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When Strategic Planning Is the Best Planned Strategy

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The forced resignation and later reinstatement of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, amid discordant campus protests and high-profile media coverage, highlights the importance of a two-step process in the success of any higher-education presidency: an institutional assessment paving the way for sound strategic planning. The lessons at UVA are not lost on those of us in higher education, or on any executives who manage corporations and other complex organizations.

The benefits of effective planning before a college or university president takes office, or very early in the term, are substantial. As many business executives know, identifying the most relevant issues impacting an organization, a process which should include participation by representatives of its stakeholder groups, builds trust and paves the way for success during times of transition. On a college campus, there is often no greater transition than the arrival of a new president.

Commissioning an un-invested, experienced third party, approved by both the president and the governing board, to conduct a complete assessment of the institution helps to ensure the success of the entire enterprise, as well as that of the new president. Such an examination offers an objective and frank evaluation of the current condition of the institution, while yielding specific recommendations for appropriate and useful strategic planning to follow.

What should such an assessment include? It should be conducted by four or five tested, external authorities in higher education, all experienced in conducting institutional assessments. The assessment should consider the following in terms of costs, strengths, limitations, funds, trends, aspirations, and recommendations: (1) General condition; (2) Academic programs; (3) Technology; (4) Faculty credentials and compensation; (5) Students; (6) Administration; (7) Budget and finance; (8) Senior officers; (9) Private support and outside grants; (10) Public relations; (11) Governance, both board and campuses; (12) Recommendations; and (13) Other issues and conditions presented during the course of the Review. Interviews should be held with faculty, students, staff, alumni, governing board members, and other persons internal and external selected by position, stratified random sample, and at random.

In retrospect, an assessment done in association with the University of Virginia presidential search process would have provided a logical and appropriate juncture for institutional health, appraisal, and evaluation. A search that avoids this process squanders a pivotal opportunity. Additionally, such an assessment enables search committees to establish realistic and relevant criteria for the president they hope to attract, while allowing the board to address conditions that will make the position more attractive to first-rate candidates, and to appoint a president whose qualifications are more closely matched with the institution's identified needs through the assessment process.

For the sitting president, an assessment can do even more:

  1. Ensure a better informed and more supportive board by bringing to its attention important issues and potential problems affecting the institution.
  2. Help establish a tentative agenda for the institution and provide a more objective foundation for strategic and long-range planning.
  3. Serve as an objective way to evaluate the institution and its academic programs, as well as the faculty and student body of an institution.
  4. Advise on the attitudes of all constituencies, including alumni, media, political bodies, and townspeople, as well as faculty, staff, and students.
  5. Help determine the potential for increased private support.
  6. Enhance the image of the institution.
  7. Prepare effectively for accreditations and other outside evaluations.

Despite the benefits of such a due-diligence process, some institutions avoid the time-intensive strategy of planning based on assessment data. Campus groups might be wary of the process based on their past experience of seeing detailed evaluation and planning documents end up on a shelf. Others may be reluctant to confront the realities that such an analysis reveals or to attempt to broker agreement among conflicting campus parties.

Yet as numerous management experts, including the late Stephen Covey, have pointed out, success is a proactive process that often relies on meaningful collaboration. At the University of Virginia and other institutions large and small, public and private, an outside evaluator -- using proven assessment methods -- can chart the shortest road to harmony. In this way, the institution can position itself for effective strategic planning and internal cooperation while heightening the trust of all who invest in its future success.