

The thematic comparisons provide much insight, including (1) an overview of the similarities between planning processes and artful arrangements, and (2) learning via individual examples that demonstrate the themes as applied to the campus setting.

Multipart Messaging

When taken as a whole, the six themes form an image, an environment, an attraction (or not) that draws the observer's attention and creates certain impressions. Here are some ways in which those impressions may play out.

A strategic plan, like a piece of art, can "feel" authentic and compelling. Similar to a great artist's famous work, a particular institution's masterful strategic plan has something uniquely its own to say; leaders articulate the message in their own way, embodying a voice and ethos of their particular campus community; and all the elements of who and why the institution exists are seamlessly interwoven.

Can one tell the difference between a Picasso and a Monet? Absolutely. It should be the same for strategic plans. In order to support and rally behind a plan, people really want to know where they are and where they are going. They want to know: "Are you talking to me?" Constituents must be grounded in a particular and knowable reality. Otherwise they will hesitate, wondering where to go or simply going their own separate ways (sometimes in many different ways).

Change can be incremental or radical, in art or on campus. During the course of this review, some college or university representatives referred to their plans as "incremental." Basically, they meant that the institution was not ready for or open to radical change. Most admitted that their plans were not bold or groundbreaking.

The rationales were often similar. Leaders knew they had to have a plan to keep people on the same track, to satisfy the accrediting body's requirements, and/or because the governing body demanded one. Also several institutions had not accomplished everything from a previous plan. Or the institution, as a whole, was battle-weary due to a campus crisis, major leadership transition, or previous planning efforts that had been less than fruitful—or even divisive. Whether or not this is an advisable strategy—or a strategy at all—could be hotly debated.

Regardless, the issue illustrates something exceptionally important about change, forward movement, and true institutional transformation (the sweeping, mind-blowing, Steve Jobs kind that most people are calling for in higher education today). It is about the convergence of important factors: the right people leading the right institution at the right moment in the institution's history. It is about being ready, willing, and able to take calculated risks.

Art gives great examples of this point. Truly great artists also take bold risks to push boundaries and to envision something profound, new, and groundbreaking. Importantly, they don't create "out of thin air," as some believe. Their risks are based upon knowledge, experience, and, most of all, intention. Make no mistake; Picasso could draw as well as DaVinci, but he chose not to because what he wanted to say was better said and achieved by other means. Another case in point, someone once dismissively asked Henri Matisse, the famous French painter, "How long did it take you to paint that picture?"—believing that it took about 15 minutes. Matisse coolly responded, "My whole life."

Art and higher education benefit from all elements coming together. A great piece of art is a perfect example of the alignment of the elements of design, materials, form, format, content—and the historical moment in which the piece or object is created. A great strategic plan is much the same. It is based upon the alignment and leveraging of resources (human, financial, capital); form and format (concise and edited down to its most compelling); content (visionary and intentional); and context (the right plan for the right institution). Plans cannot be nor should they be interchangeable.

The Six Themes in Action

The following programs, activities, and implementations illustrate some effective outcomes of the artful strategic plan:

The Fine Art of Organization: Academic Excellence

Imagine a university where most department, units, and divisions have strategic plans that align with the university's overall plan and goals. A miracle? No, it is possible, and the execution of such a vision by the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, verges on the artful. Its Office of Strategic Planning and Institutional Research (OSPIR), led by former equity research analyst for Goldman Sachs, David Bailey, supplies resources and offers expertise in a manner that encourages participation, rather than producing campus rebellion.

UND OSPIR's enthusiastic customer service approach facilitates planning and assessment rather than simply enforcing policies and procedures. For strategic planning, the team provides templates, workshops, and examples of strategic plans from other tier-one research institutions. For both academic program review and for administrative unit reviews, self-study guidelines, templates, and external reviewer nominator forms are available. Institutional research provides a fact book, the Common Data Set, among other useful information in useful formats that are easy to find.

For a bottoms-up and top-down approach, read more at the UND OSPIR site.


