Strategic Plan Chapter1.html

Achieving Distinction 2000:

A Strategic Plan For The University Of Iowa

Chapter One: Background

This chapter elaborates the background for this strategic planning cycle. Specifically, it (a) identifies conditions leading the University to embark on a strategic planning process and reviews the original charge to the committee, (b) defines strategic planning, (c) discusses issues that need careful attention when adapting strategic planning to higher education, (d) describes the process of updating the 1989 plan to the revised plan for 1995-2000 presented here.

The Impetus for Strategic Planning

A convergence of four conditions led The University of Iowa to embark on strategic planning in 1989. The first was a new president who believes in the value of strategic planning and, in fact, was an architect of such a plan at another academic institution. The second was the University's 1987 self-study, Building on Strength, which laid the groundwork for strategic planning by recommending a set of ambitious proposals and aspirations for the University. The third was a growing recognition among individuals and constituencies within the University that issues of institutional direction needed to be addressed systematically, and that some focusing of the University's programs was essential to achieve and maintain distinction. The fourth and final condition was a consensus within the state of Iowa that more systematic planning for higher education is important, if not essential, to future decisions about funding. Overall, the impetus for strategic planning comes from both internal and external conditions that dovetail and create an opportunity for the University to move significantly forward in the next decade.

In the corporate world, strategic planning generally is an effort to develop broad corporate-level policy for a large, diversified enterprise within an unstable environment. Trends in the internal environment (e.g., product diversification) and external environment (e.g., complex patterns of interdependence faced by multinational corporations) typically make strategic planning helpful, if not necessary, to large corporations. The strategic planning process at The University of Iowa is an effort to respond to somewhat similar internal and external trends. In undertaking such planning, the University joins a large and growing list of other institutions of higher education that have adapted strategic planning concepts to the university context. Strategic planning has become a national trend among institutions of higher education, presumably because universities are undertaking a greater variety of tasks internally and are facing more uncertain external environments, conditions similar to those that foster strategic planning in the corporate arena.

Given such conditions, President Hunter R. Rawlings III established a University Strategic Planning Committee on January 3, 1989. He charged the committee to accomplish the following tasks during the 1989 calendar year: (1) develop a framework for planning by units across campus (e.g., by colleges, administrative offices, academic departments), (2) explicate a set of informed assumptions about the external and internal environment, (3) create a University-wide plan that draws in part on plans submitted by first-level planning units, (4) address specific issues of importance raised by the University community, and (5) propose a mechanism for ongoing strategic planning to follow this initial cycle, including some ideas for assessing progress. Overall, the primary role of the committee was to develop, rather than implement, a University-wide plan and to promote planning across campus. With the publication of Achieving Distinction, the first Strategic Planning Committee fulfilled the first four charges. A year later, the Strategic Planning Steering Group, composed of the University President and Vice Presidents and one faculty representative, was formed and charged with implementing the strategic plan. A continuing Strategic Planning Committee helped assess progress and provided suggestions for revisions.

Thus planning has become an ongoing process at The University of Iowa. As part of that process, the documents supporting the planning process and communicating the goals and aspirations require periodic review and renewal. In April, 1994, President Rawlings appointed a new Strategic Planning Committee charged with reviewing and updating the 1989 Plan, including a description of the University's operating conditions "The University and Its Environment." It is included here, as in the first plan, as Appendix B. The present document is the culmination of nearly a year's detailed examination, commentary, discussion, and revision of Achieving Distinction based on extensive testimony and suggestions from every segment of the University community.

The Concept of Strategic Planning

The 1989 Strategic Planning Committee took the following definition as its starting point for The University of Iowa's strategic planning process: Strategic planning is an institution-wide effort through which members of the University community establish directions and create strategic initiatives that channel limited resources to fulfill the University's mission, to achieve its goals, and to take maximum advantage of trends in the external and internal environment. The elements of a strategic plan include an assessment of the University's environment; the development of goals, objectives, and strategies; the setting of priorities among objectives and strategies; and indicators for the assessment of progress. These elements are defined in the Planning Framework of March 1, 1989 as follows (see also Appendix A).

Environment: the external context (e.g., social, political, economic, demographic) and internal conditions (e.g., culture, traditions, administrative structure) of the institution.

Goals: ends, future states, or conditions to be produced. Goals are less general than the mission, which contains the broadest ends, but more general than objectives. Goals are the basis for objectives which, in turn, serve as a link between goals and action.

Strategies: actions or means for achieving goals and objectives. A strategy can be a single action or a set of complementary actions.

Priorities: rankings in order of importance (or timing) either among goals or among strategy options, or both.

Assessment: criteria or indicators for evaluating progress toward the goals.

