September 1, 1998
"We have a good product," says Michael Zimmerman. "And we can have a better product." That, to a large extent, is what Tulane's strategic planning is all about. Zimmerman, professor of philosophy, was recruited during the summer to join the Strategic Planning Framework Committee in developing an "environ- mental scan," a 45-page document identifying important trends in higher education.
That document, say committee members, will provide a context for subsequent planning that will occur during the coming months. As indicated in a memo distributed last month, Tulane President Scott Cowen has made strategic planning a top priority for the first 18 months of his administration.
Cowen, who admits that universities have a tough time developing, formalizing and following through on strategic plans because, in part, "not everybody agrees on everything," says he believes it can be done at Tulane.
"I know how to put a plan together," says Cowen. "There are logical steps you go through." The first step was the formation of the framework committee that comprises a small group of administrators, faculty and staff from the uptown and downtown campus.
The group is lead by Yvette Jones, senior vice president for planning and administration, and, along with Zimmerman, includes Paul Barron, professor of law; Suzanne England, dean of social work; Amy Koritz, assistant professor of English and vice chair of the University Senate; John McLachlan, director of Tulane-Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research; Ray Newman, medical center vice chancellor of administration and finance; Jules Puschett, professor and chair of the department of medicine; Robin Stead, executive secretary and Staff Advisory Council representative; Paul Whelton, dean of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine; Alice Walther, director of strategic planning; and Dick Whiteside, vice president for enrollment management and institutional research.
The group, which has been meeting since late May, was charged by Cowen to pull together a report essentially documenting the state of higher education. After several weeks of general discussion, members broke out into small groups to accomplish fact-finding in several areas.
"I learned a lot about universities and the challenges they face," says Puschett. "I learned about areas of which I had no knowledge: market forces, changing roles of faculty, the explosion of information technology, the globalization of learning. The potential benefit of [the committee's work] once it is disseminated to the community is to get people to think about the issues."
In order to develop a creative response, says Zimmerman, "Tulane needs to understand the nature of the forces that are out there." Understanding the context for these decisions will be crucial, says Jones. "I think we may have to make tough decisions about what direction we will go in."
The document, which is available on line at www. tulane.edu/~strplan, also examines issues such as changing models of learning, governance and management, the blurring of the line between universities and other institutions, and accountability, responsibility and public scrutiny. What the document does not do, however, is offer suggestions for how Tulane should react to trends in higher education.
"The university may decide either to take advantage of or fly in the face of a current trend," says Walther. "But it will respond to each in a knowledgeable way." Cowen agrees. "That's where strategy comes in."
As the fall semester progresses, Cowen envisions developing a communitywide strategy driven by academic priorities. "You have to have a clear set of academic directions, then administrative functions and everything follows from that," he says.
He sees the approach as being a two-dimensional one that first determines general academic directions and then goes out into the schools and colleges to engage in detailed planning.
"There are going to be certain academic directions that cut across the entire institution that don't reside in any particular school," says Cowen, adding that he will create "theme committees" to deal with such overarching topics. Cowen maintains that the strategic planning process will be a collegial one. "This institution is made up of faculty, staff and students," he says. "All of those constituencies will influence the content and desired outcomes of the plan, but so will the president and others through their leadership."
In recalling a moment from a meeting with his cabinet of top-level administrators, Cowen hints at his own leadership style. When asked by the group if he would allow his vision for the university to be debated within the Tulane community, Cowen's reply was, "Wait a minute. The vision I have for this institution is my vision.
People can reject that vision and I can accept that, but I think people need to hear directly from me what I want this institution to be. They can decide how they would like to proceed once they understand what I stand for and what I aspire for Tulane." Cowen says he will publicly articulate that vision in his address during the Tulane Community Convocation on Thursday, Sept. 24.
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