Vision, Planning, and Assessment

Joanne V. Creighton
Presented at New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Inc.
118th Annual Meeting and Assessment Forum

December 3, 2003, Boston, Massachusetts

People say that a president must have "vision." But, I say "That Vision Thing," as George Bush (the first) called it, can be a misunderstood component of leadership, especially in the college or university setting. Beware of the college president who comes in with a vision in full bloom, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

Like Alexander Haig, the president can say, "I'm in charge"-but with equally shaky credibility. So many others--students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni--make up the fabric and generating energies of the place as well as do its accumulated history, customs, policies, and traditions. A vision cannot be simply imposed from without.

Rather, That Vision Thing is the ability to see what is there and what might be there if the institution realized its unique genius and full potential. The goal is to help the college to realize itself from within. How does a president, particularly a new president, acquire that kind of vision? Through planning.

Planning is an educational process, an opportunity for reflection, stocktaking, and assessment, both for the president and for the institution.

Don't get me wrong: the president is not at all incidental. The president should place herself at the center of the planning process, lead with questions, and listen carefully. Drawing on my disciplinary background as a professor of English, I think of the president as reading the text of the college, learning about its characters, themes, conflicts, history, contexts, and challenges, and trying to fit them all into clarifying analyses and hypotheses. The aim is to be attuned both to what is there as well as what might be there: inherent possibilities, linkages, emphases, opportunities, and contingencies. The president should attend, in particular, to constituents' hopes and dreams for the institution and should collect, like a magpie, the best and most doable ideas. Even more important, the president must try to understand the aspirational core, the shared ideas and values at the heart of the college, its implicit raison d'etre.

Just as a good English paper needs a thesis, an effective institution needs a mission, a central purpose which distinguishes it among its peers and which-- when it resonates with power and authenticity -- inspires passionate loyalty, allegiance, and good work from its constituents. That Vision Thing is seeing and championing the common ground and building upon it.

If the president places herself squarely as at the center of the planning process, indeed, even as the drafter of the planning document, she is in the best position to gain nuanced understanding of the motivating core of the institution, and she can do quite a lot to ensure that planning as it unfolds draws energy from that mission.

During my first 15 months at Mount Holyoke I led a comprehensive planning process resulting in The Plan for Mount Holyoke 2003. We have just completed implementing that plan with dramatic success having met or exceeded all of our goals:

  • Less than robust student applicant pools were replaced by four successive years of record-breaking numbers, with marked increased quality and diversity.
  • We renewed our faculty with outstanding tenure-track hires. Now 44% of our junior faculty are people of color, giving us the most diverse faculty (at 20%) of our peers of top ranked private liberal arts colleges and universities.
  • High profile new initiatives -such as a new leadership center and speaking, arguing and writing program-have drawn strong faculty leadership, deep student interest, significant donor support, and considerable attention in higher education and the media.
  • The balance sheet is markedly stronger with negative trends reversed. Instead of deepening fiscal disequilibrium, we saw rising tuition revenues, disciplined cost cutting, increasing gifts. We were able to invest significant new resources in the academic program and new initiatives, redress slippage in faculty and staff salaries, build reserves for physical plant, and achieve a balance budget meeting a strict definition of fiscal equilibrium.
  • We launched a major fund drive, exceeded our 200-million-dollar goal and have now surpassed our new goal of 250 million in the final month of the campaign.
  • We completed a facilities master plan and landscape master plan, and, in one of the most significant building periods in the College's history, have completed four major building projects renovating and expanding our music, art, science, and student center facilities.
  • Overall spirits are high with an unmistakable sense of buoyancy, optimism, and energy which contrasts starkly with the widespread malaise and anxiety before the planning process. There is a shared feeling among students, faculty, staff, trustees and alumnae that Mount Holyoke College confidently reclaimed its legacy of excellence and leadership.

With this track record of success behind us, we have just completed a second planning process resulting in The Plan for Mount Holyoke 2010 which we have begun to implement with much creative energy across the institution this fall.

So how did we get to this good place? What are the principles of good planning that are implicit in the process?

I already pointed to the president's central role; equally important is that of the faculty.

The President should privilege and partner with the faculty and embrace shared governance. Having long been a faculty member before crossing over to the "other" side, I try to blur the boundaries between "us" and "them," to insist that in governing the college, we are all in this together, with the faculty playing a central role. Shared governance is more than an ideal; it is real: the faculty has legislative power and responsibility for the curriculum and academic appointments. Their expertise is fundamental to any academic planning and valuable in most administrative arenas. A president ignores or underestimates the faculty's role at her peril. The goal is to make them a full-fledged partner in advancing the college.

When I first came to Mount Holyoke I immediately met with the faculty governance committee, the Faculty Conference Committee, to discuss my desire to begin a planning process and to partner with the faculty in that task.

It's fair to say there was initial skepticism about the efficacy of planning: plans had been developed in the past and gathered dust on the shelves. But partly to humor a new president, I was given the benefit of the doubt and a planning committee was duly elected and the process got underway.

Team up not only with faculty leaders but with strong administrative colleagues and engage all constituents of the college in interactive and iterative planning processes.

Not only must the president must be a tireless advocate for the planning agenda, making it matter, giving it high profile, spreading it throughout the institution, she needs to build a strong team of administrative colleagues who carry the agenda to all the precincts of the college. Early in the process we sent a letter to all faculty, staff, students, and alumnae, inviting them to articulate the mission and to identify strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for the college. We held innumerable meetings and public forums. I had all the faculty over to my house in groups of about 15 or 20 for in-depth conversations. We invited all functional areas and committees to comment on issues under their jurisdiction that needed or merited attention. Essentially we made clear that the planning train was going down the track and that one could either jump in or get out of the way.

Make planning both aspirational and operational, setting high goals and redressing tough problems. Encourage bold thinking and reframing of challenges as opportunities.

I can't stress strongly enough how important it is to lead with a positive agenda. It is demoralizing and counterproductive to start with the proposition: "We're in trouble. What should we cut?" Rather, the starting premise should be reframed: "What is valuable and important about this college? What are its core purposes and essential services? What must we do to preserve and enhance them?" How can we accomplish that?"

Planning at its best, even in the toughest economic environment, is an affirming process. The president should keep the focus on the big picture and higher purposes. People get mired in their own parochial view and problems; they need to be inspired by and encouraged to take the larger view.

Only after reiterating the common ground and articulating the top priorities, should one address the problems and challenges that inhibit or prevent their realization. Don't get me wrong. Problems and challenges need to be faced, and faced squarely.

In order to do so, one should:

Be fearlessly candid and open with information, putting everything on the table. In our planning, I insisted that there were no sacred cows, no forbidden subjects. We could talk about the coeducational option. We must talk about the less-than-robust applicant pool and the fiscal disequilibrium threatening the enrollment and financial stability of the College. We must face the escalating expense of a policy of need-blind admission.

We had innumerable public forums in which we laid out the financial framework of the College and invited constituents to see the problems we faced, the tough choices we had. Some of these conversations were emotional and heated. Not everyone was comfortable with this degree of candor and with the bald facts. But, eventually these doses of reality do, if you are patient enough, have the effect of winning over most people and drawing them into shared problem-solving.

When, for example, we made the decision to go off of pure need-blind admission, there was much angst among many students and faculty, but most accepted that decision as necessary. To be sure, a few students staged an eleventh hour sit-in to protest this and other changes, but they didn't garner wide support in large part because most people felt the issues had had a fair hearing and they accepted the hard medicine.

Use drafts to go fast and to communicate broadly. I assumed the presidency in January and by August, we sent out to all campus constituents a first draft of the Plan with a proposed mission statement, a list of principles and challenges, and a preliminary sense of proposed themes, emphases and initiatives. This speed and lack of caution shocked the Board chair. "You did what?" She feared I would be discredited before I got my feet firmly on the ground. But, on the contrary, drafts are wonderful things, allowing you to test out preliminary ideas without boxing yourself into the corner. ("What, you don't like this idea? That's okay; it's only a draft. How would you reframe the issue?") Drafts help you to have iterative, interactive processes. Drafts permit you stake out territory and get people used to ideas. Drafts invite people to feel informed and invested in shaping the document.

In both planning processes we shared three public drafts before the final document was drawn up. The second draft in each case went to all 30,000 constituents, including alumnae, who were invited to share their views by email or web. The final documents, which were unanimously approved by both faculty and the board (no small feat), had been had been shaped, refined and vetted by hundreds of contributors. It is fair to say that the final document was owned by the constituents of the institution, and indeed they also have been taking ownership of the implementation. The Plan for 2003 was so ubiquitous in campus discourse and as a blueprint of action that the Class of 2003 sported tee-shirts saying "We are The Plan for 2003," as indeed they are: all of our work in strengthening the institution is ultimately about them.

In brief, the planning document should define and draw energy and direction from the mission.

After innumerable attempts, we managed to distill all the essential elements of institutional identity, purpose, and aspiration into a single mission sentence. That sentence is, in effect, the thesis for both plans (an accomplishment that warms my English professor soul).

As an aside let me mention a book about corporate strategy I have read recently, Good to Great by Jim Collins, which builds on Isaiah Berlin's famous essay which divides the world into hedgehogs and foxes: "the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Collins champions the Hedgehog corporation. Its One Big Thing, says Collins, is a confluence of what it is deeply passionate about, what it can be best in the world at, and what drives its economic engine. [Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't (New York: Harpers Business, 2001, p. 96.)] A merely good Fox corporation, in contrast, darts around in cunning fashion devising complex strategies for sneak attacks on the Hedgehog.

So too can one say that a great college's strength is to be found in knowing One Big Thing: its distinctive mission which, at its hedgehogian best, is a synthesis of what constituents are deeply passionate about, what the institution is best in the world at, and what drives its economic engine. All else follows from that One Big Thing, or you might call it That Vision Thing.

With this kind of clarity and focus, the Plan should:

  • Be relatively short and quotable (reducible to a one-page synopsis: get everyone literally and figuratively on the same page)
  • Set clear goals, emphases, and priorities within a specified time frame
  • Establish benchmarks and assessment measures (and I'll return to in a minute)
  • Encourage creative engagement and be the basis and springboard for further plans and higher aspiration: the reaccreditation self study, the case statement for fundraising, the enrollment and marketing plan, the financial plan, the landscape and facilities plan, etc.

In Good to Great Collins claims that institutional change under the Hedgehog Concept is like trying to move an enormous flywheel. It takes tremendous energy and progress is slow at first. But "good-to-great companies understand a simple truth: Tremendous power exists in the fact of continued improvement and the delivery of results. Point to tangible accomplishments-however incremental at first-and show how these steps fit into the context of an overall concept that will work. When you do this in a way that people see and feel the buildup of momentum, they will line up with enthusiasm. We came to call this the flywheel effect."

So too did we gain the "flywheel effect" during implementation of our first plan with success begetting success. In our second plan, we have built in momentum-generating mechanisms, such as our "2010 Innovation Fund," which encourages through competition for seed money creative ideas from any sector for projects that help to realize the goals of the Plan. Constituents have responded enthusiastically to this opportunity, spinning out new plans, new ideas, and continuing success.

Finally, let me emphasize that: Planning and assessment go hand in hand.

Use built-in assessment opportunities, such as reaccreditation.

Our first Plan was coterminous with our reaccreditation review: an efficiency of effort. Not only was it useful to have a team of visitors evaluate what we did, it also helps to validate the very activity of planning for the campus. ("Why are we doing this?" "Because we have to.") For our new Plan for 2010, we have built the decennial reaccreditation visit into the document as a midpoint evaluation.

Build into the Plan an "assessment checklist."

To prepare for that, we developed, very much with urging and help of faculty, an assessment checklist, as an integral part of the Plan.

Draw on faculty expertise in developing assessment measures.

In fact, in my experience, faculty are eager to have tangible measures of evaluation and they can be very helpful in articulating them since many, especially those in the sciences and social sciences, are used to thinking in terms of assessment on research and grants.

Share accountability: encourage standing faculty committees to take ownership of appropriate sections of the Plan.

Our current plan places assessment of the academic program front and center and the faculty suggested that the various standing faculty committees have oversight responsibility for appropriate sections of the Plan. Indeed, shared governance and accountability are alive and well on our campus: we are reaping the benefits of having nurtured a strong partnership with the faculty. Standing committees have considerable power and credibility and they work hand in hand with administrative colleagues.

The Faculty Planning and Budget Committee, for example, works with the Dean of Faculty and CFO in all stages and facets of budget development and oversight. While they will lobby for faculty interests, to be sure, they also have a considerable sense of institutional responsibility and help to educate the faculty about the challenges and tradeoffs the institution faces.

The Academic Priorities Committee (APC), working in conjunction with the Dean of the Faculty and the Dean of the College, as well as other faculty groups, is playing a leadership role in shepherding major curricular review. This is a large, multi-year project, a "plan to plan" rather than specific proposals for immediate implementation and they are using a multi-pronged approach.

One goal, for example, is to contextualize our reflection within larger frames: we are sponsoring a series of lectures by provocative thinkers, with follow-up discussions, workshops, seminars, and study groups on liberal arts education, the changing nature of knowledge, and issues facing educators today.

The APC is also interviewing focus groups of faculty to get a more particularized sense of strengths and weaknesses of the current curriculum. Major segments of the regular faculty meeting have been set aside for such topics as discussion of distribution requirements. Smaller groups have been commissioned to examine particular areas of the curriculum such as the language requirement, introductory science courses, the first-year seminar program, international programming.

Seek to measure "outcomes" but resist reducing all educational benefit to quantitative measures.

While we are committed to addressing "outcomes" of student learning, it's fair to say there remains a high degree of skepticism about how to do this effectively. We are on guard about being too reductive. We know that an excellent liberal arts education works in an effable but sure way; it may seem to be so impractical, learning for learning's sake without immediate application, and it turns out to be so practical: serving to develop the knowledge, habits of mind, skills, perspectives, and values that transform lives, motivate life-long learning, instill a sense of purposefulness, and evoke gratitude and passionate testimonials from alumnae.

Ask the customer: draw students and alumnae into an evaluation of the academic program.

Indeed, for more qualitative measures, we are asking alumnae and students to evaluate their educational experiences and to offer their advice.

Use benchmark data and survey instruments to contextualize institutional practice against baselines and peers.

We are using benchmark and survey data to measure educational effectiveness in various ways against baselines and against peers. We are also trying to find proxies of "outcome" success: graduate and professional school acceptances, leadership positions, even alumnae giving. And, of course we track and measure our progress in doing what we set out to do: increase numbers of first-year seminars, diversify students and faculty, and improve graduation rates, participation in study abroad, numbers of internships, etc.

Be transparent and generate momentum by measuring progress on dashboards of leading indicators.

Our first plan had clear goals that we tracked in graphs and charts on an institutional dashboard. I referred to these often, keeping all constituents informed about our progress and motivated to succeed. Two leading indicators, what I referred to as our Dow/Jones, addressed our progress in meeting enrollment and fiscal goals. (graphic) Success on those leading indicators had a tremendously positive effect, creating a sense of momentum and optimism that encouraged the development of other goals.

On our current plan, I've urged my senior staff to develop dashboards of leading indicators for goals within each functional area of the institution. In short, we are challenging ourselves to get out as much institutional information as we can to our constituencies in easily accessible graphs and charts. The goal is to be transparent about what we are, and what we value, and how we are doing, so that we can draw our constituents into a sense of shared governance and a stake in contributing to the incremental momentum of the college: it helps in creating that "flywheel effect." Our founder, Mary Lyon, strikingly said: "This institution is a great intellectual and moral machine, and if you will jump in, you may ride very fast." That's my goal: to get everyone to jump in and to ride very fast. And, indeed, there is a wonderful sense of energy and momentum at Mount Holyoke College.

Finally, let me emphasize that Planning and assessment go hand in hand because a plan articulates aspirations and goals of the college, and assessment tracks tangible progress towards realization of these goals. Together they demystify the president's vision of One Big Thing. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of serving as college president is the vista afforded by the position - from which one can, on occasion, see the college steadily and see it whole (to adapt a phrase from Matthew Arnold) in both its multifarious complexity as well as in its abiding commonalities of history, values, and purpose. From that lofty perspective one can't help but be aware of the inestimable value of the college, the privilege of being a part of it, and the responsibility to serve it well. That sense of pleasure and privilege and responsibility can be shared with others if they too have the means to attain that capacious vision from the mount, that inspirational sense of being part of One Big Thing.