Magazine article University Business

Strategic Planning: One Size Doesn't Fit All: The Secret to Making Change Work? Customized Strategic Planning, Patience, and Persistence

Magazine article University Business

Strategic Planning: One Size Doesn't Fit All: The Secret to Making Change Work? Customized Strategic Planning, Patience, and Persistence

Article excerpt

What business people say about higher education is not true. Colleges and universities do change--but in different, more variable, and organic ways than business institutions. Admittedly, the changes may take longer. But they may be more pervasive and sustainable in the long run. And in a world where the demand for quick results has never been greater, this presents a major challenge. It tempts college leaders to push the pace of change, which can be disastrous when the institution is not ready. Yet colleges that fail to respond--to emerging areas of knowledge, to demographic and technological change, to the urgent need for accessibility and affordability, and a host of other societal expectations--may endanger their future. The secret to making change work lies in strategic planning and leadership that is collaborative, patient, and persistent.

Take Wheaton College (MA), for instance. When Wheaton began admitting men in 1987, the college set its sights on increasing student enrollment by nearly 50 percent, while improving student quality. Facilities improvements, fundraising, and many other projects also were identified through a comprehensive planning effort.

Five years later, when I arrived on campus as a new president, I was entrusted with a mission to advance change that was already underway. While I was genuinely impressed by the progress that had been made, I also was struck by how discouraged people had become. They thought the college should have achieved its goals quickly. The transition to coeducation had neither solved all of Wheaton's problems nor met all of the ambitious objectives that had been set at the time. Enrollment had not reached the new target, endowment spending and the financial aid discount rate were too high, and investments in salaries and in the physical plant were too low. Many individuals concluded more radical change was needed-and there was no shortage of strategies that they thought had worked well at "School X," and so would certainly work for us, too.

Had I listened to the one-size-fits-all radical restructuring solutions peddled by higher education management gurus, or been mesmerized by their market mindset, Wheaton's story might be very different than it is today. Instead, Wheaton has doubled applications for admission, achieved its enrollment target, and boosted the academic standing of the students it admits. The college's phenomenally successful Campaign for Wheaton exceeded its $65 million goal by raising $90 million. Those accomplishments allowed the college to expand and enhance its facilities and establish many new academic and co-curricular programs.

Our success over the past decade is rooted in the thoughtful and collaborative way in which we approached strategic planning. Faculty, staff, students, administrators, and trustees worked together to analyze the state of the college, consider both the broader society and the segment of the higher education market in which Wheaton competes, and refine the institution's vision to capitalize on unique strengths that would resonate with the world beyond campus.

The two strategic plans that were drafted during my tenure as president set the agenda for evolutionary change that respected Wheaton's culture and history. They built support for that agenda and kept evolving as living documents rather than simply sitting on the shelf. The two plans were quite different and were developed by two different processes. The second plan was much bolder than the first because the successes of the first plan laid the foundation for more dramatic change in the second.

General prescriptions for "fixing" higher education rarely work because colleges and universities are complex civic institutions with singular identities. Broad-brush statements that call for radical restructuring of how education is delivered, for example, fail to acknowledge that higher education is not monolithic. One of the strengths of American higher education is the variety of institutions: from liberal arts colleges to private urban research universities, community colleges to public land-grant universities, and regional schools to for-profit education businesses. …

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