AC Insights
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AC Insights

Emphasizing Distinction in Strategic Planning

John D. Welty, Senior Consultant, AASCU Consulting

very University engages in strategic planning. The reasons for developing a strategic plan range from a genuine belief that a strategic plan can make a difference to its required by our accreditors to everyone must have a strategic plan. Many hours are devoted to creating plans, but there are hundreds of plans that either go on a shelf never to be seen again or the plan fails to make a difference.

As higher education faces a sometimes chaotic and interminable changing environment caused by declines in the number of 18–22 year olds in the population, ongoing advances in technology that allows for better understanding of how students learn, or changes in the types of jobs and careers that are available, it will be essential for universities, especially comprehensive regional universities, to engage in effective strategic planning. Indeed, declines in the traditional college going population in the Midwest and Northeast are already creating stresses for universities in these areas. While some are hoping to survive until the 2023–25 period when it is predicted there will be a slight increase in the 18–22 year old population, few have considered that in the 2026–31 period there will be a nine — fifteen percent decrease in this same population.

Likewise, advances in data analytics now makes it possible to track how students learn. Combining data analytics with advances in research on cognitive development, brain functioning and related research suggests that we may be able to create personalized learning plans for students that will increase their probability of being successful in college.

These advances and developments make effective strategic planning very important to comprehensive regional public universities because the plan can pave the way for the institution to become distinctive and unique in their region of service. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency for comprehensive regional universities to seek distinction by emulating the public flagship university in the state. In other cases pressure has been applied by systems offices to force universities to become more similar than unique.

Good characteristics of strategic plans that assist in building distinctive and unique campuses include the following:

  • Plans are vision driven.
  • The campus leadership is engaged in the process. Failure of the President to participate and strongly endorse the effort will be noticed and result in the campus community believing the effort is not a serious process.
  • The planning process must be one which engages all of the University’s stakeholders both internal and external. The design of the process is a very important element of creating an effective plan.
  • The planning process must utilize data and analytics. Failure to effectively assess data can result in severe miscalculations in creating a viable plan.
  • The plan should contain clear performance metrics or desired outcomes. This will assure that progress on implementation can be measured.
  • A strong plan should create a limited number of goals and strategies. There is always pressure for every unit to be mentioned in a strategic plan. The temptation to include every unit must be resisted.

The final characteristic of a quality strategic plan is that it identifies how a University will distinguish itself from other similar Universities. Creating distinction in a plan is often the most overlooked characteristic of a strategic plan and is often difficult because of the obstacles to uniqueness and distinctness outlined above.

Those who are engaged in strategic planning may fear that if distinction is identified it will result in second class citizenship for units not mentioned. They fail to realize that creating distinction will increase the importance of all areas of the University. Examples include the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which is recognized for its Honors University focused on STEM. This distinctive characteristic has resulted in raising the profile of the entire University. SUNY Geneseo has distinguished itself as a premier high quality public Liberal Arts University. Northern Kentucky University has gained distinction as an engaged metropolitan University. Other examples include Berea College (no tuition) and Middlebury College with its emphasis on Language and Global Literacy.

Identifying distinction in a strategic plan is not easy, to the contrary, it is very hard work. Processes must be developed that allow for individuals to work through the process to identify distinction. There are two steps that may be added to a strategic planning process that may help campuses to create distinction. One step is for a planning committee to identify its top 5 -7 competitors for their students. Those engaged in strategic planning at the university can then seek to identify the characteristics of those competitive universities that would attract students away from them. As part of this exercise, the planning group would identify services, experiences and benefits that can be offered that would allow the University to effectively compete with its strongest competitors. This process allows distinctiveness to emerge in the plan, which will then make the University unique from its competitors.

A second process that can be utilized is to engage in “blue ocean thinking.” This process is described by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne in their book titled Blue Ocean Strategy. The book contrasts “blue ocean thinking” with “red thinking.” Red thinking is characterized as focused on beating the competition, exploiting existing demand and adapting to trends. In contrast blue ocean thinking is characterized as making the competition irrelevant, creating new demand and shaping trends. Processes can be developed that engages those involved in planning to use blue ocean thinking as a way of distinguishing the University from others in a very effective way. This way of thinking can result in a strategic plan that is distinctive and focused.

Creating distinction requires you to address several factors:

  1. The realization that the place of the institution among others in its competitive space is important. This insight requires that one analyze carefully the region in which it is located and then to determine how it is different from others.
  2. The understanding that image or brand is important. Exploring the current internal self-concept of the University is a critical step in the process. Further, the process includes how this self-concept or image needs to be changed to achieve the vision that has been established.
  3. An examination of who are the prospective students for the campus. What are their demographics and what must the University do to assure student success needs to be assessed.
  4. Who are the faculty? Does the university have a faculty body that can support the distinction that the plan attempts to create? If not, what steps must be taken to attract the appropriate faculty.

The University that creates distinction in its strategic plan is likely to be much more successful in the future. Thus, devoting time and effort to identifying a university’s desired distinctiveness will be well worth the time committed in the planning process.

John D. Welty is President Emeritus of Fresno State and is currently a Senior Consultant for AASCU Consulting Services where he specializes in strategic planning, executive coaching and team development.

For more information on how AASCU Consulting can help your institution, go to



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