An anonymous comment brought my attention to a rather insightful analysis of the Strategic Plan racket from the new book Fall of the Faculty, by Benjamin Ginsberg, printed in the Chronicle. It notes Walter Wendler's demise was tied to his reuse of Texas A & M planning materials in the Southern at 150 plan. One of the sides of this process I wasn't aware of was the input of accreditation groups: I believe that SIUC has been required to revise our Southern at 150 plan by our accreditors. The accreditation process, together with the big push for assessment, is part of what is driving the growth of administration across universities. Here's hoping that faculty who are participating in our current strategic planning exercise take a look at Ginsberg's analysis of how that process tends to work.
When such plans set out concrete goals and realistic means to achieve these goals, they can be real planning documents, Ginsberg concedes, but for the most part the process, rather than the glossy vague document at the end, is the real goal, and the purpose of the process is to promote the administrators leading the strategic planning and co-opt the faculty who are invited to take part. Administrators appear to be leading the institution toward a brave new future, while involving faculty and staff in their work. But the end result is often no more than a bloated mission statement, written by administrative staff. Yet faculty given a seat at the planning table are less likely to question decisions that are sourced to the plan, however vague it may be.
I may be just a bit less cynical than Ginsberg, as I tend to think that outside reviews, assessment, and the like can serve important ends. But only if they are taken seriously, rather than made substitutes for real thought about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we could do it better. Usually all involved have a vested interest in inertia--particularly the faculty, of course. Often, of course, inertia is superior to this year's administrative Five Year Plan.
Southern at 150, for what it is/was worth, did set out many specific goals, most notably the 'aspiration' to be among the top 75 research universities in the U.S. by 2019. It did, then, appear to commit SIUC to a certain course of action--toward our research identity and away from our identity as a regional university. But it failed to set out practical means to reach those goals (goals which perhaps were practical ones for Texas A & M . . . ). As far as I can judge it was largely an exercise in wishful thinking. We aimed to be a major research university but continued to work with the resources of a regional university.
As a result we certainly failed to become a major research university, and we may have used resources and energy on that goal that we should have devoted to shoring up our broader educational mission to serve first generation college students, minority students, and students from our rather impoverished part of Illinois. That is, it may well have been the case that the only way to make any progress toward research university stardom was to redirect resources from serving underprepared students. But for a multitude of reasons we can't afford to do that--we need the enrollment, and serving such students is an essential part of our mission. Now we are swinging back in the other direction, under the leadership of a president with the deepest of roots in our regional identity.
I suppose faculty inertia may help to preserve our research identity and prevent us from swinging too far in the other direction. But the real trick, as I never tire of saying, would be to connect our research and teaching missions--bringing a research university education to our student body. I'll be curious to see if our new & improved plan attempts to connect those dots.