A Scholar's Program for the Underserved: Affordability and Access

In spring 2013, the Maryland State Legislature passed a bill to provide performance-based funding to St. Mary's College of Maryland, St. Mary's City. The funds enabled the college to freeze tuition and expand its signature degree-completion program, DeSousa-Brent Scholars. The state's public honors college was allocated $800,000 per year for DeSousa-Brent. If goals are met (including a 70 percent four-year graduation rate), support will continue beyond 2019. The college's current graduation rate for all Pell-eligible students is 54 percent, already placing it above the national average.

Named for Maryland social history pioneers, Mathias DeSousa (the first African-American landowner in the state) and Margaret Brent (a lawyer and the first suffragette), the program serves students from underrepresented groups. The support mechanisms found in the program include summer bridge programs, laptops and technology training, leadership-building seminars, academic coaching, life and career planning, and summer research opportunities. Learn more about this model for underserved students.


Open Doors, Open Minds: Globalization and Inclusion

Last year, several members of the Phi Alpha Tau fraternity at Emerson College, Boston, made headlines when they raised money for their transgender brother's female-to-male surgery. The procedure was not covered by insurance nor could the student afford it. The fraternity's online fundraising page explained: "We care deeply about each and every one, and rely on the entire active brotherhood to stand behind any one individual when [he or she is] in need."

Not only the students, but the college's administration, believe in the importance of caring for others and being respectful of each student's identity. Emerson offers the gender-neutral housing (GNH) program, an opportunity for students "to choose to live with whom they are most comfortable, regardless of the students' sex or gender." Established in 2010, the program has grown from 64 to 120 students. Students understand the policies prior to placement and provide a written personal statement to participate. A committee oversees the process. Read more about Emerson's welcome-to-all approach.


Using Wood for the Long Haul: Sustainability

Lack of gas lines, no railroad service for coal delivery, and escalation of fuel oil costs may be issues for some institutions located in rural areas, but not for Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. Some 30 years ago, the administration had an inspired idea: use lumber waste (sawdust and woodchips) from local logging mills to generate power. Today, approximately 80 percent of the campus energy needs comes from burning sawdust (20 percent is from fuel oil, needed during peak usage in winter months).

The university's biomass heating plant contains two biomass boilers fed with 20 to 40 tons of sawdust a day, stored in silos. Pollution control devices and a sawdust handling system are among operational features. The plant produces a maximum of 20,000 pounds of steam per hour and saves the university approximately $4.5 million each year. Recently, Longwood acquired land for a biomass processing plant to store and prepare sawdust before transporting it to the heating plant. Learn more at Longwood University's Web site.


Principled Problem Solving to Create a Better World: Civic Engagement

Founded by the Quakers in 1837, Guilford College, Greensboro, North Carolina, is anchored by values that focus on teaching students how to actively improve the world and solve societal problems. To describe this philosophy, the college created a concept called principled problem solving (PPS), which incorporates concepts of "interdisciplinary, experiential, practical, and leadership."

The approach is manifested concretely in work of the Center for Principled Problem Solving as well as academic courses offered at the college. Faculty member Maia Dery explains: "As a photographer obsessed with water as a subject, I was able to use the PPS framework to develop an interdisciplinary, place-based program to work towards a culture around the shared resource of water."

The college has been recognized for its work by the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll and in Washington Monthly's alternative college ranking, which rates schools on contribution to the public good (Guilford ranks 29th nationally for liberal arts colleges). See PPS in practice.


In Tough Times, the Tough Get Creative: Place-Based Distinction

How do employees who earn an average annual income of $40,000 afford housing in Durham, North Carolina, a city where the average cost of a home is $165,000? Ask Duke University. Through a combination of incentives, Duke employees with five years of service or more, who earn less than 115 percent of the area median income, are eligible to participate in a program to purchase a $164,588 home for $99,588. Example incentives include monies from lending programs and forgivable loans from the institution and the City of Durham.

The pilot program began last spring. This year, eligible employees could buy one of 10 new home models, with three or four bedrooms, for less than $660 per month. Why? Because people who work 40 hours a week should be able to afford a safe, clean, affordable place to live. In addition, it makes good fiscal sense for the institution. Retaining a long-term, trained, dedicated workforce is more productive and efficient. For more details, see the Duke University's Web site.


K. JOHSON BOWLES is associate vice president for corporate and foundation relations, Commonwealth Relations, Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia. She served as an American Council on Education Fellow in 2012–13, conducting research on which this article is based.


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