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Planning in the Midst of a Pandemic Recovery - Eighth in a Series by Jack Calareso, Hyatt-Fennell Ex

As I write this article, most colleges are still trying to balance addressing the impact of the pandemic with planning for their Fall semesters. The impact of lost enrollment, cancellation of summer classes and programs, etc. – all are issues that are resulting in budget deficits. Every day The Chronicle updates a daily article listing furloughs and layoffs by institution (and you don’t even have to have a subscription to read it). Articles appear almost every day identifying program cuts and closures, and institutions claiming financial exigency.

Some institutions have their Fall plans in place, but every institution realizes that things might change. Others are still trying to decide between various options (see The Chronicle’s daily report, “ Here’s a List of Colleges’ Plans for Reopening in the Fall”). What seems clear is that there is little possibility that everyone will be happy whatever happens on the first day of classes. Concerns and criticisms are being heard constantly from faculty, students, staff, parents and communities in which the institutions are situated. And the semester hasn’t even started. Town/gown relationships are just a student coronavirus outbreak away from unraveling!

There is no one answer. There is no right answer. There really isn’t even a wrong answer. Anyone who thinks that s/he can predict what will happen with COVID-19 in the coming months is just guessing. And the development of an effective COVID-19 vaccine is the multi-billion-dollar question. We just don’t know.

But here is what I do know. I know that no institution has addressed dealing with a pandemic like COVID-19 in its current strategic plan. A few days ago, a president in my area was interviewed as this institution announced a revision to their previously announced plan for the Fall and the need to eliminate a number of programs and positions now. This president was quoted as saying, “It’s painful, but we are guided by the values, which are health and safety, and understanding that the people are our focus.”

This was a compassionate and politically correct statement. But I looked for their strategic plan on their website to see if their “focus on people” and “their health and safety” defined making these cuts just a few weeks before the start of the semester. No surprise…I couldn’t find it anywhere.

Returning to what I do know without a doubt -- I know that if you are responsible stewards, you will need to work on a new or revised strategic plan in the Fall. Why? Because these difficult decisions should be guided by the institution’s values. And sadly, these values need to address the opportunities for growth and expansion that do exist in every institution’s current plan...opportunities that you hope for, as well as the continued rightsizing priorities that may be necessary. While we all hope and pray that this virus will be managed soon, we know that the damage done already may require more retraction and it’s likely that there are still more dark days ahead.

The purpose of this article is not to tell you how to do a new or revised strategic plan. First, I have already done that in a previous article. If you need help or want to read it, let me know. Second, there are a plethora of resources available to you on strategic planning if you need them. But thirdly, and most importantly, you already have a perspective on strategic planning.

I have been consulting with institutions on strategic planning for over 30 years. One thing I have learned is that there are many models, formats and styles. I know I have mine. These models are all good if they work for you and for your institution. And “work” means that your strategic planning model results in a document that frames what you do and believe as well as your future aspirations. Hopefully, it is not gathering dust in a file drawer or in an electronic file awaiting a request for evidence from an accrediting agency.

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to share two things. First, I want to recommend a process activity that may not be part of your planning process, but it should be -- especially now. Second, I want to suggest what should be the outcome of the planning you will have to lead in the Fall unless you want to remain in a crisis management mode forever. First, let me address the process activity.

What I am seeing currently is too much leadership by fiat resulting in the rebuilding of silos on campuses. Decisions for the Fall are being made with limited consultation and constituencies impacted are trying to defend and preserve their turf. This may be an essential approach in these challenging times and may become known as “pandemic leadership,” but I reject it. This leadership style can’t be sustained and it creates too much hostility and disequilibrium.

Typically, institutions try to involve multiple constituencies and constituents in the planning process. And the leadership team—whatever they are called at your institution -- plays a significant role in strategic planning. Here’s something that I have added to the process I lead and recommend to others, and it’s a worthwhile exercise.

I ask each senior leader to recommend what should be cut/changed, and what should be added/funded more throughout the entire institution. Three rules: You have to address every area of the institution, except one. You cannot address your own area of responsibility. Finally, your responses will not be publicly shared, but they will be shared within the team.

When I was an Academic Vice President, I agreed to the vision of shared leadership for the good of the institution. But I usually focused primarily on academic programs, faculty, etc. And I would negotiate against other priorities and areas in defense of my own.

The exercise I am recommending puts reality to the rhetoric that we, the senior leaders, are responsible for the entire institution. And it moves us to a team culture of openness and honesty. I have found that the responses and ideas are thoughtful and insightful. You are not the only one who can think about the whole institution. Your most trusted colleagues just need to be asked. This exercise really helps the future planning with shared responsibility and ownership. And it strengthens the team.

My second recommendation relates to the outcome of your next planning process. The outcome result I recommend is to generate an operational plan rather than a strategic plan. You may want or need a strategic plan document for public dissemination. You will have generated it as the outline of your operational plan. And it can be relatively brief, simply delineating the major goals and objectives while reminding readers of the mission, vision and values of the institution.

The operational plan gets into the details, and you really need the details. With great specificity, you need to identify priorities and protocols for both growth and reductions in force, programs and services. Operational plans should include enrollment/revenue scenarios and the impact of any potential reductions. I was fortunate to have a CFO and Director of Technology who could create a data file that we could “play with” to study scenarios related to enrollment by type (undergraduate, graduate, full-time, part-time, resident, commuter, etc.), tuition rates and, most important, discount rates.

A good operational plan also needs to include a financial plan that can be used to project scenarios and the impact on resources. This includes revenue generated (or lost) by programs, personnel costs, and budget savings by reduction, impact of tuition reductions/increases/freezes, etc. The financial plan can be easily integrated with the enrollment scenarios. And unless you have a large endowment, significant fund raising or external funds, enrollment (tuition revenue) is the key. If you have other major sources of revenue, first … congratulations! But secondly, these revenue numbers can be easily integrated into the financial plan.

An operational plan serves you well as you try to grow back to where you were a year ago, and, hopefully, where you hope to be in the future. The prioritization tells you what you will add back first, what it will cost, and what revenue it might generate.

And if the pandemic and impact on students/families creates a lasting change in their educational plans and available resources, the operational plan will tell you what you might do to help, and what it will mean for your future. You may still need an emergency meeting to make final decisions, but the data will be ready and will reflect good institutional planning for future rightsizing and budget adjustments.

Operational plans can be easily updated and reprioritized. You may need to do this often as the world continues to change. The framework of your mission, goals and values will remain in place.

I hope and pray that the scientists will solve the pandemic issues, and the politicians will turn down the volume. I know that you and your team have to lead your institution through these challenging times.

I believe in the value of mergers. But I don’t want to see small colleges atrophy or close so that “merger” just becomes a euphemism for acquisition. My favorite quote to stress the importance of good planning is this, attributed to Lewis Carroll: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” In the midst of the pandemic recovery, we may not know exactly where we are going, but we need to arrive there safely and in good health. I believe this process and outcome will help you. And I wish you the best. Please do not hesitate to call on me if I can be of service.

Jack P. Calareso, Ph.D.

Senior Consultant