Sunday, February 16, 2014

Vision For Excellence is Idiocy

By Professor Doom

Administration: “We’re now tirelessly working on a strategic plan…”
--a notice that lets faculty know that a(nother) vast sum of money is about to be thrown away.
   I’ve written many times about the glut of very highly paid administrators in higher education, and a very natural question concerns what, exactly, these people do with all those resources. It’s time I address what they consider their most important (overt) task: the strategic plan.

     When a new president/chancellor/Grand Poo-Bah is hired, the very first thing he does is put the old strategic plan right in the shredder. Hold that thought, because we’ll come back to that.

      Next, the Poo-Bah starts work on the new strategic plan, with many great meetings and administrative retreats soaking up thousands of hours of administrative time putting together this new plan.

      “Two running tracks, two stadiums, football and baseball, with a combined seating of 5,000, a student recreational center, an administrative building complex, an orientation building just for incoming students, an indoor and outdoor pool, a 2.4 mile long walking route…”

---I can’t even begin to describe how grandiose this plan was, for a campus situated in a town with total population under 2,000, which never had more than 1,000 students on campus at any one time. The campus has no sports program, nor any actual plan for a sports program.

     What’s a strategic plan? It’s the plan for the growth of the institution. Growth and retention are all that matters, and administration feels it very important to set down how exactly, growth and retention can be maximized.

Administration: “We’ve updated the strategic plan to include a multi-level parking garage, so that when we have varsity teams, their families can have a place to park their cars.”

--I’m not sure if the town even had a single two-story building in it. Does the water tower count?

     It’s important to understand that the strategic plan is a living document. It’s never finished, so the work being done on it is perpetual. These things can run hundreds of pages. There is considerable planning for the planning:

“…a system-wide strategic planning process designed to ensure that each campus and the system have a focused plan for the next five years. Throughout the 2012-2013 academic year, MU’s Strategy Workgroup drafted a document that outlines our campus’s strategy for the next five years. Since it was first drafted, that document has been revised multiple times in response to two campus-wide meetings and feedback from Faculty Council, the Strategic Planning and Resource Advisory Council (SPRAC), Provost’s Staff, Chancellor’s Staff, the UM System, and the Board of Curators.

--this isn’t even the ONLY strategic plan for this particular campus, it actually has multiple strategic plans. Consider all the committee time spent on this plan…and then realize all the other plans use a likewise amount of time from another legion of committees composed of tetralegions of administrators…

     It isn’t just wildly ambitious plans for further building development. There are also pages and pages of pure blather.

“…conducted a year-long comprehensive strategic planning process. The significant endeavor involved 900 persons from the university’s network of stakeholders in a focused, five-phased planning process. The result, Strategic Plan 2017, was recently approved by the Board of Trustees. The plan is a complete articulation of a new vision for Saint Mary’s as a top-tier, national university…”

     I’m not picking on this institution. All strategic plans go on and on talking about how much time was put into making the plan, which, every single time, uses a ton of words to say “we’ll try to do the best we can with what we got.” Literally, millions of dollars’ worth of administrative time is poured into these things. Just how focused can a five-phased process involving 900 people going years into the future be? That is more people than Congress, the Senate, and Executive branch combined, and nobody accuses the US government of being particularly focused. It’s like they don’t even read their own words. I feel the need to quote from one phase:

“…Create a vibrant campus and transformational residential life experience at the College.”

--it took nearly a thousand people a year of work to decide this is worth having? Flip the meaning of this statement. Were there many proponents of a plan to make the campus dull and campus life completely pointless? Every phase is filled with statements whose goofiness becomes obvious once you flip their meaning. Do note that the plan doesn’t, you know, indicate how to actually achieve the goal, merely that a vibrant campus, for example, is something to want.

      These massive, weighty, documents are awesome bureaucratic constructs. They’re also a big part of the resume of the Poo-Bah. When he leaves and goes to another campus he shows off how amazing he is at formulating a strategic plan.

Admin announcement:      “We’re moving to a new campus.”

--Despite the years of effort going into grandiose plans, the campus of the small school ended up being moved to a totally new site…with a grim boiler room for faculty cubicles, bland classrooms, and an architectural ambiance that is best described as “yellow outlet mall.” There was never the slightest chance of anything in that perpetual strategic plan being used, and everyone who worked on it over a decade knew it. Before the move, our Poo-Bah retired…wanna guess the first and second things the new Poo-Bah did?

    When the old Poo-Bah leaves, a new Poo-Bah is selected. Guess what? The new Poo-Bah needs to put together a new strategic plan—if he uses the old, he’ll having nothing for his resume for when he moves on up. So, the old strategic plan goes into the shredder, and legions of new committees are formed to give input on the new, completely irrelevant, strategic plan.

“Today, however, virtually every college and university in the nation has an elaborate strategic plan. Indeed, whenever a college hires a new president, his or her first priority is usually the crafting of a new strategic plan. As in Orwell's 1984, all mention of the previous administration's plan, which probably had been introduced with great fanfare only a few years earlier, is instantly erased from all college publications and Web sites….”

--I thought what I’d seen with my own eyes was a fluke, but it turns out it’s quite common. It takes a few years to craft a plan…and most Poo-Bahs only last a few years, creating an endless pointless cycle of shred/craft/shred/craft.

      As I’ve written many times before, administrators in higher education get paid enormous sums. I’ve shown that administrators in higher education seldom have any qualifications to run an institution of higher education. To justify their pay, and their jobs, they engage in many make-work programs, the most glaring of which is the strategic plan. I guess I should be grateful that Vision for Excellence strategic planning is a pure waste of time since so much of other administrative work seems to be focused on destroying any scrap of integrity in higher education.

     But seriously, it’s very clear that we have far too many administrators with far too much time on their hands, and this is quite possibly the greatest factor in the rising costs of tuition. For, literally, centuries, institutions of higher education managed to do just fine without strategic plans, but now every institution is perpetually constructing them.

…In 2006, the chancellor of Southern Illinois University's Carbondale campus was forced to resign after it was discovered that much of its new strategic plan, "Southern at 150," had been copied from Texas A&M University's strategic plan,"Vision 2020." The chancellor had previously served as vice chancellor at Texas A&M,…"

--not only are plans generally irrelevant, they can easily be plagiarized (I’m astonished some wonk actually read both plans and could remember the crap well enough to see it was cut-and-pasted). I saw such things when I brought an institution through accreditation, but thought little of it and saw no reason to protest the plagiarism (sometimes years-old official documents have names of other institutions on them, “somehow”).  It’s just gibberish anyway.

     When students choose schools, they often do so based on tuition. Wouldn’t it be nice if they got a breakdown of how much of tuition goes to administration? Even better, a breakdown of how much of tuition money goes into education? For many institutions, I suspect the true amount would be well under 10%.

     Think about it.

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