Upon Reflection
University leadership urges a new "discipline" of planning

Vol. 7 No. 2
October/November 2004

Upon Reflection
University leadership urges a new "discipline" of planning

My job is to make sure that the academic focus of the institution is always front and center.
Earl Lewis, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

If we’re going to be rigid, operating in the nineteenth century and resisting change, then we’ll go the way of the Light Brigade.
Kenneth Thorpe, Woodruff Professor of Health Policy and Management

Phase to phase

Strategic Planning Steering Committee

To learn more

Scholarship in Time
Or, Sipping champagne from a fire hydrant
Bruce Knauft, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology
and Executive Director,
The Institute for Comparative and International Studies

Is the Bible Green?
Ancient Israelite and early Christian perspectives
on the natural world
Carol A. Newsom, Professor of Old Testament

Further reading

The Mind and the Machine
A Review of Digital People by Sidney Perkowitz
Darryl Neill, Professor of Psychology


Return to Contents

Behind last spring’s launch of a university-wide strategic planning initiative lay the hope that the Emory community would form some new habits: a practice of always looking outward, thinking strategically, planning ahead. Keeping an eye on the competition. Looking for market opportunities. Identifying the customers.

Competition? Markets? Customers? How did these words, straight out of business culture, get into the university? Are they a signal of the further “corporatizing” of the academy? Or are they simply the only words around that name precisely what a long-range strategic plan must involve in order to remain relevant for more than a year or two?

“The argot of ‘branding’ and ‘customers’ and ‘competitive threats’ I find somewhat disconcerting,” says David Bederman, professor of law and chair of the his school’s planning committee. “We believe if we are true to our mission, then students and faculty will come here. But it’s not so much the labels as the ideas behind them. We can be mindful of those, at the same time recognizing that running a university is not the same as running a business.”

That mindfulness is key, suggests Sharon Strocchia, associate professor of history and member of the strategic planning steering committee: “I translate ‘customers’ for myself as something else: what is our target audience? When I see ‘market opportunities,’ I ask, Where can we excel that will make a difference?”

Actually, the notion of a “discipline of planning” for the sake of remaining competitive is not so new at Emory. In 1996, when Michael Johns arrived as Emory’s Executive Vice President for Health Affairs, every unit of the health sciences began to develop strategic plans for research, teaching, and clinical delivery—all of which are interconnected and regularly reviewed and revised. Johns established a strategic planning office and hired Shari Capers, the current Associate Vice President of Planning, from kpmg, an international corporate consulting firm. She now provides administrative direction to the university’s planning process.

“We’re competing for faculty and students, whether or not we like to admit it,” Capers says. “It’s very hard to define what we want to be if we don’t truly understand our competitive environment today: Who are we competing with? How are we doing against that competitive group? Is there a benchmark peer group we aspire to? What are the differences, and why? A critical part of the planning process is about stepping back and taking a big, broader look at ourselves and the world around us.”

Faculty Roles

The process, co-chaired by Johns and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Earl Lewis, is happening in three phases over fifteen months (see sidebar this page). One of the guiding principles, according to the instructions posted on the strategic planning web site (https://www.admin.emory.edu/StrategicPlan/), is that it must “involve faculty in the process” and that it be not only a “top down” but also a “bottom-up” process. “Faculty are key in identifying the current state of affairs within the university and must play important roles in moving ideas and plans up through unit and school administrative channels,” says Johns.

Indeed, many faculty were involved in strategic planning within their own schools even before the university-wide initiative began. The consultants who developed a strategic plan for the business school conducted numerous interviews with its faculty. The processes in the law and theology schools were faculty-chaired. Emory College was already surveying department and program chairs and holding faculty “focus groups” to identify strengths and unique opportunities. The faculty on the college planning committee drafted “white papers” on particular areas of strategic focus, such as “the African American Experience,” “the Creative and Performing Arts,” “Health and Society,” and “Women and Gender.”

