Guiding a venerable institution forward into a new century

Strategic planning at ACE: Guiding a venerable institution forward into a new century

Ward, David

Any business school student can tell you that well-established companies must innovate to remain competitive and survive in an increasingly market-driven, global environment. But those of us who have actually led higher education institutions ao know that creating a climate of innovation and change at a venerable institution is easier said than done. The corporate gr d is fil household names that failed to reposition themselves effectively.

In many ways, colleges and universities are some of the most venerable institutions in the United States. But they, too, are being whipsawed by dynamic market forces and will not remain venerable for very long if they remain on the cutting edge of new must lie at the center of each institution if it is to remain on the cutting edge of new knowledge and good teaching practice. And the key to innovation and change, particularly for higher education institutions, is research-driven strategic planning.

Still strategic planning is an alien to many colleges and universities. As educators, we are accustomed to discussions of plans and markets as they pertain to the corporate sector, but remain skeptical that we could fully apply such principles and practices to traditional, nonprofit higher education. But I believe that our institutions no longer have the luxury of “muddling through” in the traditional way. Unless we are responsive to changes in the capacity, delivery, and content of higher education and at the same time protective of our enduring values, some of our institutions might become footnotes in the history of higher education.

Higher Education in a Dynamic Context

The story of U.S. higher education over the past half-century is one of extraordinary achievement. After World War II, America’s colleges and universities made revolutionary strides-providing successive generations of students with greater access to education, fostering research and innovation that fueled unparalleled economic growth and scientific development, and raising our higher education system to global preeminence.

The last century, however, ended on an uncertain note for higher education, with diminishing state investment, growing criticism of management approaches and high tuition costs, escalating regulatory burdens, and demands for new measures and methods of accountability. The 1990s also introduced unprecedented technological advances (along with their high capital and operating costs) and introduced competition from for-profit providers into the learning community. The increased movement of faculty and students across international boundaries, along with the export of more educational programs and services, has broadened the reach of colleges and universities and at the same time generated new issues for them.

At a basic level, all these changes mean that a record number of people are entering postsecondary education. These new students are far more diverse than the Baby Boomers, who entered the system 40 years ago. This new college population contains more first-generation students, is more racially diverse and older, and includes more parttime students. Added to these dramatic demographic shifts are equally revolutionary developments in technology that are transforming how we communicate and allowing teaching and learning to be delivered remotely.

These demographic and technological shifts also mean that today’s students approach postsecondary education with a broad range of objectives and values. People now are much more inclined to view higher education as a lifelong endeavor and are more carefully considering how such opportunities fit into their increasingly complex needs.

Given these changes, some colleges and universities will have to redefine themselves and the learning process to meet these new “just-in-time” expectations. I refer to this challenge as “niche positioning.” Many institutionswhether public or private, large or small, nonprofit or for-profitwill confront the challenge of preserving an appropriate degree of academic breadth as they identify and promote their unique niche.

Some colleges and universities will continue to provide a traditional, comprehensive program of undergraduate and graduate studies. Others will choose to sharpen the distinctiveness and focus of their offerings, with the conviction that specificity of mission will enable them to meet the needs of a diverse student community. In addition, as institutions promote their individuality and autonomy, they will need to enter into a wide array of partnerships and strategic alliances to maximize their own effectiveness and quality.

How can all of this be done? I believe it can be achieved only through a comprehensive process of strategic planning. That process can bring the spirit of innovation and responsiveness to every level of a campus organization, from the faculty through to even the volunteer staff. The common element of every plan should be flexibility. We should be prepared to jettison outdated academic and administrative structures in favor of increasingly cross-disciplinary approaches. In Washington, this is commonly referred to using the “stovepipe” analogy, but whatever the imagery, colleges and universities can no longer be confederations of semi-independent entities. We must work together and innovate to anticipate the needs of our growing student base.

Think of some of today’s most creative academic fieldsbiotechnology, computer science, geophysics, and nano-technology. These fields grew quickly out of interdisciplinary efforts in established fields such as biology, chemistry, geology, geography, and mathematics. These academic efforts stand as examples of universities harnessing change rather than being overwhelmed by it.

Funding remains a critical issue in planning and harnessing change, particularly for flagship public research universities, which have increasingly diversified their resource base. Most states will necessarily have to decide how many and which institutions have the potential to support comprehensive research. Fortunately, we have seen corporations, foundations, and government sources more than willing to fund programs of promise-even in tough economic times.

Back to the Future: Planning to Harness Change

Still, the memory of company failures serves as a reminder to both CEOs and college presidents alike of the dangers inherent in change. But the failure to adapt and innovate-the danger of standing still-looms even larger. The question remains, how do you take the helm of a venerable institution and thrust it forward into a new century, into new challenges and new ideas? That was my challenge at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it is my challenge now at the American Council on Education (ACE).

At Wisconsin, as at many institutions around the country, we had the advantage of being able to build on a very strong existing foundation. Guiding nearly all university activities was the longstanding notion of “The Wisconsin Idea”-the belief that the university should be working in concert with, and for the benefit of, all the state’s citizens. To its great credit, the state had strongly supported this tradition and built for itself a research campus at Madison that rivaled any in more populous states like California, Michigan, and Illinois.

I found the situation at ACE to be remarkably similar. Since 1918, ACE has played a pivotal role in serving the higher education community. Through its unyielding commitment to access and diversity, and by representing the common interests of all postsecondary educational institutions, ACE has had a profound, positive impact on our nation’s higher education system. Throughout the years, the Council’s determination to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to be admitted to and graduate from strong postsecondary education programs has informed activities and supported initiatives at all colleges and universities.

