Strategic Planning Consultation

Higher education faces greater challenges today than at any point in recent history. A global financial crisis has forced institutions to determine how to navigate in a sea of rising costs, enrollment shifts, and curtailed public funding. Surrounding the fiscal realities campuses face are changing student demographics, increasing public scrutiny, and political unpredictably. Priorities on campus clash regularly—with little chance that funding exists to make everyone happy. Some campuses are asked to serve as economic engines, helping to ensure local workforce needs are met in an increasingly globalized world. Others focus on online learning, student services, and institutional technology in an effort to reach new and diverse students while retaining those they are successful in enrolling. Some aim to fulfill the traditional higher education mission in traditional ways. And others are expanding out of higher education in an effort to diversify revenues by helping local school districts or running hospitals.

Sound strategic planning is critical for all institutions of higher education today. Public or private. Large or small. Well-resourced or not. Every decision made on campus involves time and money. In an environment characterized by increasing demands and limited resources, setting forth an intentional, vision-based path through strategic planning is essential. But the process has to be meaningful. If a campus decides to undertake strategic planning merely to check a box for a regional accreditor or to say they have gone through the exercise, the true value and importance of planning is lost. These plans will likely sit as artifacts on a shelf collecting dust. At best helping to meet a regional accreditation standard while at worst costing the campus valuable resources. Throughout the process, individuals from involved constituencies (faculty, staff, students, alumni, local community members, and others) get excited about future plans and opportunities. When nothing comes to fruition, a sense of deflation can come over campus, impacting future visions along with current performance.

And strategic planning efforts cannot simply align with the current campus climate. Designing a plan so that it builds off areas of strength while failing to identify true market position or acknowledging threats and challenges fails to position a campus for success. Instead, it allows the status quo to continue. While the central facets of many strategic plans will look similar for similar institutions, this should not be an excuse to merely provide boilerplate terminology, failing to describe how—or even why—goals and priorities will be accomplished. The entire process should help to move the whole campus community forward; it should ensure that everyone gets out ahead of emerging trends and changing environmental factors.

Strategic planning for the sake of strategic planning costs campuses the opportunity to make hard choices and set new directions. Inclusive, transparent, and intentional strategic planning should result in agreed upon documents that all parties believe they can meaningfully contribute to. This doesn’t mean the plan must be everything to everyone on campus; instead, it should serve as a realistic rallying point for guiding the institution forward. And not every plan or planning process will look the same. Meaningful strategic planning reflects the culture of campus and its stakeholders. Expectations that a particular format or approach must be used to ensure success fail to account for the unique characteristics of everyone involved in the process and impacted by its results.

Ultimately, strategic planning could fill any number of roles on campus. Whether the process is geared toward helping the institution find its current identity, setting a long-term vision and direction, or guiding difficult decisions, the whole campus community should see benefits from the entire process—and the plan’s ultimate implementation. If we use an inclusive process that includes data collection from a wide representation of campus constituencies, we can help ensure faculty, staff, students, and even the Board of Trustees buys in. This buy-in not only provides political cover but can lead to meaningful marketing and branding opportunities—including donors, grant givers, and other funders. Beyond the ability to help an institution move forward, a well-designed strategic plan serves as the point of integration for all campus planning activities. Annual reporting, academic plans, financial plans, and even facilities plans should connect with the campus’ strategic plan. This helps all stakeholders see how their work contributes to the greater goals and direction. And, while completing a strategic plan to merely satisfy a regional accreditor may not be wise, a well-designed plan and its results can help show these same bodies how campus efforts are concentrated to meet both short and long-term goals.

Strategic Planning should be an inspirational process that moves an organization toward achieving its mission. Best practices for approaching Strategic Planning in the college and university environment are outlined by the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) (Hinton, 2012). Most importantly, Hinton notes "that not all 'planning' consultants are able to support a comprehensive institutional strategic plan. Understanding contemporary strategic planning is essential to a successful planning process. Institutions that use a consultant need a basic understanding of contemporary strategic planning as preparation to hire the right consultant. There is great value in finding a consultant who has experience as a staff or faculty member at an institution, understands the relationship between strategic planning, assessment, and accreditation, and has a balanced perspective of an institution’s many functional areas. It is necessary for each institution to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of any potential consultant and, from that, determine if the 'fit' is the right one for the institution at that point in time.

My approach to strategic planning involves ensuring a collaborative, inclusive, responsive, and transparent process that builds off listening sessions and SWOT analyses to honor the history of the institution, celebrate its current successes, and thrive for even more in the future. Services include SWOT analyses, peer institution identification, listening session moderation, review of mission, vision, and core values, drafting of plan, implementation planning, and progress reviews.