Strategic planning has long been an important fixture on college and university campuses. While the process has often taken place in silos, focused on academics, finance, or facilities, growing numbers of institutions are creating more integrated approaches to their strategic planning activities. As financial resources remain tight on most campuses, it has become even more crucial for business officers to get involved on the ground floor of planning activities to ensure success and viability.
“While fiscal resources become increasingly scarce, our dedication to improve student outcomes has intensified, as has accountability for those outcomes across higher education,” says Colin Donahue, vice president for administration and finance and CFO at California State University–Northridge. “New programs and initiatives, facilities, and the IT needs required to support campus goals are frankly unattainable through traditional budgeting methods. It is clear that greater collaboration is required across the academy to develop creative, strategic approaches that ensure the success of a campus and its students.”
Obviously, an integrated approach to strategic planning takes different forms based on the institution’s needs, personnel, and goals. At the same time, the institutions profiled for this article exhibit several similarities in their planning processes, notably a much more inclusive overall approach and the closer alignment of department and division budgets with specific elements of the institution’s mission and formal strategic plan.
Here’s how several colleges and universities have embarked on this type of integrated planning, and what they’ve experienced in terms of their early results.
Communication and Transparency
Leaders at California State University–Northridge (CSUN) recognized that they needed to leverage funding sources to meet strategic needs. This was particularly true with regard to improvements to academic facilities and technology to meet changing pedagogies and learning methods.
While the CFO and provost have effectively collaborated on such plans in the past, the two are currently working to engage a wider group of participants across campus. “This is necessary to leverage expertise in an effort to focus limited resources to the most effective uses,” Donahue says.
Revising the process. The new planning procedures include vice presidents in each division (administration and finance, academic affairs, student affairs, university advancement, and information technology); as well as the formal university budget planning group. The 15-member formal group includes seven faculty members and several representatives of each of the five university auxiliary organizations. Together, this diverse group looked deeply at core university priorities to make sure the budget reflected those priorities. The university goals for 2015–18 are organized within the institution’s seven planning priorities: student success, employee success, visibility and reputation of the university, a future less dependent on state funding, increased research activity and sponsored programs, sustainability, and the use of athletics as a tool for engagement.
“The hope was to evolve to a multiyear financial model that positions CSUN to support our student success and other goals despite uncertainties of future budgets,” Donahue says. “This required not only enrollment scenario modeling and state budget projections, but also a more strategic approach to funding facility needs, capital renewal and deferred maintenance, IT infrastructure, and efficiency measures.”
Capturing key data points on one page. An effective method used by the group was to aggregate key information regarding trends in enrollment, state funding, and fee revenue, alongside university priorities and potential initiatives to meet those priorities—all on a single page. “This forced us to focus on what is really important to vet and communicate, since we had to eliminate nonessential information,” Donahue says. “Ultimately, this allowed our university budget planning group to have some meaningful discussion on priorities and consider where we might have to make concessions in particular areas to support key initiatives.”
An impediment to the key initiatives goal has been the management of necessary recurring costs, primarily associated with staff positions, that limit unallocated revenue available in future years to meet campus priorities. To help, the team began focusing more closely on ensuring that recurring budget commitments were tied to the initiatives with the greatest impacts, Donahue says.
Another challenge in the student success area is to clarify the specific measures to be monitored, such as time to degree, overall graduation rates, and achievement gaps. Because measurable progress is often required immediately, there’s no time to wait for a formal post-implementation assessment to determine which initiatives and interventions are most effective and, therefore, most worthy of investment. “Because there are multiple variables influencing success, we need to evaluate ‘on the fly’ the effects of various programs and initiatives,” Donahue says. “Put simply, we must have a high batting average in determining where to invest scarce resources. To do this, we are currently engaging deans, faculty, advisers, and staff with high student-touch positions to provide input on which investments to make to improve priority areas of student success.”
