Strategic Planning For Change

November 1, 1998

Nick Marinello

"The only thing that is a given is that changes will be occurring," says Jules Puschett, chair of the department of medicine. With that statement, Puschett, who is a member of the university's Strategic Planning Framework Committee, neatly underscores the questions that arise when one considers Tulane's future.

Why, how and when Tulane should respond to changes in the field of higher education will likely become dominant themes as strategic planning moves forward over the coming months. For Yvette Jones, senior vice president for planning and administration, strategic planning is all about "finding a niche, finding a distinctive area where Tulane is seen to have value."

That niche, however, must be carved out of an elastic environment that regularly reforms to accommodate new trends. "One of the most alarming trends right now is that of for-profit institutions like University of Phoenix jumping into the business of education," says Jones. "I think we cannot ignore them or say they don't have an impact because demographics are going to change."

Jones notes the recently reported plans of New York University to create a for-profit subsidiary that will market on-line courses to compete with other profit-making institutions such as the University of Phoenix. Michael Zimmerman, a professor of philosophy who sits on the strategic planning committee, agrees that in this day of market-driven competition, institutions such as Tulane must take a savvy account of their own positions.

"We may not fully appreciate how people look at Tulane and places like us. There is no guarantee that people will regard a $100,000 education as a wise investment."

Not everyone, however, sees the emergence of for-profit educational institutions as a cause for alarm. Rick Teichgraeber, professor of history and director of the Murphy Institute of Political Economy, sees the University of Phoenix as an "incidental" concern.

"Tulane needs to figure out how it can get closer to Vanderbilt, Rice and Duke," he says. Teichgraeber, who sat on the University Senate for the past three years, is critical of the Strategic Planning Framework Committee's "environmental scan" that documents trends affecting higher education. "My initial concern was the assumption that higher education is a monolith, and we are all similar players competing in similar markets."

Bill Alworth, professor of mathematics who sits on the senate, agrees that Tulane is in a different league than the likes of the University of Phoenix. "It's hard to ignore the fact that Phoenix is the fastest-growing university in the country," he says, "but I truly don't think it will cut into our traditional base. You can get some really fine music on compact discs, but people still want to go to a symphony."

Alworth is also wary of talk about how technology is transforming higher education. "Clearly, the cheapest way to run the university is to get rid of the faculty and buy CDs and run classes over the Internet to students' dorm rooms," he says. "I think to a significant extent, education is inherently inefficient," he adds. "The more efficient you become the worse education becomes. People educate in slow and mysterious ways."

Alworth balks at lofty goals such as the creation of a technology-support center for faculty. "We can actually equip classrooms with electrical plugs and carts for overhead projectors," he says. "I'd like to see those modest problems addressed more effectively before we get carried away with bigger, flashier solutions."

A little flash, however, may be essential to attracting new students, suggests Richard Whiteside, vice president for enrollment management and institutional research. "Students who are coming to Tulane assume that the leading edge of technology is here," he says. "I think if we didn't promote that we would be at competitive disadvantage. Today's students are looking for technology the same way students looked for library resources 20 years ago."

Rick Marksbury, who as dean of University College is keeping a close eye on the on-line training offered by the University of Phoenix, says communication technology is "too powerful a force" to be ignored, but he is not ready to abandon the traditional classroom setting. In fact, Marksbury is currently looking into opening another University College satellite campus downtown. The college opened its suburban Elmwood satellite campus in 1997.

"Most people who are at Tulane now will leave a similar university," he says. "Twenty-five years from now, however, will be different. Nobody has a handle on that."

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