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Business Officer Magazine

All Hands on the Plan

One question keeps Regent University focused on its mission: Are we who we say we are?

By Jeffrey S. Pittman

Under the leadership of its president, 30-year-old Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia, takes this interactive approach, engaging a cross-section of campus leaders in ongoing conversations about its current goals and future direction. Instead of shelving the proverbial dusty notebook filled with unused documents, Regent aims for a strategic plan that guides daily decisions and priorities. Four steps—all of which require collaborative leadership—have contributed to Regent’s effectiveness in implementing a strategic plan rich with campuswide contributions and characterized by general acceptance.

Step 1: Formalize a Simple Framework 

Clearly, the executive leadership is typically immersed in institutional strategy. However, the identification of a more formal planning committee is a tangible indicator that such forward thinking is a core institutional value—and an ongoing process. A deliberate framework clarifies that beyond the president, vice presidents, and deans, the campus community as a whole must recognize that the institution highly values strategic planning; it enables faculty, staff, and students to demonstrate their support for the plan’s development and ongoing maintenance.

Regent’s standing committee meets at least once per semester, signaling that planning is an ongoing part of campus life and not just an ad hoc activity occasionally undertaken. The committee addresses the significant areas of higher education performance: appropriate curriculum; quality teaching; attention to student-centered learning; stewardship of financial, human, and physical resources; and future institutional vitality. These same areas are addressed by Regent’s vice presidents, who meet weekly, and by the academic deans, who meet on a regular basis with the vice president for academic affairs. All of this interaction helps facilitate cross-department conversations.

The key is to have everyone participating in a strategic dialogue such that they can see the broader perspective and identify institutional priorities, which are then communicated to the senior leadership team and board of trustees as a basis for making final decisions.

Step 2: Build Cross-Divisional Support 

The strategic plan is not the president’s plan, the CBO’s plan, or the planning committee’s plan. It is the institution’s plan to ensure adherence to the mission through the continuation (or introduction) of legitimate academic programs and campus services.

To build such support, Regent’s strategic planning committee (known as the Pathway to the Future group) draws its members from a cross-section of leaders on campus. Not everyone in the group is at the senior executive or vice president level; we look for people who have a handle on the bigger picture and can help communicate that picture to others in their area. At any time, the committee may include representatives of Regent’s eight schools, plus employees from various departments, ranging from campus safety to information technology, from food service to the library. Typically, the group also includes several student members.

Initially, participants tend to voice their individual departments’ aspirations and needs. With a savvy committee chair, however, members quickly recognize their departmental biases and acknowledge the unifying idea of institutional mission. In time, they come to see the merits of each unit and how it contributes to the institution’s success. Although academics may be the institution’s raison d’etre, housekeeping, food service, and other campus support departments play important roles, too. Once this understanding has developed, faculty members, middle managers, support personnel, and students can serve as effective advocates for planning within the broader campus community.

For example, the committee might address questions such as: What is more critical to the university at this time: increasing the library holdings or renovating food service facilities? Which one can wait until next year? Answers to such queries prompt various ideas and directions, which are vetted and added to a list of priorities.

These ongoing conversations about project and acquisition options in turn inform the budget process. Because the committee has already grappled with the concept of limited resources and a seemingly unlimited list of things to do, campus leaders are more likely to accept and appreciate the final list of funded activities as outlined in the budget. This planning model enables faculty members to recognize that institutional fundraising efforts, for example, are not only important for the broader university but also relevant to the capital plans and funding needs of their specific academic unit. In other words, the business officer isn’t the “money” person who makes budget decisions based on a whim; academics, employees, and students alike have provided relevant input.

Step 3: Instill a Planning Culture

Quite naturally, it falls to the business officer to instill a mind-set that embraces planning as not only a key campus concern but also as a consistent element in each administrative dialogue and decision-making opportunity. As an example, faculty members can enhance their everyday work as teachers or researchers—and the long-term effectiveness of their departments—by intentionally developing learning goals and objectives that align with the institution’s overall mission. The same would be true of any other division or department.

At Regent, all strategic planning is based on the university’s mission: “To provide exemplary education, from a biblical perspective, leading to bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees for aspiring servant leaders in pivotal professions, and to be a leading center of Christian thought and action.” Every division has its own mission statement as well, as does each department. These various aspirations and commitments fit into one another to build upon the university’s overall mission. For instance, the mission of the student services division is: “To facilitate the academic achievement, personal growth, and quality of life of Regent students as Christian leaders transforming society.” This level of specificity ensures that each faculty and staff member can support and easily understand the important role that planning holds for his or her particular unit as well as personal accomplishments.

