It was a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award first: an institution of higher education receiving the honor. In the third year that institutions in both K-12 and higher ed became eligible to apply for the award, the University of Wisconsin-Stout was named a recipient. And in the five years since, the institution has continued to grow.
UW-Stout is one of 13 universities in the University of Wisconsin System. With 8,000 students and 1,200 faculty and staff members, UW-Stout focuses on providing career-oriented undergraduate and graduate programs in areas such as business, construction, engineering, hotel and restaurant management, art and design, and teacher education.
When UW-Stout was recognized for the award, the examiners noted several key strengths or outstanding practices, including:
a focused mission and related educational offerings
an inclusive leadership system
a comprehensive strategic planning process
a range of listening methods, relationship building processes
efficient resource management
effective information management, technology management
Five years later, many of these strengths are still evident; however, there have been notable changes and challenges in several areas.
UW-Stout, founded in 1891, has remained focused on its unique mission within the University of Wisconsin System to provide applied educational offerings leading to careers that address the needs of employers and society. All key processes-including strategic planning, program development, and teaching and learning-continue to be guided by this special mission.
For example, UW-Stout is a leader in applied learning as evidenced by its laboratory-intensive curriculum, digital learning environment, and experiential learning programs. The institution has led its University of Wisconsin peers in lab instruction for juniors and seniors for the past five years and nearly all students graduate with related work experience. Graduate job placement has been above 95 percent for more than a decade and employer satisfaction with graduates is consistently close to 100 percent.
UW-Stout began rebuilding its leadership systems approximately a decade ago in response to a campuswide "no-confidence vote" against the chancellor. Following this crisis, there was a need to significantly change the campus leadership structure to address concerns regarding communication, trust, and decision-making. By 2001, this change was complete and leadership was described as a key strength in the Baldrige feedback report.
The Chancellor's Advisory Council was established as the primary leadership group for the campus. The council includes senior administrators as well as faculty, staff, and student governance leaders. This group meets biweekly to discuss campus issues and makes recommendations to the chancellor on major decisions and resource allocations.
The council is complemented by an extensive series of senates, committees, taskforces, and other cross-functional teams that promote cooperation and communication at all levels. This approach to leadership has served UW-Stout well, as senior administrators and governance groups work together to guide and govern the campus.
Major changes in the leadership system were accompanied by a complete transformation in the strategic planning system. During the time of the no-confidence vote, planning was done by several unrelated groups on campus. There was little input from internal or external stakeholders, limited communication between groups, and no alignment between the disparate planning activities and the campus budget process.
By 2001, UW-Stout had created a comprehensive, collaborative, and iterative strategic planning process for developing and implementing long-term goals, short-term objectives, and action plans. The process is highly participative and is driven by fact-based information on student and stakeholder requirements. The process is linked to the resource allocation process, ensuring that funding is available to accomplish action plans.
Since 2001, UW-Stout has expanded the focus on applied learning through the implementation of a student laptop program, the addition of courses and degree programs in high demand areas (such as special education and nanotechnology), and the expansion of degree-completion programs for working adults.
Also over the past five years, several tweaks have been made to the original planning process, including the refinement of performance indicators to measure the success of action plans, implementation of a bottom-up process for priority identification, an expansion of the membership and role of the strategic planning group, and the development of a more systematic method for identifying and following up on action plan gaps as the planning process continues to evolve. Further, goal setting is now based more on comparisons to best academic institutions rather than just on striving for incremental improvement.
Key performance indicators are reviewed to determine the need for adjustments to the action plans and funding. The action plan gaps provide an opportunity to drop outdated initiatives and hold responsible persons accountable for incomplete initiatives. Together, they ensure alignment between planning, resource allocation, evaluation, and accountability.
Furthermore, these refinements continue to expand the participatory nature of the process. The bottom-up process for priority identification ensures that all faculty, staff, and students have input from the beginning of the planning process until the end. And, the refinements to the strategic planning group allow all group members to become decision-makers throughout the planning process.
In 2001, the Baldrige examining team noted that UW-Stout utilized a variety of well-deployed comprehensive methods for listening to students throughout their academic careers, and to the university's primary stakeholder groups, including alumni, employers, and technical colleges. These listening approaches help to identify program needs, enrollment trends, and employment trends, as well as to create a supportive climate for students.
Since that time, UW-Stout leaders have continued to gather information on student and stakeholder needs and requirements, using surveys, focus groups, and other specialized assessments. The campus participates annually in the National Survey of Student Engagement and the ACT Student Satisfaction Survey. Student and stakeholder surveys are conducted as part of the academic program and support service unit review processes. The campus has placed a great deal more emphasis on gathering comparative data from within the UW System and from national higher education sources, seeking information from the best-performing academic institutions.
The information gathered from these listening approaches and performance comparisons, as well as from benchmarking, drives the design of new programs and services as well as the improvement of current programs and services. Feedback from alumni, employers, and feeder schools is used to develop and sustain key partnerships to enhance the university's ability to deliver programs and expand services beyond the campus boundaries.
