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All administrative and academic leaders with extra time on your hands, please stand.

That would be no one. Even over the summer, the expectations of the coming academic year have competed with priorities we just couldn’t complete last year. The long list of to-dos likely included responding to the disappointing and upsetting U.S. Supreme Court decisions, minimizing summer melt, hiring new faculty and staff and working to keep current people from resigning, figuring out ChatGPT policies, launching new student-focused degree programs, shoring up student mental health services, constructing new buildings, rolling out new branding and fundraising campaigns, finishing new course preps—the list goes on. I’m sure you each have your own personal ones.

We all get the point; the metaphorical bucket is full to the brim. And now we turn to implementing our institution’s strategic plan, for which there is little necessary capacity.

Months of effort, including countless committee and task force meetings, listening sessions, late-night crafting and early-morning wordsmithing—along with securing the blessings of the Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees—have resulted in new five-year change agendas for many institutions, presented succinctly in the strategic plan (with nice graphics, too). The work to implement that consensus-driven effort now is at hand. The question facing most university leaders is not what to do but how to go about it. And as the pandemic, the politicization of higher education, financial uncertainties and the enrollment cliffs have taught us, we are already working very, very hard (if not rather burned out).

The work required to put a strategic plan in place in the coming academic year can appear daunting—we face implementation teams, new budgets, unit-level strategic plans, metrics and key performance indicators, just to name a few. Other efforts will probably depend on the specifics of each strategic plan: new degree programs, an expanded campus footprint, master planning and building renovations. This is the point at which most leaders reaffirm the notion that the scarcest resource in higher education is not money (although more is better than less) but time. Central to progress on that strategic plan is making the time to do the work and to develop the needed capacities to do it well.

The Bucket Is Full

Michael D. Cohen, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen taught us a long time ago in their classic work on university dynamics that in higher education time and attention are limited. Time is finite, and individuals and organizations can only cram so much into a day, week and month.

Therefore, doing all the new things in our strategic plans asks us to rethink current commitments, processes, habits and practices. We want more time, but it’s impossible to get it. What we need is different time and to do things differently. Creating that needed time requires some initial hard work and creativity by small and midsize universities at the institutional level and by large universities at both the school and institutional level. It means that campus leaders should consider taking the following challenging steps.

  • Forget. Collective amnesia can create some needed time when it comes to some current ways of operating, structures and barriers, and yesterday’s disagreements. Some common elements you might consider forgetting include things like the number of people who must be involved in all the Senate committee meetings, the number of committees needed to do the work and that all committees must meet on the same schedule for the same length of time. (Boards would be well served to forget this as well).

Forget the parameters of a 15-week semester and that all students learn at the same pace and from the same materials. One university forgot that all nine-month faculty appointments only take place between August and May (they learned that some faculty want to teach in the summer so they can do other work during the fall or spring semesters). Forget the number of credits your institution (not the accreditors) requires for majors and minors, said one provost working on implementing a novel strategic plan. Faculty at that same university wanted to forget the walls that we put up between disciplines and departments. The future can be as much about overcoming the past as it is moving forward.

But forgetting can be difficult, as colleges create processes that work well enough and then become ingrained. As has long been said, today’s problems are often solutions to yesterday’s problems. Habits and practices become codified in structures and cultures.

  • Agree to do some things less well. A common refrain in planning efforts is the admonishment to stop doing some things. Before we get to that extreme, how about a middle ground of agreeing to do some things less well? That can be uncomfortable, but it’s doable.

New department chairs face this situation all the time. Many have told me that with their new administrative responsibilities, they cannot teach at the same level or pursue the same research agenda. They don’t stop either but come to terms with doing something less well.

The same goes for organizational practices. One university required three departmental faculty members to interview each applicant for its graduate programs. The practice made sense for a new program in a new college with new faculty. As the university’s reputation grew, so did the number of applicants—and thus the faculty work, as well. What became clear is that some applicants were clearly admittable and concurrently others were not.

So they decided to interview only those applicants in the middle—and three faculty members became overkill as the department got better at interviewing. Two people learned to ask more comprehensive questions and listen broadly to answers. The new approach was not as good as the old way in terms of knowing each applicant or ensuring widespread faculty knowledge of the new cohort, but it was adequate. The department found new time but didn’t stop interviewing.

The idea of less well is hard for higher education to adopt. We want and expect mastery over everything. We perfect our manuscripts and rework syllabus revisions. People develop and refine processes to optimize outcomes. But we need to learn to give up some levels of perfection, completeness and control.

