I have been doing a fair bit of strategic planning work recently and one mantra that people like repeating when it comes this kind of exercise is “we’re not like a business, so we can’t plan like a business”. I get why people say this, but they’re wrong. Or rather, they’re right, but not for the reasons they think.
When people say that “universities aren’t businesses”, mostly what they are thinking is that universities aren’t interested in profit, per se. But universities are in most respects actually quite a bit like businesses: they function on rational-bureaucratic lines, they plan their activities to generate sufficient revenue to cover their costs, and in many activities, they plan for surpluses, which are almost indistinguishable from profits. The only reason we don’t think of them as being for-profit is that they use those surpluses to cross-subsidize money-losing parts of their operations rather than distributing dividends to owners or shareholders (although, if you stop to think about it, what this means is that effectively the universities’ beneficial owners are the people who run the activities which lose the most money).
Now, if the “universities aren’t businesses” line was sufficient, then you might think that universities’ strategic plans might look a lot like those in the non-profit sector. But they don’t, really. I can pretty much guarantee that if you go check out the strat plan of your local Mission or childcare centre, there will be very little waffle about “excellence”, for instance. Most non-profits have fairly narrow remits, and their strategic plans tend to be short and mater-of-fact. University strategic plans, on the other hand, are not.
This suggests that it’s unlikely that profit/not-for-profit is really the key distinction and that it’s actually something else. But what?
Here’s my theory: it’s that universities, uniquely among major institutional types in our society, have almost no internal agreement about what they are actually for.
Are they there to pursue value-free objective research? Yes. Applied research or basic? Yes! Are they there to teach character and judgement? Yes. Do they exist to promote international co-operation and understanding? Yes. Are they critical institutions supporting local growth and opportunity? Yes. Are they centres of professional education, preparing people for specific jobs? Yes (in, say, Education, Social Work, Law, Medicine). Are they teaching critical thinking skills, applicable to a wide variety of jobs? Yes (in, say, Arts and Sciences)…
Need I go on?
Now, I am not saying that these various missions are incompatible within a single organization; clearly, universities around the world contain such multitudes. In the day-to-day management of an institution, it’s possible for such ambiguities to bump along beside one another without too much friction. But a strategic plan by necessity imposes a common theory of action – or rather, a set of postulates about what makes an institution successful – which is very hard to spread coherently across all these different missions.
There are, as a result, two broad types of strategic plans that emerge from these pressures. One is a laundry-list strategic plan: just a whole bunch of stuff that keeps various constituencies happy. These tend to be heavy on tactics/goals but weak on overarching strategy. The other is the ultra-vague strategic plan: mission/vision statements which are motherhood statements, and a list of goals that either directly or indirectly are about obtaining more resources for the institution (because the one thing that unites every agenda at a university is the belief that achieving each of them would be a lot easier of there were more dollars available).
Community colleges have fewer parallel agendas, so their strategic plans tend to be simpler and clearer than those of universities. Within universities, individual faculties or units tend to have greater common understanding about their purpose, and so their strategic plans similarly tend to be more coherent than those of full institutions.
It’s not impossible for universities to create strategic plans which work despite ambiguity. But it helps if, as a starting point, the ambiguity is acknowledged and embraced. If there is one thing a strategic planning process should not be, it’s a proxy fight between different visions of what a university is supposed to be.