Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Building an Institution Worthy of Its History: The Evergreen Strategic Plan at Widener University

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Building an Institution Worthy of Its History: The Evergreen Strategic Plan at Widener University

Article excerpt

Faculty and staff began to see accreditation (and accountability) as something truly meaningful

"They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself."

- Andy Warhol (1975, p. 111)

From its founding as a Quaker school for boys to its evolution into a military school and, ultimately, into the thriving coeducational civilian institution it is today, Widener University has been no stranger to change and transition. It may come as a surprise, therefore, that although it had a mission statement and goals, prior to 2004 the university had never been through an inclusive and meaningful strategic planning process that had serious implications for the future of the institution.

Inherent in such a historical oddity, perhaps, are the competing institutional priorities for both stability and flexibility. While committed to the "evergreen" or evolving nature of a new strategic plan, we also wanted to prevent the perception of whimsy that sabotages so many plans - that they serve as merely a set of good ideas until the next idée du iour comes along. On the other hand, we also wanted the plan to be sufficiently flexible to allow us to take advantage of conditions that might better position the institution to live its mission and vision. Ultimately, we learned that planning the implementation of the plan as it evolves is as critical as planning its development, funding, assessment, and next steps - all leading to the culmination of declaring the victory of meeting goal after goal.

In this article, we describe Widener's accomplishments in developing and implementing its strategic plan, Vision 2015, as a hallmark of the institution's contemporary culture and a driver of its extraordinary achievements. We first describe the process of developing the strategic plan, then articulate the evolution of the plan's influence as we developed clear links to the budget and supports for assessment, reaccreditation, and, now, a comprehensive campaign. We focus on the mechanisms and processes in place that protect the key features of the plan while also inserting some flexibility for contingencies, greater transparency and inclusion, and opportunities for advancing the institutional mission and vision - all managed as transitions in the evolution of the 10-year strategic plan. In addition, we describe the ongoing assessment of our progress as a critical feature of implementation that also promotes both flexibility and stability. We conclude with lessons learned about managing transitions in the evolving strategic plan and our expectations for what will follow when we close out Vision 2015 and move into a new planning cycle.

Developing the Plan

When a new president, Dr. James T Harris, III, was hired in 2002, the Board of Trustees was looking for a leader who would take the university to the proverbial "next level." One of President Harris's first actions was to assemble a strategic planning committee of faculty, staff, and students that would facilitate and coordinate the first comprehensive planning process in Widener's history. Although a new president instituting a planning process upon his or her arrival is not unusual in higher education, it was traumatic for a university community that had had only two presidents in the prior 45 years and that was very comfortable with the status quo.

Widener's history with strategic planning is, perhaps, not really so different from such histories at other institutions. Prior plans at Widener were completed by top-level administrators with little or no involvement from the rest of the campus, and after approval by the Board of Trustees, the plans were not widely disseminated to the Widener community. The last plan was completed in the mid-1990s but was not communicated or monitored. As a result, President Harris and the Strategic Planning Committee (committee) had to initially educate the university community, stress the need for and benefits of a comprehensive strategic planning effort, and create the necessary sense of urgency. …

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