by Nicholas R. Santilli
As last year was coming to a close, one of the most worrisome forces in higher education was the forecasted drop in the number of traditional-age students, scheduled to hit around 2025. That seems a world away now, as campuses around the globe struggle to find footing in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Senior leaders in student affairs and campus housing now face an even more immediate set of choices: how to isolate the students remaining in residence halls because they have nowhere else to go, keep student life programming vibrant in a virtual environment, engage staff via Zoom meetings, and determine what orientation and staffing will look like if stay-at-home orders remain through the coming months. The enrollment cliff may not seem so daunting after all.
This moment involves far more than the predicted disruption many have suggested was coming to higher education. Instead, it is an existential moment that will reshape the higher education landscape. Institutions will close (it’s already happening), others will merge (happening), and still others will consider reducing or eliminating programs and staff (under consideration). COVID-19 alone is not the impetus for these changes. Instead, the pandemic has intensified the impact of environmental forces already pressing on higher education. How, then, are institutions to respond to this turbulent environment?
Integrated planning is the Holy Grail – often sought but rarely found. It is a sustainable approach to planning that builds relationships, aligns the organization, and emphasizes preparedness for change.
A starting point is to define the nature of this volatile environment. To claim that higher education is experiencing its existential moment is simply not enough, as there has been some form of volatility in the higher education environment for decades. To illustrate this point, consider a short list of recent disruptive forces. Along with higher operational costs, lessening public support, and a growing student debt crisis, there is the arrival of Generation Z students on campus. Clearer pathways are needed to achieve greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. Campuses are negotiating their duty to protect free speech without endorsing dangerous speech. And there are the negative headlines around events like the Varsity Blues admission scandal, Title IX management, and more.
Nothing on that list may quite reach the level of disruption that business theorist and academic Clayton Christensen would have included in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. A better description may be to say that the environment is volatile. However, claiming that this is merely a time of volatility does not adequately define the world in which we find ourselves. Rather, the environment is volatile and more. To explain, let’s consider the acronym VUCA. Commonplace in military planning, this term is used to describe environments that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Sound familiar?
How should higher education professionals exercise the change in leadership necessary to navigate this kind of environment? In 2017, Mike Moss, president of the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), and I argued that the response to higher education volatility is integrated planning. “In our opinion, the launching point for creating long-term capability to manage change starts with building durable cross-functional relationships across the units of an institution. These strong on-campus partnerships create a culture that embraces the integrated planning requirements for sustaining the execution of the integrated plan, namely from strategic vision to operational tactics for organizational viability. Administration, faculty, students, employers, and even the institution’s local community all have a stake in the success of a campus and must be included in the planning processes that ultimately create a durable culture to manage change.”
Integrated planning is the Holy Grail – often sought but rarely found. It is a sustainable approach to planning that builds relationships, aligns the organization, and emphasizes preparedness for change. As we also wrote, “The ability to address the non-stop emergence of new trends on a campus through a responsive integrated planning process is critical for all institutions, regardless of size or current financial standing. In the absence of good planning, even the largest of endowments can suffer quickly if the campus culture is reactive to change. Build strong relationships anchored against the desire to support the greater good of an institution, and one will be ready for whatever trends come his or her way.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of integrated planning is to avoid the temptation to retreat into institutional silos. Rather, it will require broad collaboration with a commitment to the core purpose of the institution to be the mechanism for institutional thriving. But how can you help your institution adopt integrated planning practices?
In June 2015, the Society for College and University Planning, with assistance from Baker Strategy Group, surveyed more than 94,000 higher education professionals in the United States, and 2,285 responses were received. The survey asked about planning practices on the respondents’ campuses and their familiarity with SCUP. Respondents represented the spectrum of campus constituents, including faculty, staff, and administrators. The results revealed seven dimensions of good planning.
Emphasize Good Planning: To emphasize good planning, schedule ongoing, continual conversations around planning that involve all facets of a campus. Remind teams that planning involves everybody at the table with an academic focus and a focus on the viability of the university.
Define Effective Planning: If there is a lack of understanding for what constitutes effective planning, work with your team to bring clarity on how to measure success. If there is agreement on a definition of good planning, communicate this definition broadly to leaders in order to continue to build wide agreement on what makes planning effective.