In their feedback report, Baldrige examiners noted that UW-Stout had developed approaches to ensure revenue growth and cost containment that have resulted in sustained affordability for students. The university had successfully applied to the UW System for, and made use of, internal resources to fund priorities and avoid passing along costs to students. The budget process focused on controlling non-instructional costs. As a result, resident tuition and room and board rates were well below peer averages.
During the past five years, UW-Stout has continued its practice of making internal allocations and reallocations to fund university priorities and of controlling non-instructional costs.
However, as state support for higher ed continues to decline, UW-Stout's base budget has been reduced by nearly 40 full-time positions and $4.3 million-representing more than 10 percent of state funding-over the past five years. Significant one-time cuts have also affected the university. In 2004-05, funds from student tuition and fees exceeded the funds from the state for the first time.
Although resident tuition remains below the national peer group, there have been significant tuition increases for students at UW-Stout and across the UW System to make up for the gaps in state funding. Resident undergraduate tuition throughout the system has increased significantly over the past five years, including increases of 16.7 percent in 2003-2004 and 14.3 percent in 2004-2005.
The final key strength cited in the feedback report involved information and technology management. At UW-Stout, information is communicated widely via a number of channels, including e-mail, newsletters, reports, and the campus website and portal.
UW-Stout also provides broad data access through its ERP system (from Datatel) and has authorized faculty and staff access to the system for performance data as well as financial, human resource, and student information. Nearly all administrative, business, and student support services are provided via web-based programs from Datatel and other vendors.
Since 2001, UW-Stout has enhanced the technology environment through the implementation of a student laptop program, the development of a wireless campus, and the mediation of classrooms. Maintaining and improving this environment is an ongoing challenge as technology continues to evolve.
The team of Baldrige examiners identified these areas of opportunity for improvement:
a lack of employee awareness of ethical guidelines
a lack of systematic performance measurement at the college, department, and program levels
a lack of formal succession planning
Ethical guidelines are now published and distributed in print as well as posted online; new employees and supervisors receive training in this area. All colleges are required to develop strategic plans and each academic program must complete an annual assessment report including specific plans for continuous improvement. Administrators have implemented a number of mentoring and leadership development programs for employees at all levels (although no formal succession plan has been implemented at this time).
So, five years after winning the first Malcolm Baldrige Award in higher education, what can be concluded about the value of the Baldrige model? Is UW-Stout better off for using this approach for assessment and improvement?
It is clear that the environmental factors impacting the university are different than they were five years ago. Continued pressure on budgets as sources of funds change, increasing demands for accountability from government and external stakeholders, changing student demographics, and changing student needs and expectations are impacting universities across the country.
Certainly, adoption of the Baldrige model does not make a university impervious to changing environments. The value of the Baldrige model is the integration and operation of the university as a system, enabling the university to anticipate changes, evaluate impacts, and respond with greater accuracy and agility.
UW-Stout has now been using the Baldrige framework and criteria for more than seven years. The path is not always smooth, as an organization adopts new systems and assimilates new processes (after all, in higher education, there is a need to discuss, deliberate, and debate the merits of any proposed change).
This was certainly true at UW-Stout. Initially, the Baldrige criteria were questioned, the performance of past award recipients was analyzed, and the rights of the faculty were emphasized.
However, as UW-Stout leaders have adopted the criteria and began to see positive results from the efforts, faculty, staff, students, and external stakeholders have been able to realize the benefits of the system.
The Baldrige model provides a comprehensive framework for quality improvement. Implementation of this framework has enabled UW-Stout to achieve a systems view of the campus with greater integration among faculty, staff, administration, students, and stakeholders. The campus plans and actions are driven by systematic process approaches aligned to key priorities. Greater clarity in student and stakeholder requirements allows for better evaluation of action plans and for new initiative planning. There is improved consensus on priorities and shared decision-making.
Use of the Baldrige criteria has enhanced campus communication and teamwork levels. UW-Stout now compares and calibrates its performance not just against other UW campuses and national norms, but searches out national leaders and best practices and implements improvements based on these standards of excellence.
And, the Baldrige integrated management model allows the campus to make more targeted improvements and major changes in a relatively short time frame. Assessing the UW-Stout campus against the Baldrige model has provided insightful and constructive analysis, and the examiner feedback continues to guide long-term improvement efforts. As for the recognition associated with receiving the award, it continues to be a source of tremendous pride.
One of the requirements of award recipients is that they serve as role models and ambassadors for the Baldrige program. UW-Stout has taken this requirement seriously and has been involved in extensive outreach efforts to promote Baldrige throughout academia. Over the past five years, representatives from UW-Stout have made hundreds of regional, national, and international presentations on the application of the Baldrige criteria in higher education, and the leadership team continues to receive invitations to speak and consult on this topic.
UW-Stout leaders have learned a great deal about their work and how it compares to that at other institutions, and its leaders have applied that learning internally. The chancellor, provost, and vice chancellor have authored a book on this topic, Quality and Performance Excellence in Higher Education (Anker Publishing, 2005), as well as several book chapters, articles, and case studies. The journey is far from over.
Julie Furst-Bowe is provost/vice chancellor, and Meridith Wentz is director of budget planning/analysis, at University of Wisconsin-Stout (www.uwstout.edu).