Sunday, August 28, 2005

On Unfair Comparisons and Strategic Planning

My university is at the early stages of a strategic planning process. This is an obvious first step for our new president, B. Joseph White, especially since he has a business school orientation. They have already done a planning process at the University level, and now each campus will do likewise, and perhaps that will get pushed down further to the individual colleges and departments. You can read the framework document and look at President White's Web Site on the strategic plan.

While what is there seems reasonable to me, the process is inherently political. The bulk of the members of the Board of Trustees are appointed by the Governor. And, quite unfortunately, we have a visible but otherwise mostly irrelevant issue in our mascot, Chief Illiniwek, which if nothing else is a serious distraction from the mission at hand.

The framework document has some "unrealities" in it, in addition to the usual boilerplate. Before getting to these let's point out what happens when unrealities determine the planning process in another setting - Iraq. President White could take some lessons in how not to lead from President Bush. The NY Times Columnists have been merciless on President Bush and rightly so. The picture he paints is completely divorced from what is happening. Frank Rich's column, another beauty, really makes Bush out to be a charlatan and in the absence of coherent policy all that's left is a bizarre public relations campaign. David Brook's column makes a different point, though he makes it clear it's not just President Bush but also his lieutenants, in this case Don Rumsfeld. Brooks, in essence, says couch your strategy in reality. In Iraq, there is a clear counterinsurgency. What is the right way to fight in this case. Are we doing that?

Of course the answer is no, we're not, and that's because the folks at the top have a view of the world that is, unfortunately, not tied to reality. That's a problem.

Let's go back to University of Illinois planning. Two facts, obvious to me, but that did not find their way into the document are these. First, the Higher Education structure in this state is hard if not impossible to reconcile with an efficient system. Think of all the public universities in the state that are not part of the U of I system - Illinois State, Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois, etc. If the U of I is to have a presence statewide, undoubtedly we'll be infringing on the territory of other publics. In my opinion, there should be one big system for four year universities. What we have now doesn't make sense. But even if you disagree with that, you'd think the structure of higher ed in the state would get a mention in the framework document. But it doesn't. It sure won't get a mention in the plans of the individual campuses.

Second, there are two great universities in the Chicago area, the University of Chicago and Northwestern. UIC is a significant campus and the medical school is a very important institution, but when looking for excellence it is the two private universities which first come to mind. The framework document talks about looking at our near competitors we want to displace as well as those just trailing us, but it doesn't talk at all about schools which are demographically situated similarly to us. The most obvious relevant comparison in that dimension is the University of Massachussetts and its presence in Boston. No matter how much strategic planning UMass does, Boston will be dominated by Harvard and MIT. That seems obvious. We otherwise wouldn't consider UMass a peer, but in this very important dimension it is probably the most important school to watch.

Are these fatal flaws with the strategic planning process? No, not at all. But if one took the current framework document and every other place it said the goal was "excellence" or "a brilliant future" and that were replaced with "sensible approach" or "realistic plan" at least it would show we're aware that planning can go completely awry when the vision is divorced from the actuality.

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