Agree on Priorities: Coming to agreement on how time, money, and resources will be prioritized on campus is a difficult and complex process, but one that is absolutely critical. Dedicate extensive time to ironing out differences and coming to a clear understanding on where the priorities lie.
Integrate Plans Across the Institution (Alignment): A number of planning models facilitate integrated planning. The real difficulty is an isolation mindset and fiefdom thinking, rather than the particular integrated planning structure in use. Planning efforts must intentionally incorporate planning that is being conducted outside just one area of responsibility and regularly refer back to the institution-wide plan into which the planning efforts fit.
Provide Training for Effective Planning: To change the planning culture at an institution, everyone must receive the proper training, even those who are only tangentially involved in the planning process. Organizations should offer robust training options, ensure that new hires receive training in good planning, and monitor training effectiveness throughout the year with assessments and coaching.
Be Agile: Intentionally build flexible structure into the planning in order to be a nimble planning organization. Set up concrete mechanisms for scanning the trends and cultural waves of change that will likely impact the campus, and build into the planning some specific time to review and discuss potential changes. More importantly, use and manage the dynamic planning model to make the needed adjustments quickly and holistically across the campus. One cannot prepare for all changes, but one can be prepared with a flexible planning model, knowing that change will inevitably warrant course corrections.
Manage Change: Before change has an impact on an organization, one needs to effect change within an organization. The deeply cultural organizational trait of being willing to actively change can only develop over time. Regularly show others how colleges and universities must embrace an ever-evolving environment that requires leaders to continually experiment with, test, and evaluate new and better methods for accomplishing the educational mission. Along with the cultural shift, dynamic organizational models are needed so that an institution can begin to anticipate change in ways that reduce structural impediments to achieving durable change while retaining what continues to work in higher education.
Even after taking these steps, successful integrated planning at colleges and universities can remain a challenge, as many traditional planning models are designed for corporations or non-profit organizations and do not account for the complex, unique world of higher education. If they are to be successful, they will require thoughtful and disciplined leadership from the top leaders on a campus, namely the president and other senior leaders. Without clear and strong leadership by these critical campus voices, most planning efforts will fail. In addition, research shows that a pair of complementary factors must also be present to optimize planning efforts.
The first of these factors is collaborative governance. A commitment to collaborative governance and the processes it entails sets a foundation for institutional effectiveness and institutional thriving. Collaborative governance is a fundamentally human activity that establishes the roles and responsibilities of all of the campus constituencies. A highly functioning governance environment sets the standard for institutional relationships. A dysfunctional governance environment destroys any hope for effective planning. Figure 1 displays the key aspects of this environment. Place collaborative governance at the center of institutional operations, and campuses may see how governance touches a number of significant dimensions. A healthy governance environment fosters trust, fairness, morale, respect, and productive constituent relationships. Without a healthy governance environment, integrated planning is nearly impossible.
The second factor is to establish a core purpose and affirm an institution’s mission and values. Integrated planning is mission driven and data informed. Without mission and correlative values, institutions have no compass. A clear understanding and articulation of mission and values guides strategy and institutional purpose. Figure 2 displays the driving questions institutions must answer in order to set strategy that will drive an institution’s core purpose. Without clarity on core purpose, institutions will meander through poor decisions, waste resources, and lose relevance. Maintaining a commitment to a core purpose drives strategy and planning decisions in good times and difficult times. The present circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic will require institutions to make decisions vital to institutional thriving. Campus leaders must make these decisions with mission in mind. Do not lose who you are when making decisions under duress.
Finally, it is important to remember that integrated planning provides a context to execute both strategic and operational planning goals. However, planning itself is not the end. The end that institutions of higher education seek is aligned with mission and values. Of most importance are the ways colleges and universities shape the lives of their students. In my last years on campus, I ended talks I gave to students with my three hopes for their education: to act with compassion, to lead with integrity, and to live for justice. We cannot lose sight of these three aspirational values of higher education. We must keep these aspirations in mind as we plan for the future – perhaps now more than ever.
Nicholas R. Santilli is the senior director for learning strategy for the Society of College and University Planning as well as a professor emeritus of psychology at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. He also was a featured speaker at the ACUHO-I 2020 State of the Profession event. firstname.lastname@example.org