In both situations, I inherited a robust organization with a record of achievement that testified to the fine stewardship of previous leaders, the dedicated professionalism of a talented staff, and the commitment of a loyal set of constituencies. Nevertheless, the formal leadership of both organizations recognized that a history of accomplishment did not guarantee future success and charged me with developing a strategic plan to chart the organization’s future. But how to begin, and how to do so without altering the wellspring of support that nourished each organization?

At ACE, as at Wisconsin, we embarked upon a trip back to the future-and decided to venture forth only after attaining a clear understanding of the founding mission, the very core of the institution. Working with the board, the staff, and the organization’s many constituencies in the higher education community, we developed a process to re-examine our vision and mission, identify fundamental strategic priorities, and more closely align our activities to these priorities-all in the context of the political, social, economic, and educational landscape of the day. We had to understand the very nature of ACE to improve it, but it also would be impossible to make any progress without thoroughly understanding the market forces impacting higher education and the needs of all institutions.

The fact that ACE is not a higher education institution, but a member-based association, also added a level of complexity and challenge to the planning process. The myriad other organizations serving higher education required us to work with extra care to consider key elements of ACE’s unique mission and value to its members. Our plan would have to answer such questions as: What value does ACE membership hold for an institution? How can we respond to-and anticipatemember needs within such a diverse membership? And finally, as a presidential organization, how could we continue to serve that key constituency and still broaden the reach and influence of the Council?

Establishing a planning team was essential to the process. At both ACE and Wisconsin, I established a planning team that tapped some of the best minds in each functional area and set forth a process that was both a deliberative internal review and an extensive outreach effort to our varied constituencies. At Wisconsin, this included students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni, as well as corporate, government, and civic leaders.

At ACE, it included member presidents, the board of directors, leaders of our colleague organizations, policy makers, and friends in the business and philanthropic communities, as well as educators serving a broad range of students. I saw it as critical that every constituent organization being served by ACE have formal input into the strategic planning process.

Our implementation is only just beginning. As we developed our recently unveiled strategic plan, our challenge was to help college and university presidents balance the complex and sometimes conflicting demands that come with the territory. We must not only provide timely and relevant information, programs, and services, but also (and at the same time) intensify our representation of the higher education community to sustain its capacity to serve the public good. The ability of the higher education community to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead will depend in part on the role of ACE as a unifying voice, a principled advocate, and an essential resource for colleges and universities.

A Strategic Plan for ACE

The mission statement and priorities set forth in ACE’s new strategic plan are based on the Council’s longstanding core values. The new plan establishes an agenda for ACE as we work to represent the higher education community and provide highquality services, programs, and resources to our member institutions and other key constituents.

The key elements of the ACE strategic plan are:

Core Values. ACE values inclusiveness and diversity, recognizes higher education’s responsibility to society, and embraces the belief that widespread access to excellent postsecondary educational opportunities is the cornerstone of a democratic society. Vision. ACE aims to foster greater collaboration and new partnerships within and outside the higher education community to help colleges and universities anticipate and address the challenges of the 21st century and contribute to a stronger nation and a better world.

Mission. ACE, the major coordinating body for all the nation’s higher education institutions, seeks to provide leadership and a unifying voice on key higher education issues and influence public policy through advocacy, research, and program initiatives.

These three elements-core values, vision, and mission-are essential to any sound strategic plan. For ACE, they show that we remain committed to our historic principles of access, diversity, and quality. At the same time, we know these historic principles must now be framed within the context of the 21st century, a marketplace for higher education that is greatly influenced by new realities of demographic change, technological innovation, increased globalization, and new opportunities for lifelong learning.

Beyond the three fundamental elements, the plan also outlines specific strategic priorities for the organization:

* Representation. Serve as the principal advocate and voice for all of higher education, influencing the federal agenda, state policy, and public opinion.

* Leadership Development. Enhance the diversity and capacity of American higher education leaders.

* Service. Support colleges, universities, and other higher education and adult learner organizations in their efforts to serve students and society.

These priorities are the signposts that point the way toward fulfilling ACE’s core values, mission, and vision. We will continue as one of the principal advocates for higher education in the policy arena. We will harness our wellestablished leadership initiatives to nurture excellence and diversity among the future generation of leaders. Finally, we have demonstrated the importance we place on the high-quality service we intend to provide to our member institutions by listing it among our highest priorities as an organization.

Further fleshing out the strategic priorities are specific areas of focus in which ACE will pursue new programs and initiatives:

Access, Success, Equity, and Diversity. Programs to foster greater diversity among higher education leaders, faculty, and students, and to support postsecondary educational opportunities and favorable outcomes for all.

* Institutional Effectiveness. Programs to enhance the capacity of colleges and universities in their efforts to serve students and society.

* Lifelong Learning. Programs to ensure the validity of nontraditional learning and promote adult access to and success in postsecondary education and the workforce.

* Internationalization. Programs to help colleges and universities prepare students to work and live in a globally interdependent world.

Our plan was less than a year in the making but I believe it gives us a clear view of the road ahead. Our effort is rock solid in its respect for ACE’s core mission and historic policy objectives. Yet the plan is flexible enough to take advantage of new opportunities, and to ensure that future ACE ventures will be undertaken in away that is consistent with our history and our members’ needs.

I am excited at the prospect of implementing this plan for ACE. And I say that knowing full well that the hard work of realization remains ahead of us. As I did at Wisconsin, it is now up to me,to show leadership and see that this plan is fully integrated into every aspect of ACE’s programming. Without presidential leadership, any plan-no matter how well-crafted-will eventually be cast aside by an organization that fails to internalize it. I am energized by this challenge and hope you will work alongside me in the days ahead to see a new and better ACE.

Copyright American Council on Education Winter 2003

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