Identifying initial results. While the integrated planning process will be ongoing, thus far “the continual focus on communication, transparency, and achieving a common understanding has strengthened the campus and helped improve the use of resources to support university priorities,” Donahue says. “The process has also helped strengthen relationships between the business office and other groups across campus,” making it easier to tackle the university’s strategic priorities. For example, in focusing on the priority to “plan for a future that is less dependent on state funding,” the plan’s initiatives include everything from fundraising to a financial strategy to leverage real estate assets.
“Being transparent with budget information is not enough,” Donahue says. “A big part of the CBO’s role is to distill complex financial information into formats that draw out the key issues, challenges, alternatives, and trade-offs necessary to stimulate robust discussion. Our future success depends on it. Our more user-friendly budget information has allowed for stronger relationships with faculty; we have a better point of departure from which to engage in discussions about financial resources and how they can best be put to work to support the university mission.”
Financial and Strategic Planning Align
Following a listening tour with the new president at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in 2013, Amir Rahnamay-Azar, then the new vice president for finance and CFO, determined that a strategic planning process was in order for the finance division. His goal was to optimize the division’s ability to manage financial resources in alignment with both division and university goals. Consequently, while the planning concept was driven by the finance division in support of the university’s mission, it was followed by a universitywide strategic planning process, which will conclude this year. “The finance division’s plan dovetails nicely with those areas identified by the university, and we anticipate many synergies between the two,” says Elizabeth Milavec, CMU’s associate vice president for finance and controller.
Applying a formal methodology. CMU’s finance division used the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) methodology, which focuses on discovering the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. Developed by Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, the AI approach directs participants to ask positive questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to heighten positive potential. “Instead of posing critical questions that can spiral into negativity, interactions follow a positive track of the elements of the AI methodology: discovery, dream, design, and destiny,” says Rachel Askey, executive director of university audit services. “AI links the energy of the positive core directly to any change agenda, and often concepts and ideas never thought possible can be suddenly and democratically mobilized.”
CMU chose this methodology:
- To drive cultural change through an understanding of the current state of the finance division.
- To create a desired future state.
- To develop a plan to achieve that future state.
- To measure progress along the path.
The work was done in five phases: developing a strategic plan, setting priorities and creating metrics, implementing priority projects, realigning organizational structures, and developing a marketing and communications plan.
Selecting stakeholders. Leaders started by forming a strategic plan steering committee, representing individuals across the campus. This team conducted analyses and collected information related to the current state of the division, using this data as a basis for projecting future goals.
The team also engaged other members of the campus community via:
- Holding retreats for the finance leadership and staff.
- Interviewing all university senior leaders.
- Interviewing 35 university middle managers and stakeholders.
- Conducting focus groups.
- Holding town hall meetings for all finance departments.
The team also benchmarked peer institutions, consulting firms, and educational or research organizations, generating more than 200 innovative ideas to be considered as the strategic plan was further developed.
Initiating preliminary priorities. In its planning, the finance department identified key opportunities to deliver on its goals, such as empowering decision making with data, and shaping a culture of innovation, explains Deanne Weaver, associate vice president for financial systems. Eight of these signature projects are already underway, including an effort to re-engineer the budget and capital planning process, and the development of an enterprise content management system. “Both of these were key opportunities and viewed as big wins by the campus community,” says Weaver.
Linking Budget to Outcomes
While Eastern Washington University (EWU), Cheney, had done its share of strategic planning, the plans were disconnected from the budgeting process. “As we entered a period of fiscal constraints, we also saw the overarching landscape for higher education dramatically changing,” says Mary Voves, vice president for business and finance. “Based on this analysis of the future, it became critically important for the institution to truly blend the budgeting process and strategic plan into a coordinated approach.”
The vision of a campuswide strategic planning process was that of the university president, Mary Cullinan, who came on board in August 2014. However, it was the responsibility of the business and finance division to deliver that vision, Voves explains.
Designing the process. The strategic planning and budgeting process became a major initiative for Cullinan. The entire institution was engaged in building a plan that would link the budget to the goals and develop major outcomes for institutional investment, Voves says.