Woodruff Professor of Health Policy and Management Kenneth Thorpe, a member of the steering committee, suggests that the
faculty also bear some responsibility for ensuring that the plan remains linked to the university’s academic mission. “The idea is to attract more resources and do something new and exciting that takes advantage of what we have here,” he says. “Faculty have to think outside of our own disciplinary shells.”

Moreover, adds Bederman, faculty need to be more involved
in securing those resources: “I feel that at least in the law school, faculty have been under-deployed in contacts with alumni and potential donors. Faculty can have great input with a vision document like this, one that actually prioritizes initiatives. Can we help sell them? Absolutely.”

Culture clashes?

There are those words again—faculty selling. Some believe it is time for the academy to embrace a more entrepreneurial spirit, and no one more than Jagdish Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing. “The largest single university in the world is a multi-location institution that we have been laughing at, called the University of Phoenix,” he says. “Its parent company, the Apollo Group, is a publicly traded company. The founder’s net worth is at least $2 billion; he doesn’t need donors. He has all the freedom to do whatever he wants to do. We are locked into a way of organizing that is two or three hundred years old. The tenure and promotions process, decisions made collectively by the faculty—these are getting in the way. Change is happening more rapidly. Today education more and more is not about a terminal degree but a lifelong journey. The University of Phoenix founder saw that traditional universities just are not capable of meeting that pace of change, so he went for the market of experienced managers—working adults.”

Others have worried that the health sciences and even the competitive business of healthcare—that is, Emory Healthcare, Inc.—will become the driving force of the university. What is implied, for example, when each school and unit is asked to assess its work in the category of “health care” alongside “teaching, scholarship, research, and social action” as part of the strategic planning process?

“I think I was one of the first people to say that I was concerned that Emory was becoming ‘Hopkins-ized,’” or dominated and defined by the health sciences, says Strocchia. “But I’m much more comfortable with the way units and resources are being balanced now than I was before President Wagner arrived. I think the inclusion of health care worked to encourage people to think creatively, and in fact some have done just that. Issues of health, illness, and disability cut across the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences. There’s a real potential intellectual robustness there. How can we enable that?”

“Dead letters”

In spite of such enthusiasm, plenty of skepticism remains about whether Emory can go the distance with yet another “plan,” or whether the outcome is doomed to gather dust on the proverbial shelf. After all, wrote Stanley Fish in the Chronicle of Higher Education last April, just as Emory’s process was gaining momentum, “The trouble with planning is that it almost never works, in part because the object of your analysis will not stand still and wait for the process to complete itself; in part because the focus on the long range deflects attention and perhaps resources away from the short-term problems that members of the community are experiencing; in part because long-range planning usually has a history in any university—it has been tried before, and the resulting reports are filed somewhere under ‘dead letters’—and the response to this latest effort is a mixture of skepticism and cynicism.”

Fish’s remedy is built-in flexibility and adaptability—and leaders who enjoy working in a “twilight zone” where the goals are “uncertain” and the pathways “only dimly outlined, if at all.” Capers agrees that flexibility is crucial: “Planning is an ongoing discipline. We won’t go through this process and wonder, What do we do next year? Our goals, our initiatives, our measures are evaluated every year, at every level. The plan needs to drive our activities as an organization and be in tune with the changing environment.”

Provost Earl Lewis elaborates: “These plans suggest a path, but we have to recognize that paths will have branches that feed out and away from the core. If the university is really going to be smart, it will know where it wants to go, but not be bound in such a way that it can’t take detours and head in other directions.

“What I think this institution has struggled with internally and externally is figuring out how to realize its potential. That’s a word oftentimes associated with Emory for way too long. Part of this exercise in my mind is a self-disciplining one, where the goal is to figure out how we take the notion of potential, concretize it, and use it to guide our own actions. That’s not to say we’re going to inscribe inflexibility into the system, but at the end of five years when we go back to evaluate our success, we can say, this is where we wanted to be, and here we are.”—A.O.A.