Sep 25 2014

Strategic Planning


Strategic Planning: Myth and Malpractice

If you work on a campus in the United States, in any capacity, you have encountered strategic planning. Indeed, the forces driving it seem never ending, as one three-year, five-year, or ten-year plan follows another.

We all know the story: a new president or provost comes in, and soon boatloads of committees are formed, presentations and gatherings are held to encourage “community buy-in,“ and endless promises are made about the wonderful future in store for the institution once it has been “transformed.”

These days, when an oddball institution does manage to survive, all too often a new president or provost will initiate a process of “restructuring” or “reorganization,” so that eventually it will look like every other institution through a process of benchmarking and “best practices.”

It’s true; run a query for “university strategic planning” in your favorite search engine, and you will find multiple examples of American institutions of higher learning boasting about their plans. The language in them tends to be nebulous and platitudinous, but then again their real intention is to give college and university executives around the nation cover for their decisions.

Perhaps you have wondered about the origin of this obsession with ongoing strategic planning, since—gasp—it did not always exist as a widespread practice in the American academy.

Some readers might not be able to imagine campus life without multi-year plans, but the historian of higher education only has to look back thirty to forty years to a “golden age” between 1945 and 1980—when American colleges and universities resisted the influx of corporate practices (such as strategic planning and assessment) as fundamentally antithetical to their primary non-profit missions: to educate, for the public good.

Historically speaking, multi-year planning cycles do not originate in corporate America; they are a practice that emerged in authoritarian communist governments in countries like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

After the communists won control  in 1949, for example, a socialist, central planned economy was put in place in China. Thousands of Russian experts were invited to help develop China’s higher education system. The “curricula, course syllabi, and textbooks” that Soviet scholars brought with them were carefully translated and widely distributed.

As a result of the import of Russian curricular models, a set of “canonized disciplines and professional specializations” were forever linked to the hierarchical structure of Chinese bureaucracy. The Soviet Five-Year Plan adopted by China thereby “provided an effective tool for the maintenance of a hierarchical sociopolitical order.”

Regrettably, the irony of the widespread use of authoritarian Soviet-style planning apparati is lost on many intellectuals in the American academy today.

One scholar does compare strategic planning to the American fads of piercing and tattooing (to which we might add hipster beards). For decades, she writes, “one managerial fad has replaced another, often arriving in academia just after fading out of corporate life.” As a result, most “wannabe universities” now conform to strategic planning regimes that benchmark themselves against peer institutions in an endless cycle of mimicry.

Never mind that strategic planning is an enormous burden on faculty and staff, because members of the board of trustees come from business, and accreditors and government agencies remain “enamored of planning, which they associate with transparency and accountability.”

Nevertheless, as Benjamin Ginsberg notes, the university planning process “entails months of committee meetings, discussions, and deliberations,” and most who participate “tend to buy into the outcome” and are ultimately “co-opted by it.”

In point of fact, the lengthy documents that are generated by strategic planning usually contain vague goals based on budget projections and include a number of fund-raising goals—so that they are little more than expanded vision statements.

Therefore, strategic planning is not a blueprint for the future (which is after all unknowable), but instead it is just another management tool to reinforce the “ongoing growth of administrative power.”

Many faculty or staff members who dedicate their time to strategic planning come away from the process wondering what happened to their important suggestions. When they query a president or provost about them, the inevitable reply is that all community voices were heard in the strategic planning process.

By thus manufacturing the illusion of participation, administrators are able to ignore the documents generated during the strategic planning process that do not jive with their preferred (often pre-determined) outcomes.

So, now that we have understood the strategic planning process in more detail—and gained an appreciation for how poorly suited it is to the non-profit venture of higher learning—the only question that remains is how to respond to it.

The realization that planning committee reports often go unread, their sincere recommendations jettisoned and soon forgotten when a new planning cycle comes along, makes the answer clear.

Simply do not buy in–especially if you worry about the direction your college or university is moving. Management cannot continue with the charade of inviting the community to the table, when that community understands “the emperor has no clothes.”