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Smart Planning: Why Do Any Other Kind?

Defining a mandate for smart planning for higher education
University Business, Oct 2008

THE GOOD NEWS? EVIDENCE from the Society for College and University Planning’s 43rd annual international conference supports the conclusion that there is a whole lot of “smart planning” for higher education going on.

The challenge? Campus-based planning efforts must support a growing awareness among higher education planning professionals of the critical role higher education institutions play at this juncture in human and world history.

The solution? Integrated, comprehensive planning that aligns all planning work with the institutional mission and vision. I call it “smart planning.”

A lack of good energy conservation measures is less obvious to many on campus than a leaky roof.

Who should be doing smart planning? Everyone on campus who has any administrative or leadership role. Sadly, many plan without even realizing that is what they are doing. Even a senior administrator who manages a large budget may not be conscious of the fact that a budget is, in reality, a plan, expressed in dollars instead of the letters of the alphabet. Fewer still plan with the context of the entire institution in mind. Some are so focused on departmental or unit issues that they do not consider the effects of their planning on other units, or the potential synergistic opportunities that arise from integrating with the plans of other units. All of us can do our job better if we work at integrating our planning with the work of others. That’s just smart.

As is often the case, things we can see and touch are easiest to evaluate. Thus, the need for effective planning is most readily apparent in the built environment. If you plan a new academic program without appropriate measures of expected performance built into the plan, you may never know for sure if it has failed. But if the new library is not well planned and the roof leaks, everyone is aware of it. Even within the built environment, a lack of good energy conservation measures is less obvious to many people on campus than a leaky roof, and even less obvious is a space that doesn’t work well for the activities it is designed to support.

Half a decade ago, SCUP’s members from architectural firms said to me, “Let’s not use the term ‘green building’ anymore. It’s inadequate. What we have is a high-performance building, a ‘smart building.’” But smart planning takes everything a step further than the built environment. And what higher education needs is integrated, comprehensive planning and alignment that results in high performance.

Smart planning for higher education is planning that:

--Engages the broadest possible constituency of the institution and informs with wide-ranging environmental scanning (such as SCUP’s bi-annual “Trends in Higher Education” report).

--Integrates itself across all campus domains such as those of academics, infrastructure, financial and other resources, and policy.

--Gauges its performance with realistic, meaningful benchmarks of performance, reported on and analyzed using state-of-the-art information analytics.

Marv Peterson, professor emeritus of the School of Education at the University of Michigan and former SCUP president, has spoken of a new paradigm in strategic planning for higher education. In this new paradigm, colleges and universities no longer just scan the external environment and plan accordingly. Increasingly, they reach out and manipulate that external environment.

We regularly see evidence of that in SCUP’s journal, Planning for Higher Education, in our weekly “SCUP Links” e-mail environmental scanning report, and in regional and international conference sessions. Locally and regionally, communities and campuses have become far more aware of a higher education institution’s positive impact on local economies and economic development. At SCUP-43, presenters from Virginia shared their work in planning to stimulate and sustain regional economies through workforce development. Officials from the University of Calgary spoke about the importance of the “realm between campus and city.”

But this year’s conference theme, “Discover! Global Perspectives, Local Strategies,” really brought to the fore the larger scale issues and the importance of higher education as a solution for truly worldwide challenges.

SCUP-43’s opening plenary speaker, Martha C. Piper, former president of the University of British Columbia, wasn’t shy about urging more of that. To Piper, it seemed obvious that higher education is uniquely placed to ensure the kind of “world citizens” who understand each other and the globe they live on. In the words of former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, “The alternative on this overcrowded little world is misunderstanding, tension, clash, and catastrophe.”

In some parts of the world it can be very hard to engage in any kind of planning for higher education. World Bank consultant Fred Hayward shared insights from more than a decade of strategic planning in developing countries such as Myanmar, Madagascar, South Africa, and Afghanistan. In those countries, Hayward said, the first question is “Why plan at all?” followed immediately by lists of other very important priorities, such as public health and infrastructure, for the allocation of scarce resources.

What a challenge! But smart planning can make a difference. Hayward’s most positive story comes from Pakistan, where a strategically planned structural change, introducing tenure-track professoriates, has become transformative of the quality of higher education. Classrooms have been transformed, and thousands of faculty members have been motivated to study for advanced degrees. He says that “the overall strategic planning framework within which that change is happening is the very best example of national strategic planning for higher education that I have ever seen."

For many, the hardest part of smart planning is engaging in the setting and measuring of performance benchmarks.

Nothing says “integration” more than the planning being driven by the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). The current attitude among those on campus who have been selected by their presidents to manage that effort is reflected in the title of one of several related sessions: “What Do We Do Now?” Two years ago, no one had heard of the ACUPCC. Now it is driving cross-disciplinary planning that affects all parts of campus, with strong long-term implications for curriculum. SCUP leadership has been supportive of these efforts because they are making thousands aware of the need for “smart planning.”

The carbon neutrality commitment of higher education institutions is clearly a reaching out to engage the external environment and shape it. And the shaping is not just of carbon emissions. It is a shaping of the collective consciousness of the constituency served by higher education. Just as clearly, it is an initiative with global impact.

For many, the hardest part of smart planning is engaging in the setting and measuring of performance benchmarks. Many at SCUP-43 reported that information technology tools to assist in measuring the performance of plan implementation are finally reaching a useful maturity.

Linda Baer of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (some call it the “Minnesota Mash-Up”) and Don Norris of Strategic Initiatives (co-author of SCUP’s newest book, A Guide to Planning for Change) highlighted work underway in Minnesota that uses information analytics to measure and motivate transformation.

For example, enrollment managers already use detailed analysis of multiple data points to identify and recruit desirable potential students. Once they are matriculated, a similar multitude of data about student behaviors—including how often and when they log in to online resources or use their student ID card to enter resource areas such as computer labs and libraries—identifies potential problems during students’ first-year experiences and permits the intervention that increases the odds of student success. New tools allow managers to have data streams from many “buckets”—institutional research, accreditation efforts, space inventory, measures of learning outcomes—reported out in near real-time, customizable ways.

Norris described how mashing up of that kind of data into intuitive, easily accessible reports such as digital dashboards can be used to monitor the implementation of strategic initiatives. These tools result in reports that are not just for senior leadership; they can be tailored in a variety of ways suitable for motivating and providing feedback at all levels of staff.

The July 2008 SCUP conference already seems like it happened a long time ago. The new school year is underway, and we are already months into the increasingly short year between opportunities for us “SCUPers” to come together to share challenges and solutions. Next summer we meet again, under the umbrella of the theme “Values and Vision: Create the Future.” Each of us, in fact, creates the future with our activities. Let’s be sure we plan smart and that we are prepared to share, once again, what we have learned.

Terry Calhoun is a senior executive with the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). To learn more about SCUP’s July 2009 international conference in Portland, Ore., visit