Rethink: A Study of the Strategic Planning Model

Strategic Plan

noun • \strə-‘tē-jik ‘plan\

1. An organization’s process of defining its strategy, or direction, and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy.(www.wikipedia.com)

2. A process in which a company’s executives decide what they want to achieve and the best actions and use of resources for doing this. 
(Cambridge Business English Dictionary)

3. A broadly-defined plan aimed at creating a desired future. (www.businessdictionary.com)

4. A plan for the overall conduct of a war.
(Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms)


In 2012, shortly after the arrival of President Chris Bratton, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts established its own Strategic Plan for the years 2013–2022. The purpose of this plan can be explained in a number of ways. However, the primary goal is “to stabilize and grow enrollment through accreditation.”[1]

The Museum School is not the only institution of higher education to undergo a Strategic Planning process in recent years. Strategic Planning has been a common process of organizational development since the rise of neoliberal ideologies in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, seven years after the 2008 financial crisis — a global economic catastrophe commonly attributed to the widespread acceptance, promotion, and implementation of neoliberal policies — we should examine the purposes and methods behind Strategic Plans in general, and specifically our own Strategic Plan.

“A rising tide lifts all boats.” This is a fundamental idea behind free market economic theories, and also, in a sense, the idea behind the Strategic Planning model. The focus is on financial growth, and according to the theory, with this financial growth, every other aspect of the organization will prosper too. At a 2012 presentation of SMFA’s Strategic Plan at the Museum of Fine Arts, it was made clear that the central motivations behind the Strategic Plan were financial. During the presentation, Christopher Fox, SMFA Vice President and Director of Budget and Finance, claimed the school was suffering from financial exigency, a statement that is still unconfirmed.[2]

Let us return back to the primary goal of SMFA’s Strategic Plan, “to stabilize and grow enrollment through accreditation.” Again, the primary motivation behind the Strategic Plan is for financial stability and growth. Considering the Museum School is a tuition-driven private school without a significant endowment, these two objectives make a perfect pair. In order to financially grow (increase profit), SMFA must increase enrollment by any means necessary.

The Museum School does not have a proud history of high enrollment, nor of high retention rates (drop-outs seem to be nearly as common as graduates). Of course, this situation is not conducive to increasing profits, nor to stabilizing finances. In turn, SMFA’s leadership (the President, the Board of Governors, or both, I can’t be sure) thought it was time to attain independent accreditation for the school.[3] In order to become accredited, SMFA needed to change radically. As a result of this shift, the administration introduced numerous changes to school policy and structure. Some of the most significant changes over the past four years include: the increase in administrative positions (in particular Vice President positions — we currently have 9 Vice and Associate Vice Presidents), the introduction of an attendance policy, the removal of granting school credit from review boards, the elimination of a free third year for MFA students, the revocation of open school-wide email communication, the merging of areas into larger departments, and the separation from Tufts University. Theoretically, these changes were made to conform to accreditation guidelines, as well as to increase enrollment and rate of retention. It is true that the accreditation process has been successful so far, however, over the past four years, the anticipated results of improved enrollment and retention have not been met. These sweeping changes have, in fact, resulted in opposite effects. While the MFA program has not declined as much, the BFA program — the core program of the Museum School — has struggled. Its enrollment has decreased drastically — in 2011, around 120 new students were enrolled, whereas this last fall (2014), only 71 new students were enrolled. That is a roughly 40% drop in enrollment in only four years. Accordingly, our retention has not increased as predicted and our acceptance rate has risen to 84%, making SMFA a much less selective school, and therefore considerably changing the composition of our student body.[4] All things considered, this results in more financial instability and a loss of revenue.

These results, then, lead me to believe that financially driven motives may not be the best way to achieve the impressive metrics of success originally sought after by the Museum School four years ago. While the Strategic Plan includes proposals to transform the school’s educational policies, it only does so from a corporate perspective, thinking of finances first and foremost. Though, this perspective should not be a surprise, considering the main actors involved in these decision-making processes were not students or faculty, but administrators and members of the Board. To be clear, this is not to dismiss the idea of Strategic Planning, but is instead to imagine an alternative way of thinking about how to create a vision the future of SMFA. If we had created a different Strategic Plan — one focused on education, enriching students’ experiences, and valuing faculty — we would be in a very different situation right now.

This, clearly, is not just an issue with our school. While our changes have yet to return positive outcomes, other school’s Strategic Plans are achieving their projected financial goals. However, the problem does not reside in the fact that Strategic Plans have the opportunity to fail — as has been seen at SMFA so far — but rather the problem with Strategic Plans in the world of education is its narrow focus on financial growth. Strategic Plans, as they exist now, employ market-based solutions in response to issues that are often social, educational, or humanitarian matters. Schools, nowadays, are run on business models, rapidly increasing enrollment by creating new programs in order to boost revenue, rather than focusing on positive educational reform. This student-as-currency mentality combined with a lack of communication and transparency is proving detrimental to building mutual trust between students, faculty, and administrations across the country.

It is true that SMFA is in a crisis, but it is not a mere matter of dollars and cents. It is one that concerns our education, plain and simple. For the past two years, under the Strategic Plan, SMFA has gained an increased interest in accreditation and financial growth. In this journey to become another pay-for-your-degree college, changes have been made undemocratically without students’ interests in mind. Our school prides itself on liberal, experimental, and open-minded views. With these values in mind, it is up to all of us to imagine a better SMFA, to create our own Strategic Plan for the future.


[1] http://www.smfa.edu/files/SMFA-SELF-STUDY-Final.pdf

[2] The SMFA budget is not public, and also unavailable by request, so I cannot fact-check this statement. However, the MFA budget is public. In its 2012 report, it showed SMFA’s revenue as relatively equal to its expenses, therefore problematizing Fox’s claims.

[3] Up until this point, SMFA has been accredited through Tufts University.

[4] Statistics sourced from http://www.collegeboard.com