Advance with a Defined Sense of Purpose


The economic crisis has opened a window of opportunity for institutional leaders. This can be a time to make previously unpopular cuts, and to engage the campus community in a strategic planning and prioritization effort. The economic situation demands that colleges and universities challenge old and long-held assumptions and planning/budgeting scenarios. However, it's critical that leaders proceed with intentionality and clarity of purpose.

It will be difficult to make strategic cuts and identify the right units to invest in if your institution does not have clear, strategic objectives and a defined sense of its mission.

"Most institutions are unrealistically striving to be all things to all people in their quest for students, reputation, and support rather than focusing their resources on the mission and programs that they can accomplish with distinction."
Bob Dickeson, in Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services (2nd ed; Jossey Bass, 2010)

We interviewed Bob Dickeson (President Emeritus, University of Northern Colorado), Lucie Lapovsky (Principal, Lapovsky Consulting; past president of Mercy College), Larry Goldstein (President, Campus Strategies, LLC; past senior vice president and treasurer, NACUBO), and Pat Sanaghan (President, The Sanaghan Group) for their advice on differentiating and defining your institution and identifying the direction that will guide your cuts and investments so that you can plan strategically to emerge stronger as the economy recovers.

The Mission as a Guide to Prioritization

Goldstein stresses the importance of clarifying your mission in such a way that will help guide your institution in making critical decisions: "If I am faced with choosing between two good alternatives, does the mission give me guidance as to which direction to go? Does it steer me toward the direction that is most critical to my institution's guiding vision?"

Lapovsky notes that schools that don't have the luxury of financial and enrollment strength may tend to be more opportunistic in their investments. They may need to remain nimble and able to move in a variety of directions depending on the demands of their market -- so their missions may be more general. However, these institutions still need to draw a line that tells them what not to invest in. "You need to set boundaries around what you won't do," Lapovsky advises, "which directions you won't invest in."

Your institution's "niche" may be broad or narrow, but it's crucial to know what that niche is. You do not have the resources -- and, as time passes and demands from students, parents, alumni, government, and other constituents increase, you will be even less likely to have the resources -- to serve everyone's needs equally. It's important to be absolutely clear on what is mission-critical and what is not -- that is going to drive where you look to make cuts.

Clarify What You Regard as Core

Larry Goldstein offers two examples of how institutions in different situations might "drive a stake in the ground" and define what investments they will and will not pursue.

Imagine a small, residential, liberal arts college that decides intentionally that it will not pursue online education (either as an importer or an exporter). What this college has decided is that its mission focuses on the value of face-to-face education. Rather than invest its limited resources in online learning and distance education initiatives, this college will likely invest in living-learning communities and rethinking its faculty/student ratio.

A state flagship university is under tremendous pressure from its board to shift from Division II athletics to Division I. This university may make an intentional decision not to make that investment if athletics are not core to its mission and its strategic vision.

Lapovsky also points to examples such as the University of Southern New Hampshire and other "no-frills" campuses that have defined the courses and the academic support as critical and have trimmed away everything else -- study abroad, internships, community services, co-curricular activities, the cafe, the student center. "That paradigm shift," Lapovsky adds, "was driven by a close look at what was critical to their mission."

Many institutions, however, have missions that require significant investment in the whole development of the student -- both academic and co-curricular. In this case, evaluate each of your student development programs carefully in terms of what value it adds to the pursuit of your institution's mission. Determine clearly which programs are mission-critical and need to be university-supported.

If You Inherit a Broad Mission

"If a broad mission has been imposed on an institution," Goldstein suggests, "it would be desirable to craft a more meaningful mission statement specifically to guide the planning or prioritization effort. This should be undertaken as part of the overall planning process and, because of its critical importance in influencing the plans, both the president and the board must have direct involvement in this effort."

In his book Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services, Bob Dickeson offers several examples of these "operating mission statements" that can provide guidance to efforts to prioritize your institution's programs and investments:


Our strategic direction will strongly support our core values, vision, and mission, but will focus on strategic initiatives that: (1) have university-wide impact or importance; (2) establish clearly demonstrated need, expectation, or opportunity; and (3) have potentially greater benefit than cost.

Anonymous University strives to become the premier public liberal arts university in the region by preparing students for success in a selected number of careers and professions undergirded by a solid base in the liberal arts and sciences.

- Bob Dickeson, in Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services

Sanaghan notes that crafting a second statement for the purpose of strategic planning also gets you around the risk of feeling as though you are "messing with sacred lines" in revising the institution's mission statement, or the risk that discussions of strategic vision will get bogged down in wordsmithing.

"I don't start with mission anymore," Sanaghan remarks. "You need to start by engaging your constituents in developing a shared vision. Create context -- where are going, what are the implications for who we are as an institution? That will guide refining the mission."

For more about engaging constituents in developing a shared vision, read our article:
Plan for Resource Allocation in Ways That Build Trust

Set Strategic Objectives that Can Be Measured

Goldstein and Sanaghan emphasize that in defining your vision for your institution, you need to describe your highest-priority objectives in ways that ensure that you can track and measure success: "One of the things that causes plans to fail in implementation is a lack of accountability. Over the years we've come to believe that shared responsibility is no responsibility. If an individual champion is not identified for each goal, it will be too easy for individuals to assume that someone else is taking care of it. Each goal needs to be part of someone's assigned portfolio -- usually a cabinet member's. It is up to that person to pay attention to the goal and ensure that progress is being made. The president's responsibility is to be aware of each goal and to establish an expectation of progress reports from the appropriate cabinet member. The only time you can be certain that strategic goals have been achieved is when those goals have predefined metrics."

Consider these two aspirational goals:

  • "To be among the strongest research universities in the country"
  • "To be among the top 25 research universities, as measured by the National Science Foundation's research and development rankings"

"Both of these goals are likely to drive the same behavior on campus," Goldstein and Sanaghan note, "but only one of these offers a way to measure its success. With the type of specificity shown in the second example, the institution can track its progress over time as the strategic plan is implemented. Most importantly, if assessment demonstrates that progress is lagging, then attention can be paid to the initiative to bring it back on track."