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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Planning to plan to plan
July 8, 2008 - 9:05am

Greenback U. is, in the terminology of those who think and write analytically about such things, a "multiversity." It's a double-handful of schools and colleges, "united by a common heating system." It does a lot of things, some of them very well. One of the things it doesn't do well is institute change. Making change well requires coordination. Coordination, in a large organization, requires planning. Planning, at Greenback, is a patchwork at best.

Oh, we have five-year plans, and academic plans, and campus master plans, and an enrollment management plan, and project plans, and development plans, and a large number of purpose-built plans of various flavors, but each of them is drawn up by a small cadre of people, referenced only by pretty much the same group, generally unknown to the remainder of campus, and in no way integrated (or coordinated, or obviously in contact) with the other plans in the mix. As a result, planning at Greenback can only deliver more of what we already are, it can't help us become something else. And since we don't measure the outcomes of our plans (development campaigns aside), being more of what we already are is just fine.

Which isn't to say that substantive change never happens, it does. Occasionally. Haphazardly. Serendipitously, if you want to put a positive spin on it. Our president, like higher ed leaders across the country, has mastered the art of tossing ideas and initiatives into the "garbage can" that is campus processes. Occasionally, something positive (or, at least discernible) results. More often, not. It used to be said that the best predictor of today's weather was yesterday's weather (although, as the atmosphere absorbs more and more energy, the degree of correlation has certainly decreased). Certainly, the best predictor of what Greenback will do this year is what Greenback did last year, and last decade, and last generation. Presidents and plans come and go. The university is little affected, and usually not amused.

I was thinking about planning on campus recently, as the result of a convergence of events (serendipitous or otherwise). First, I'm looking at the AASHE's STARS rating system. It gives points for making sustainability an explicit part of a university's strategic plan, and campus master plan, and the subject of a separate purpose-built plan. (I'm not sure how many of those points Greenback will be able to score in the foreseeable future.)

Then, I'm reading Marcus Peter Ford's "Beyond the Modern University". (More on that, later.)

Finally, I'm going to be attending SCUP-43 in Montreal, later this month. There's a sustainability track throughout the conference, but I'm hoping to learn about planning from a sustainability perspective more than about sustainability from a planning perspective. (Time will tell. Watch this space. Film at 11. Or, more honestly, real-time posts as the conference goes on.)

I know that large institutions, even super-stable ones, can learn to change. Rosabeth Moss Kanter's "When Giants Learn to Dance" is still on my bookshelf. The private, for-profit sector of higher ed can certainly change course rapidly. Those of us in the non-profit sector will need to be able to do likewise.

I'm pragmatically optimistic that Greenback can learn to plan, and coordinate, and change. The challenges of sustainability can't be solved with the same thinking we used to create them (as pointed out by a man once introduced as to a bunch of gamblers as "Little Al, from Jersey"). Universities, as a class of institution, have changed significantly over the past 1000 years or so, and will need to change again. Much of that change has been accomplished by the demise or decline of obsolete institutions and the creation of new ones, but some schools have managed to thrive in a succession of incarnations in response to changing demands and situations. That sort of continuous (or, at least, repetitive) thriving is the result of change managed well. One can hope, and strive, and plan.


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