On October 2, 2007, Executive Vice President and Provost Rodney Erickson spoke about the evolution and future of strategic planning at a meeting of the Quality Advocates. Planning at Penn State has evolved over the years, going back to the 1950s, when some sparse talk and pockets of planning existed. In the early days of planning, most of the people involved were senior administrators; it was not until the 1980s when more diverse segments were brought into planning. Initial strategic plans tended not to be strategic and were not linked to resources. This changed in the 1990s when the University Futures Committee was formed and the planning process was linked to budgets. Units were asked to think strategically about the impacts of a 10 percent reduction in their budgets. After a history of about 25 years, strategic planning has evolved into a bottom-up, top-down system, a system which relies on units developing their individual plans.
Many of the major initiatives in teaching and learning and research consortiums and all of these kinds of major changes at the University really have emerged in many ways from strategic planning.
The Provost indicated that, based on experience with the two most recent strategic plans which were more tactical in nature, the University’s current planning efforts will be more strategic. The guidelines for the 40+ budget units (/strategic_planning/sp_guidelines_2008.pdf) reflect this. The strategic plans cover a longer period, moving from three to five years; more time is allowed for units to develop their plans; units are asked to reflect on their vision for the next ten years; and, units are asked to prioritize their future actions and recommend strategic areas for funding. In addition, a University Strategic Planning Council will identify imperatives and strategic initiatives at the University level. To make the Council most effective, the number of members will be kept small and the Council will focus on the bigger picture by not delving too deeply into the unit plans. Some of the strategic questions the Council will have to address include:
- What is the future of the land-grant university in the 21st century?
- How to balance access with increasing tuition?
- What are potential sources of additional resources?
- What are the priorities in achieving student-centeredness?
- What is the relationship between planning and diversity?
- What is the role of the Commonwealth Campuses and their respective missions?
- How can the University operate more efficiently and effectively?
- Where are there opportunities for multidisciplinary and cross-college initiatives?
- What is the role of technology in future initiatives?
The entire strategic planning process will require about two years. Budget units have until July 1, 2008 to develop and submit their individual strategic plans. In fall 2007, the University Strategic Planning Council will be formed and the Council will meet through fall 2008. The draft University-wide plan will be developed and shared publicly for comment from students, faculty, staff, alumni and trustees, among other groups. The final University-wide plan will be a five-year plan covering 2009/10 – 2014/2015.
It’s going to be increasingly challenging to do all of the things that institutions like Penn State have done in the past. And we need to start thinking about what are the things that we really want to focus on and what is our core business that we really need to make sure we protect at all costs. Strategic planning is a way of focusing our attention on those kinds of things.
According to the Provost, planning strategically is especially important at this time because budgets are tight, calls for accountability are growing, and institutions of higher education face more competition for students, faculty and staff. With resources scarce already and budgets growing leaner, Penn State must find a way to do things more efficiently and focus on the things that matter most, identifying those programs or services that need to be protected at all costs. Along with this, the Spellings Commission, Congress and others, have placed increased emphasis on accountability and assessment. The changing national demographic trend of fewer traditional age college students is challenging the University to identify new populations to serve, such as adult learners and distance learners.
During the question and answer period, one audience member asked how departments can think strategically as they develop their plans. According to the Provost, most departments have an array of choices about their future direction, and faculty need to talk about what the emerging areas are and whether or how Penn State should participate in them. With a greater number of faculty retiring over the next decade or so, departments can move in new directions by directing the growth of the department through targeted hiring of faculty. Another audience member asked about the role of program review, and Dr. Erickson responded that it has a very significant role, especially for those programs that do not undergo regular external accreditation. These reviews provide valuable information for units, and can be especially useful in strategic planning. Curriculum assessment can be the basis for resource allocation. In response to a question about what the emphasis on “public” accountability means to scholarship, the Provost highlighted the need for balance between research and teaching. It is challenging to find the right balance, but the combination of research and teaching is what makes Penn State a quality institution.
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