Supporting the Academic Strategic Planning Process
This content is designed to help schools/colleges, departments and other academic units map out how to refresh their academic strategic plans (ASPs). It covers topics ranging from what an academic strategic plan is and why we need one to what core principles should guide Syracuse University’s ASP and planning process.
Why does academic strategic planning matter?
Academic strategic planning is only successful if faculty see the value of such planning to their lived realities as faculty. Faculty sit at the core of and drive the University’s mission and reason for existence, and academic strategic planning is one of the only processes to which all faculty have access. It is the key moment for faculty to share their aspirations, as well as concerns, about where we are at the University, school/college, and departmental level, where we want to go, and how we can get there.
Academic strategic planning can be time-consuming, and it involves sometimes-challenging conversations about who we are as an institution, school/college, and individual department/academic program, where we want to go and how best to get there. This planning guide is designed to help all of us understand the value/importance of academic strategic planning and to reduce the potential confusion associated with the process.
The first steps in academic strategic planning are ensuring that (1) the process (i.e., the way we ‘do’ academic strategic planning) reflects the goals, visions and shared values of our faculty, (2) the process is transparent, and (3) both the planning process and the ASP itself are relevant to the daily collective work of our faculty.
To that end, this section lays out our collective understanding of what academic strategic planning is, why it matters to the workings of a university and especially the work and lives of faculty, and how we can/should think about and approach academic strategic planning.
What is an academic strategic plan?
An academic strategic plan is a document that describes an institution’s strategy and goals to be achieved over a specified time period. The process of creating an ASP should be broadly inclusive of all relevant constituents, and participation in the process should contribute to a shared definition of the university’s, school/college’s or department’s current state, its desired future and the key factors in achieving that desired future. The ASP should be used to guide decisions about how a given academic unit operates, what needs to change, what new initiatives should be pursued, which existing efforts should be phased out, and how resources are allocated.
Syracuse University’s ASP provides an overarching framework for the University’s strategy and most important goals, while the ASPs of schools/colleges contain the strategy and goals for their specific work. The ASPs of schools/colleges, departments and other academic units should be aligned and consistent with the University’s ASP, where appropriate, but the content of these individual ASPs should focus on what is most important to the planning unit.
There are two critical components of our next ASP:
- Strategy: the ASP’s primary organizing principle that describes the University, school/college, or department/academic unit at its best in five years, identifies the greatest opportunities or challenges ahead, and defines the critical factors for success.
- Goals: a small number of accomplishments over the next five years that will represent significant progress in achieving the University’s, school/college’s or department’s strategy.
Academic strategic planning includes:
- The creation of a roadmap for what we, as an institution, aspire to accomplish over a given timeline (in our case, the next five years).
- A uniquely relevant vision for Syracuse University, not a generic set of tasks for higher education.
- A document that keeps us (and whatever academic unit we are part of) focused on what we want to achieve and honest about what we are doing (and why).
- It reminds us of what we collectively think is important and where we collectively want to go.
- It helps us understand what are those activities that make our University distinctive…or what could make our University distinctive in the future.
- It is a roadmap to our aspirational future state—meaning, realistically, where to we hope to be in five years—across a wide variety of issues that reflect our values.
- A plan that links strategies and goals between and among units (schools/colleges) and between the University and schools/colleges.
- A mechanism to hold all of us, especially academic leaders, accountable for upholding the University’s core values and helping us achieve collectively developed objectives.
Why should I participate in the academic strategic planning process?
Academic strategic planning is an opportunity for faculty to step back and collectively reflect on where we are, where we want to go, and how best to get there. It’s our opportunity to think big and to be aspirational, while also reflecting—sometimes critically—on what we’re doing well and what we can do better. Thinking collectively, regularly and strategically about who we are as an institution and where we want to go not only strengthens the impacts of our research and teaching but also helps us create a stronger sense of community and support for our academic mission. Good ASPs can help us be more effective and impactful as a University, from designing and improving our academic programs to attracting exceptional students and faculty to cultivating support from alumni and donors.
Because it is collectively created, a strong ASP can help us:
- Allocate resources and make decisions.
- Ensure that big decisions—hires, new courses, new programs—at the University, school/college, department/academic unit levels feed into what we collectively want to become.
- Ensure the decisions and actions of other processes (i.e., course tagging, liberal arts core revamping, program review) are aligned with our overarching strategy, goals and aspirations.
- Stay focused through leadership transitions (i.e., new chairs, new deans, etc.); the ASP, not current leadership (good or bad), should drive decisions.
- Decide how to proceed in moments of flux, uncertainty, or crisis.
- Identify the role of individual contributors in achieving the aspirations of their school/college or department/academic unit and the university.
- Create a cohesive vision for activities and investments amongst our many diverse schools, colleges and academic support units.
What principles should guide an ASP?
Our goal is for the academic strategic planning process to be broadly inclusive and to reflect a commitment to shared governance. At the same time, we aspire to minimize the administrative burden on faculty, staff, and administration. Thus, we see the following components as central to a good academic strategic plan:
- Steeped in reality (i.e., aspirational but doable).
- Involves both what we do (and want to do) AND what we will not do.
- While a good ASP should be inclusive (i.e., all parties involved should be able to see at least some part of their work reflected in the plan), it will not reflect every priority in a university, school/college or department/academic unit.
- Academic strategic planning requires making choices and prioritizing.
- Requires a deep examination of strengths and successes, as well as weaknesses and challenges.
- Creates support and joint ownership of the ASP among all participants, including faculty, staff and administration. Because people support what they help create, faculty must be engaged in the process of drafting the ASP.
- Contains clear ways to measure or evaluate success that aren’t painful, time-consuming, or needlessly burdensome.
- Requires strong and transparent communication about the process of creating the ASP, the content of the final ASP and the ASP’s execution.
- Requires leaders who use the ASP to guide decision-making and resource allocation.
- Is a living document. Academic strategic planning should be a regular process that involves assessing how we are doing vis-à-vis our goals, whether those goals are still important to us and what it will take to achieve those goals.