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Your University’s Name Here

April 11, 2010

The first draft (actually the 9th, but the first one made public) of the university’s latest five-year plan has been released.   A rather large group of faculty and administrators have been working for months  developing and writing it.  Perhaps this alone explains the results; as the old saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth.   To extend this cooking metaphor, the result has not been a stimulating and memorable stew,  but a rather bland and undistinguished  one.  Stew really is the right cooking metaphor for this kind of document.  Just like stews that contain a mix of vegetables and meats that happen to be  in your refrigerator and freezer at a given time, the five-year plan reflects the interests of those who drafted  it.

Every academic group and support unit wants to be mentioned in it.   If they did not have a representative on the committees that drafted the plan, they were not happy.  This was made abundantly clear at a recent open forum to discuss it.  A number of people complained that their college or unit was not explicitly mentioned in it.  The main result of this meeting was that even more ingredients were going to be added to our strategic stew.   Less is not more when it comes to five-year plans.

While at this open forum, I began to wonder about the utility of strategic plans.  Do these five-year plans really make any difference?  How different is our plan from those of comparable institutions.

Do these plans make a difference?  We have had numerous five-year plans.  We are are mandated to develop one every five years by the regents.  One of our senior administrators  recently characterized our current five-year plan as so generic that it was useless for making planning decisions.  (This kind of candor is unfortunately rare.)  I have no reason to disagree.  In fact, I have no idea what is in our current five-year plan.   Nothing has gotten any better from a faculty, and I suspect student,  perspective, in the last five years, and most things have gotten worse (higher course loads, fewer support staff, fewer faculty, larger class sizes, fewer faculty development opportunities, etc.).  I doubt that our current five-year plan included any of these as one of its goals.   For much of the last five years, the university has been plagued by repeated budget cuts, and most of our actual planning has focused on how to deal with them.

A small, statistically invalid, and informal survey of my colleagues indicated that they too had no idea of what is in our current five-year plan.  Some didn’t know that we had one.   None believes that it is of any relevance to them.    The main reason for their indifference is that these plans ignore reality — at least  their reality.   As one opined, they are written for public relations not planning purposes.  In fact, the kinds of budget problems (declining state support, fewer high school graduates) that have impacted the university in recent years, and that will continue to shape its future for many years to come, are not even mentioned in the draft of the new five-year plan.

How different is our plan from those of other comparable universities?  The generic nature of our new five-year plan was noted at the open forum.  To make our plan more specific, the writing team added a list of federal labs on our campus and in town.  These were described as “our unfair advantages.”  Our faculty get lots of research funds because of collaborations with researchers at them, and these federal labs  have certainly had a huge impact on the kinds of academic programs and research institutes that we have on campus, as has been the case at lots of other universities.  Without listing these labs, it was suggested that our five-year plan could be adopted word-for-word by any other large, land-grant university.  Was this really true?  I decided to  investigate.

Much to my surprise I could not find a Wikipedia entry on university strategic planning or five-year plans.  This was going to require more work than I had anticipated.  A  Google search (more than 35 million hits), however, turned up lots of university strategic plans.  I selected a handful of them from similar institutions to peruse.  Although they vary in style, detail, and length, they are remarkably similar in content.  Like mine, all these universities are all going to attract the highest quality faculty, staff, and students.   They are all going to train tomorrow’s leaders.  They are all going to become institutions who will have a greater impact at the state, national and international level.  They are all going to achieve greater excellence by increasing diversity.  They are all going to become greener institutions by becoming better environmental stewards.  The land grant institutions are all going to rededicate themselves to serving society through teaching, research and service.   It is true:  our five-year plan looks much like all the others.  There are even a number of words that are de rigueur in the latest crop of plans.   My favorite is transformational.   Others include stewardship, collaborative, global, sustainable, engagement, and alliances.

Many years ago I heard a song by Lou and Peter Berryman, Your State’s Name Here.   This ditty is a generic state song that can be easily adapted for use by any state.  As the song’s title suggests, you make it state specific by inserting the name of the state in appropriate places in the lyrics as well as by inserting  a few local features (a local beer, an indigenous flower, the state bird, etc.).  In fact, we have a such generic version of a five-year plan, that it could be called Your University’s Name Here.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.   In researching university strategic plans, I discovered that there are consulting firms that you can hire to write them for you.  Perhaps, we should sell the rights to our new five-year plan to one of them.  All that work on our new plan might actually do some good;  it might make us some much-needed money.

NOTE:  In the interest of full disclosure as president of our Faculty Senate, I was asked to nominate members of the senate to the committees that wrote our new five-year plan, and I did.  I made sure, however, that I was not one of them.  As noted above, I consider writing such plans a necessary burden (evil?),  like writing the instructions for income tax schedules.  As with such instructions, the results are predictable.  Nor do I harbor the illusion that had I served on the writing committee, the results would have been any different.

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