  • End certain efforts, but do so selectively. To make way for the new, the idea of stopping current activities is noble—but without care, it can be misguided. Terminating activities, programs or units can free time, space and resources. An extreme example is when institutions decide to stop offering certain degree programs. Be aware that what ensues is a tremendous battle and a great amount of effort that takes significant time—not less. Long ago, Machiavelli reminded us that the reformer has enemies among those supporting the old order and only lukewarm defenders for the new.

Ending something, which often is stated publicly, calls attention and draws out not only the supporters but also the allies of those supporters and even others divorced from the decision. At the end of the day, closing academic programs, as well as stopping other activities that have committed stakeholders, is not a rational process but a political and emotional one. The people working to preserve their programs garner support, build coalitions and defend publicly. They never go quietly just because the decision made sense to someone on paper. Stopping may be necessary, but it can create distractions from the real work of forward progress that strategic plans call for. Are you prepared?

  • Prioritize. The final element is to rank order the list of ways to make time in terms of most impactful to least and to also rank the list from easiest to hardest. What you decide to do less well, forget or even stop is not equal. Think about where to spend time, what are the low-hanging fruits and what will yield the greatest return on effort. What should be done first, second and third? Keep in mind culture and politics.

Moving Forward

Too many strategic plans, even those with valuable ideas, break down in their implementation. An important effort is cataloging institutional assets and shortcomings that can move a plan forward or derail it. Advancing strategic plans is not just about finding time but also putting that time to good use. Strategic plans require an understanding of the institution’s strengths and shortcomings related to implementation. Traditional SWOTs are about what to do—this is about how to do it. Leaders should ask themselves, “What are the strengths we can leverage to move forward collectively?” Conversely, they should ask, “What are the shortcomings we need to minimize?”

The assets and limitations discussion should include a focus on the institution’s structure, its culture and its context. The structure includes those visible elements of the institution, such as its organization chart, but also factors like size, the number and focus of colleges and schools, and its administrative organization. It also encompasses the budget, human resources and other organizational processes. The context includes factors such as the local, national, academic and political elements that can help move a plan forward or impede progress.

The final conversation is one on culture. That is the most difficult, because much of culture remains invisible to the people working in it. We can see the structures well enough to identify and potentially move beyond them, but culture blinds us to how we might benefit from doing so. The culture change is the hard one.

To start considering culture, think about what new hires learn about the ways you do things at your institution: How are different decisions made? By whom? To what extent is the institution decentralized or centralized? Whose memos are most ignored, the dean’s or the provost’s? How do you define the notion of faculty involvement? What issues are actively pursued, and what is the unspoken 800-pound gorilla in the room?

Bringing together cross-departmental teams to have these conversations can be helpful to illuminate different views about the institution. Asking new hires or longtime employees for their perspective can provide insights, as can novel configurations of other stakeholder groups. One research university president called together all the faculty members who had children enrolled there. That was an insightful focus group on the problems of undergraduate education.

Keep in mind that the same characteristic that can be an asset can concurrently be a liability. Take, for example, size or location. Large universities benefit from scale, but coordination is difficult. An urban or a rural location, too, has assets and liabilities in terms of creating community on campus and connecting with the local communities.

The conversations about assets and shortcomings should also explore capacities. Three questions: What capacities does the institution currently have that will serve well the elements of the plan? What capacities does it have but need further development to implement the plan? Finally, what new capacities does the plan demand that the university must create? For example, one university that prioritized city engagement had to develop an office to broker learning opportunities for students in the community. University leaders realized that they could not just expect the faculty to have sufficient community relationships or the know-how to build them to advance this priority at the level sought.

The Future Is Unknowable, So …

Finally, experiment and treat ideas as hypotheses. Strategic plans, if they are truly future-focused, are as much speculation as anything else. The future is unknowable, and the best guesses in the strategic plan are just that: guesses. Most institutional leaders would be well served to treat the elements of the plan as a set of hypotheses to test and questions to explore rather than ideas to prove. Instead, design experiments, test ideas, send up trial balloons.

Most institutions spend significant time and attention on developing their strategic plan. They need to also make the space and create the time and energy to implement it well. Leaders established one process to create the plan. They now need a different approach to move their institution forward.

Peter Eckel is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He works with campuses and their boards on strategy and governance. He is the academic head of a new global program in higher education management (online), and he has a forthcoming book on governing universities in post-Soviet countries from Cambridge University Press.

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