It should be clear that strategic planning focuses on the University as a whole, raising fundamental ques-tions about direction and emphases. In response to a complex, unpredictable environment, a strategic plan (a) adopts a proactive stance, taking account of and preparing for various contingencies; (b) integrates and connects the more general policy themes (i.e., mission and general goals) with objectives and strategies; and (c) provides a flexible guide for budgetary and program decisions without undermining the judgmental nature of decisions about academic quality or dictating decisions in advance. Once established, the strategic plan is not etched in stone. The plan must be re-evaluated on a regular basis and continual adjustments will be necessary to meet new challenges or constraints and take advantage of unanticipated opportunities. Flexibility and adaptability characterize both the appropriate content and purpose of a good strategic plan.

For planning to be successful, each constituent part of the University also must plan in order to fit itself into the overall University direction. The planning process must have a "bottom up" feature strong enough to preserve the legitimate discretion of departments and colleges and be responsive to the knowledge and creativity of those closest to a problem or issue. The "top down" feature should be directed at creating the conditions (e.g., policies and resources) that enable departments, colleges, and administrative units to accomplish their objectives, while also coordinating some effort of these individual units toward University-wide strategies and themes. The planning process has integrated the "bottom up" and "top down" features of strategic planning along these lines.

Adapting Strategic Planning to Higher Education

Constructing an effective strategic plan for an institution of higher education is a difficult task. Some would argue that strategic planning and higher education are virtually incompatible, and studies of universities as organizations offer good reasons to be highly skeptical of the impact of strategic planning on academic institutions. Compared to corporations, universities are "organized anarchies" or "loosely coupled systems" that do not follow principles of coordination and control applicable to a corporation. The structure of the organization is flat (i.e., there are few levels in the hierarchy), the work is fragmented, the technology is soft, the participants are fluid (i.e., students, staff, and faculty come and go), and the goals are necessarily vague. The upshot, according to Burton Clark, is that universities have a "natural ambiguity of purpose." To treat them otherwise is to risk destroying their special character.

For strategic planning, the major implications of organizational studies of universities are as follows:

First, given the natural ambiguity of purpose, it is difficult, if not impossible, to measure the progress of a university toward its goals. The implementation of the means (i.e., strategies) generally can be measured more effectively than the results or conditions they are designed to produce. Even with regard to strategies, however, measurement tends to be imprecise. Assessment is inherently interpretive and qualitative, and it is likely to be time-consuming. For quantitative data, the term "indicator" is superior to "measure," in part, because it has an interpretive connotation appropriate for qualitative assessments.

Second, universities are largely value-driven, meaning that their activities are (or should be) judged as much by the values they uphold as by the ends they produce. Given that fundamental values are imbued with emotion, institutions of higher education tend to be more tradition-bound than economic organizations. Greater care is needed, therefore, to adapt strategic planning to the culture and traditions of educational institutions. In applying strategic planning to higher education, one must be wary of standard formulae and only loosely adopt ideas and practices from the management arena. Rigid application of the "utilitarian logic" associated with strategic planning has the potential to distort, or even destroy, some academic values essential to higher education.

Third, the collegial nature of universities makes support for strategic plans by faculty, staff, and students in colleges and departments crucial to successful implementation. The planning process should generate a reasonable level of consensus on direction, emphases, and priorities, even though there may be considerable disagreement on specifics or details. The fundamental point is that the "bottom up" feature of strategic planning is more important in a university than elsewhere.

The primary dangers of strategic planning are implicit in the above discussion: attempting to impose an inappropriate level of precision in measurement; requiring all activities and programs to conform to a strictly utilitarian standard; and producing a management ethos that is inconsistent with the collegial nature of the organization. Strategic planning could become a strong centralizing force that undermines the very purposes for which it is adopted. Despite these dangers, all of which must be carefully and continually assessed, the benefits of strategic planning can be considerable. The potential value to The University of Iowa should be evident in the pages that follow and also in the separate plans of colleges, departments, and administrative units.

Updating the University's Strategic Plan

In reviewing and revising Achieving Distinction, the 1994 Strategic Planning Committee was guided by several considerations: First, as far as possible, the Committee desired to maintain continuity with the original plan. Institutional aspirations and goals should not and cannot change abruptly. In particular, the process of conducting strategic planning should be continued so that it becomes familiar to all participants. Consequently, the present plan holds in place the structure and format of strategic planning devised by the first committee and articulated in this chapter and in Appendix A. Second, progress over five years and changing environmental conditions necessarily required some adjustments in goals, objectives, and strategies. In many instances, we found it necessary to delete or revise objectives or change strategies because significant gains have occurred. In other cases, assumptions or environmental conditions have changed, requiring shifts in objectives or strategies. Third, we have tried to coordinate University-level planning more closely with the goals of first-level plans. By necessity, the first plan had a stronger "top-down" component to the planning process. With the benefit of the first round of strategic planning in place and by consulting with many leaders of first-level planning units, we were better able to consider the aspirations and goals of first-level plans in the overall context of University strategic planning. Fourth, we attempted to rectify points that caused widespread concern or misinterpretation while keeping with the original intent of Achieving Distinction. Finally, we sought out new strategies, from within our committee and from the many comments generated by members of the University community, that would allow us to progress more rapidly toward our University aspirations and goals.

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Last updated on July 17, 1995 by Campus Communications