That’s true for all departments that report to student services: bookstore, campus ministry, financial aid, food service, international student services, student development, student housing, student life, university transportation, and the university writing program. We refer to the umbrella mission statement again and again to keep the focus of institutional activities on what really matters. Hence, in student services, our goal is not to instruct students on how to be lawyers, counselors, or educators; our job is to help them be well-rounded individuals prepared to live effective and fulfilling lives. To that end, we hold networking workshops, sponsor etiquette dinners, help students communicate more effectively through our writing center, and so forth.

As a subset of Regent’s mission, a well-crafted departmental equivalent—perhaps one or two sentences in total—provides a solid foundation that further highlights this sense of employee purpose and goal-directed action. For example, the food service staff offers a campus service to feed students and the broader campus community. While this unit’s staff is aware of its primary focus, employees also understand that they play a significant strategic role in building campus community, retaining students, and offering quality products and services that enhance campus life. Performing their jobs well aids their operating unit but, more important, enhances the image and overall quality of Regent University. And, while financial aid and food service—or other departments that we might name—might appear to be disparate areas, their goals are equally important in helping fulfill the larger institutional goals. For example, student retention, quality service, and customer convenience—all of which are overarching campuswide efforts—are at the heart of both of these operating units.

Employees in Regent’s food service—or other operations—may or may not be able to articulate the university’s mission statement verbatim. Yet, thanks to the campuswide planning culture, they know what is at the core of those words—and they know that their work contributes significantly to the total university experience.

Step 4: Make Planning the Norm

As poet Robert Burns lamented, “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” Strategic plans are made—and then things change. This forces us to re-evaluate, and possibly revise, our goals and priorities.

Realistically, then, employees must recognize that the strategic plan is a living document and process. Therefore, it is subject to constant re-evaluation and alteration. It’s a fundamental document, yet it must be adapted to remain a viable means of advancing institutional mission. Regent’s planning model permits a dual perspective: a global view, in support of the entire institution’s needs, coupled with a department-specific view with detailed goals and formalized objectives. The global plan can easily be adapted as circumstances change. Likewise, individual operating units’ plans have similar flexibility.

This step can be as simple as asking: “Are we who we say we are, as an institution, a division, and a department? Are we focused on the things we need to focus on at this time?” In fact, the department heads within student services ask those questions frequently during monthly meetings aimed at sharing information across departments. A certain amount of drifting away from the strategic plan is inevitable, but institutions and departments can get back on course more quickly when they routinely ask those questions and refocus their efforts.

For Good Measure

Along with conducting periodic checks to ensure that you are “doing what you say you are doing,” regularly evaluate progress toward division and individual department goals.

Measuring organizational effectiveness—whether it’s related to overall excellence, fiscal viability, enhanced image, or some other objective—calls for ongoing reviews of performance. Gathering and exploring quantitative data and qualitative information on an institutionwide basis helps build a culture of assessment.

At Regent, the student services team relies on a divisionwide assessment committee composed of one or two people from each department to identify tangible methods for measuring how well each department is fulfilling its specific mission. Quantifying participation and impact can be achieved through various measures and methods: attendance at events, sales volume, number of student loans processed, ratings on satisfaction surveys, occupancy levels, focus group comments, and unsolicited anecdotal information.

To obtain the big picture in terms of campus services, Regent conducts an online survey of all students each spring. The questions relate to the service side of the university. For example: Are the hours at dining facilities convenient? Does the bookstore provide good service? How helpful is the business office? We usually ask the same questions, enabling us to gauge our performance from year to year. Regent also does smaller-scale assessments, such as distributing comment cards at dining tables and food service registers and asking students to evaluate all workshop presenters. This approach encourages students to speak up about the services they are receiving; we don’t wait for a petition drive to find out what’s on students’ minds.

All of these techniques provide valuable insights into the desirability and the effectiveness of the various programs and services offered. And, when dissected, this information prompts ideas for new programs or program adjustments. We not only gather data but also use the information to improve.

As an example, Regent operates a shuttle service that links all of our campus communities. We used to provide the service 12 hours per day. With more students taking courses online, however, the number of bus patrons began to drop. After conducting student surveys, we changed the shuttle schedule. Now, instead of running continuously, the shuttle is available during the four blocks of time that coincide with highest demand: 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., lunch time, late afternoon, and 9:00 p.m. to 10: 30 p.m.

Cutting the daily shuttle service from 12 hours to 7 hours enabled us to continue providing something of value while shifting funds to other priority areas. Of course, some students were unhappy about losing the continuous service. Once you start doing something, there will always be those who don’t want you to stop. Yet, thanks to the student services’ mission and plan, we knew our priority was not to operate a bus for a handful of people.

Campus cohesiveness can result from building cross-campus relationships through the strategic planning process. This unifying influence, in turn, supports an ethos of practical assessment that will lead to constant improvements in campus processes and services. Once employees, faculty, and students learn that the use of a strategic plan and the assessment tools that function with it actually benefit them, they will readily become active and eager participants in the process itself.

JEFFREY S. PITTMAN is vice president for student services at Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia.