Tuesday, February 09, 2010

On university strategy or: A tale of two plans

Strategy is one of those words that gets bandied around a lot and means so many different things to so many different people that I sometimes wonder whether it should be gracefully retired like an old pair of shoes past their prime. Sadly its unlikely to happen and every organization & its constituent units seems obliged to come up with a strategic plan periodically. After all, how could any serious organization not have a plan?
The problem is what these plans look like and what they translate to in practice. I think many academics are deeply cynical about such plans but then we're a pretty cynical bunch and most of us have never had to run a big organisation or justify our existence or our funding to stakeholders. To be clear, I am not averse to a bit of strategic planning myself & am one of the contributors to my own school's plan.
So I had a look at the plan for the University of Kentucky ("UK" where I am currently on sabbatical) and compared it with UCD's (links below). I have to say I thought UK's was significantly better for one simple reason: it could fail and we would know it. By that I mean, if you look at UCD's it has lots of fine sounding objectives. Nothing unusual there: they all do. But the "key actions" are equally vague, a seemingly endless repetition of "develop", "design", "refocus", "strengthen", "identify", "promote", "enhance". There is no way of knowing whether the institution has succeeded in achieving these aims. Cynics will have a field day- or a coronary- reading it.
Contrast that with UK's: along with a set of five goals, there are a slew of metrics. That is there are clear numerical targets under different headings e.g.:

Metric 1-2. Reduce the undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio to 17 to 1.

Metric 1-3. Increase the first-to-second year retention rate to 85 percent.

Metric 2-2. Increase the five-year total for journal publications to 10,000.

Metric 3-4. Increase the percent of staff at the appropriate point between the minimum and mid-point of the pay grade, based on performance and years of experience, to 90 percent.

I am not saying the UK plan is necessarily better in terms of ambition or practicality and I have no idea whether it is more likely to be achieved than UCD's (which I don't think is atypical by Irish standards). I am saying that it is a far far better thing to have a plan with precise targets so everyone knows whatever it has been achieved or not.




Martin Ryan said...
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Kevin Denny said...
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Martin Ryan said...
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Liam Delaney said...

I wouldn't single out our own institution. There were some pretty measurable objectives such as reducing number of schools, increasing number of PhD students, increasing research funding and so on.

It is an interesting one for a university how it employs such plans. The underlying ethos of a university is to promote knowledge and thus science-based evaluations and falsifiable hypotheses should be at the heart of university strategy such as it is. Yet most universities tend to move in the direction of fairly qualitative consultancy reports that feed into loose strategic plans. As you say, the politics of such contexts are clearly conducive to plans that have a broad range of interpretations in terms of outcomes.

Kevin Denny said...

There may be some measurable objectives in UCD's plans but from what I can see they are the exception whereas they are the norm in UK. As I indicated, I don't think UCD is unusual.
I don't think management should see quantitative objectives as a threat or as unduly onerous: if you are good and you achieve the objectives then you have something to point to.