While the earlier strategic plan, developed for 2012–17 included the three overarching goals with the highest impact on the university—student success, innovation and opportunity, and community engagement—revisions in 2014 added “visibility” as a factor, treating it as an outcome derived from successful work in the original three areas.
“Everyone on campus was involved in the process, and one of the things that made it unique was our blended approach,” she says. “To build a consolidated plan, we worked across divisions and departments in an attempt to eliminate silos. We brought groups together to bring a variety of perspectives, and all voices were respected.”
Above and beyond the process. While the planning process aimed to help allocate the institution’s limited resources more effectively, leaders hoped it would also have higher, less practical results as well. “The hopes for the process were to help the campus community gain a better understanding of the role everyone plays in student success, and how we are all dependent on each other for success,” Voves says. “Planning and budgeting are the tools we use to actualize our success.”
Externally recognized results. In addition to assigning financial resources to projects that would help move the university closer to its goals, the planning process enhanced campus transparency and trust and built new relationships across campus, says Voves. “We were recently commended in our regional accreditation for our successful budgeting process,” she says. “One of the keys to the success of reinventing strategic planning and strategic budgeting at EWU is transparency and campuswide involvement. Our standing campus committee that reviews and allocates the budget reflects wide representation of our campus community, including classified staff, faculty, and finance professionals.”
Focusing on Feasibility
It had been many years since Loyola Marymount University (LMU), Los Angeles, conducted a comprehensive strategic planning process. When a new president came on board in 2011, it was time to revisit the concept. “We wanted to take a more integrated approach, and really linking planning and budgeting was a nod to the new financial realities of higher education,” says Margaret Kasimatis, associate provost for strategic planning and educational effectiveness at LMU. “The normal sources for funding new initiatives were no longer available, so we needed to focus our efforts and tie our resources specifically to our priority initiatives that relate to the three broad elements of our mission: the encouragement of learning, the education of the whole person, and the service of faith and promotion of justice.”
Two steps to start. Limited resources meant the plan couldn’t “try to do everything,” Kasimatis says. Instead, the goal was to identify a few major areas; clarify the university’s mission around those areas; and develop detailed, cross-divisional plans for reaching those broad goals.
LMU took a two-stage approach to planning, beginning with a university-level plan and then drilling down to unit-level planning. To start the campuswide planning process, leaders appointed a steering committee chaired by the provost and including, faculty members, students, and representatives from all divisions.
Divide and conquer. To dive deep into potential opportunities, the steering committee appointed 10 working groups focused on different potential areas of focus.
Each group then developed a white paper on its specific area. The committee also engaged in listening groups and other methods of determining which projects deserved the most focus.
After one year of transparent collaboration, the team developed a university plan with several broad goals, such as “developing excellence in transformative undergraduate education” and “repositioning career services for the current marketplace.” Each broad goal is accompanied by a number of specific objectives.
Once the broad goals were in place, it was time for unit-level planning. Each dean would work with his or her division to develop a plan that would align with and help advance the university-level plan, and the broad goals helped focus those unit-level plans.
While the university-level planning committee built some unallocated funds into the budget for eventual strategic projects, the belt-tightening continues, notes Kasimatis. As divisions completed their unit-level plans, their leadership was asked to repurpose current resources before making financial requests for new projects. “The Budget Planning Committee will not look at a request unless the members see that a repurposing analysis has been done,” Kasimatis says.
Success measures. LMU’s planning process is ongoing, with a planning council that continues to meet regularly and identify top priorities for the coming years. Four years into the process, the university has seen some successes.
- The campus career development process has been dramatically revamped, with the hiring of a new career services director and implementation of new approaches.
- While various schools and divisions once had individual online learning programs, great progress has been made to develop a campuswide vision and coordinated program for technology-enhanced learning.
- In addition to establishing common goals across campus, the strategic planning process has helped to build new relationships among far-flung divisions. “The process used lots of task forces and implementation groups that involved different people from across campus,” Kasimatis says. “And that has built so many valuable relationships across what used to be well-established silos.”
NANCY MANN JACKSON, Madison, Ala., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.