I had an interesting discussion on twitter a few days ago about the nature of University strategic plans, and specifically, why they are rarely written in a manner that feels meaningful to faculty. Having pondered it for a few days, I thought it would be worth jotting down some ideas.
- The university is, in most cases, a loosely-coupled organization. For the most part, people in Fine Arts could not care less what is going on in the Faculty of Agriculture (and vice-versa). Even within individual departments, teamwork is to some degree optional (you have your classes and research agenda, and I have mine). This is not surprising because the real rewards system in higher education lies within the structure of each discipline. The famous and somewhat unfair question “is your allegiance to your university or your discipline” matters here.
- Issues of discipline vs. university aside, to a significant degree professors behave as if they are independent contractors who nevertheless get a steady pay check from some place called “the university” which far from being a common enterprise, is rather a set of services one uses selectively and sometimes even reluctantly. That’s not to say everyone behave or feels this way, but a sufficiently large proportion does, making the notion of common enterprise problematic.
- Or, to put it another way: “The Faculty exists to protect the department from the University. The Department exists to protect me from the Faculty. And the Department can go jump in the lake.” Many professors believe at least two if not all three of those sentences. This makes universities platforms for independent teaching and research rather than an organization with a coherent value proposition of its own.
- But while the university looks like a particularly anarchistic jazz band from the inside, from the outside (i.e. from the POV of governments, students and parents), it’s an orchestra. That is, someone is in charge, and everyone has a part to play in a common purpose. In fact, they’d probably be pretty annoyed to find out no one is in charge. And so the people nominally managing the university (the Board, the administration) are obliged to make out as if the organization does have some common purpose beyond everybody doing their own worthy thing.
- One of the ways they assert that there actually is a university, and not just a group of departments connected by a steam plant, is to make strategic plans.
- Strategic planning as performed in universities is borrowed from strategic planning in the corporate sector, with a few differences:
- Companies have unique value propositions. With very few exceptions, universities do not.
- Under no circumstances are strategic plans allowed to make fundamental trade-offs between constituent different parts of the university. All boats must rise.
- Prestige, not profit, is the measure of success (as indeed it is for individual professors within their own disciplines).
- The only strategic plans that actually meet all three criteria are strategic plans which focus on increasing net revenues to the university. Co-incidentally, senior administrators have also noticed that funneling money to faculty does generally keep them happy. Not unreasonably, this leads senior administrators to believe that as long as the money keeps flowing, the faculty will be happy.
- Strategic Plans are therefore written primarily with the governments and major philanthropists in mind. Keep them happy, and money will keep flowing, and faculty will be happy, and new projects can be started, and prestige will rise.
- Corollary: strategic plans are usually written in ways which require faculty to do as little as possible. They are agendas for administrators, not faculty.
Now, for those faculty members that are happy simply puttering along on their own – that is, those who most senior admins believe are the median professors – this whole thing works out just fine. But not everyone feels that way. And for people who want a stick with which to beat admins over the head, one of the easiest things in the world is to pick up a strategic document phrased in language designed to speak to governments, businesses and philanthropists and say “this document is too corporate, it doesn’t speak the language of science and academia”.
No kidding. That’s a feature, not a bug.
Are there other, more inclusive, ways of doing strategic planning? Sure. But they require much tougher discussions about actual academic priorities, discussions that might involve campuses being more than just platforms for individual research agendas, or which might involve sacrificing some activities for the good of others. And though we might wish it were otherwise, there aren’t a lot of examples of shared governance bodies being up to having those kinds of discussions.
I invite feedback.