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State of the University Address, 2004

SEPTEMBER 10, 2004

Harvey Perlman, Chancellor

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Strategic Planning

I assure you I do not have a fully formed plan for the future of the university. The experience of the 2020 Report convinces me that the best and more sustainable ideas emerge from those most engaged in the processes of the university. Thus I need your best thinking and your engagement in fashioning the direction for our future.

I believe that we must pursue a meaningful strategic planning effort. I know some of you who recall my past views of strategic planning will have your worst fears confirmed – that I have crossed to the darkest side of the university. However, it occurred to me that a new President of the University might properly ask to see the strategic plans of the various campuses. For this eventuality I asked my staff to see if we had one. It had never occurred to me to ask for one before. After intensive searching they located the 1998 strategic plan and strategic agenda for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – a five-year plan that expired in 2003! I'm sure many of you could have quickly provided us with the dog-eared copy you frequently consult for inspiration and direction. Strategic planning is now more urgent because of our decennial re-accreditation by the North Central Accrediting Association. Our site visit is scheduled for either the fall of 2006 or the spring of 2007. I have often thought the traditional accreditation process, which emerges every 10 years to create a cacophony of interruptions in our normal processes followed by the hopeful rebirth of an accreditation certificate, has all of the logic and elegance of the 17-year cicada. We are looking for better ways to align our own processes for continuing improvement with accreditation practice so that ultimately a self-study would flow naturally from our routine activities. This may or may not be possible but we will need help from many of you to prepare for our re-accreditation visit.

Beyond these immediate concerns, a meaningful planning process is in our own best interest. I do not mean to suggest that strategic planning has been nonexistent. Both at the University level and within many programs, we have clear direction. However, to date, no unifying document ties together the strategic elements of those various plans with an agreement on core values, on common objectives, and on measures of accountability. More importantly we do not have a process or a culture that ensures that a planning effort will have consequences – that it will form the basis for conversations about the establishment of priorities and the allocation of resources.

We should not waste time refining all-embracing vision statements, environmental scans, or elegantly phrased platitudes. I am skeptical that any of us have the ability to imagine the conditions or opportunities we will face beyond a one or two-year horizon. Nonetheless I am mindful of the fact that it is difficult to get somewhere unless you know where you are going. More importantly, it is difficult for those of us in administration to help you achieve your goals unless we know what they are and how together we can achieve them. The recent Gallup survey documents say that those of us at the campus administration level think we know “what is expected of us at work” far better than the rest of the university. A strategic planning process could help gives us a clearer and more widely shared direction. At the same time I am mindful of the warning that says: “the worst thing about a strategic plan is that people will feel obliged to follow it.” We must always remain open to unexpected opportunities, to shifting demands, to experienced realities.

What I propose is that our immediate focus should be academic planning, which ultimately drives the planning for most units in student affairs and business and finance. Every academic program should have a strategic plan by next March 15th. This plan should contain the following:
  1. a candid assessment of where the program is and a clear set of priorities for achieving higher levels of excellence;
  2. a confirmation or suggested revision of the core values of the University and the linkage between the program's priorities and those core values;
  3. the actions the program proposes to take within its own resources to achieve its priorities;
  4. the actions required of others that would support the program's ambitions; and
  5. a projected time line and the metrics proposed to measure whether the program is successfully achieving its objectives.

This campus plan should incorporate and be integrated with academic program reviews and any professional accreditation processes.

I realize that the March 15th deadline is ambitious but I have confidence in those who will be required to engage this effort, including deans, chairs and heads, and faculty leadership. I know that much planning is already under way or completed in many programs. In addition, I view this exercise as an iterative process with opportunities for us to work together toward a plan that is meaningful, one that facilitates collaboration between programs and between the campus administration and the faculty, and, most importantly, one that has consequences in the ongoing operation of the University.

In return I pledge that the administration will respond directly to plans that conform to these requirements. These plans will form the basis for our decisions on priorities and resource allocation. As we ask you to establish your own priorities, we will have to do the same. Thus, I am not promising that we will approve or support every program's ambition. But you deserve to know where you stand, what level of support you will receive, or what alternatives we might jointly pursue.

Let me now address the institutional planning framework that will form the context for program planning. As I am sure is true at many program levels, our decisions over the last few years have not been ad hoc but have been consistent with a clear vision and plan. The 2020 Report established our vision of becoming a more competitive and more highly regarded research university while continuing our traditions of teaching and service. Thereafter we have tried to make decisions and to allocate resources in accordance with that vision. We established programmatic priorities that received additional investments even while we were forced to reduce budgets elsewhere. We addressed improving the infrastructure for research and eliminating some of the artificial barriers to collaboration. The subsequent Blue Sky Report, the Transitions Report, the work of the Life Sciences Curriculum Coordinating Committee, the development of quality indicators, the strategic use of Othmer Endowed Professorships to attract senior faculty from other universities and the creation of the Cather and Bessey Professorships to recognize the quality of our resident faculty, and the formulation of fund-raising priorities, were all products of a consistent plan to improve the University in accordance with the 2020 Report. My sense is these efforts were largely well received by the campus. Putting these and other initiatives into a more transparent plan may be critical for broader and more sustained progress.