The strategic plan: a first look


    Did you hear that? If you were in the Allen Center Tuesday, you probably did. In the way-too-small auditorium full of people who have been eagerly anticipating the strategic plan’s unveiling for months now (okay, so maybe that’s just me and a few others), Morty and Provost Dan Linzer gave us a quick tour of a plan that’s already being derided as substance-less, vague and just another promotional packet from Chicago’s Big Ten School™.

    Its arrival wasn’t exactly welcomed with fireworks and cheers from the assembled old people, obnoxious youngsters and purple tie-wearing professionals — although there was plenty of sushi and champagne at the reception that followed (open to everyone — I snagged a water bottle, woohoo).

    But the cool reception among the people I spoke with isn’t entirely deserved. Over the course of several columns, I’ll attempt to weave together a cohesive picture of the plan’s content, impact and expectations expressed both publicly and (more) privately — and what the plan says about Northwestern’s identity.

    But first: what is this plan?

    If you haven’t heard already, the strategic plan is important because it’s, well, a strategic guide for the university for the future (in the 10-year range). And that’s key — it’s strategic. Not tactical. The difference is that strategy is overarching and highlights values and priorities; a tactical plan would include which buildings will be built, or what new courses will be offered. Instead, the plan will serve as a guide as the University embarks on a multi-year campaign to raise around $3 billion.

    Let’s step out of the unhinged world where $3 billion is what the U.S. government spends on muffins every day. Let’s stay in the world of non-profit institutions with 15,000 students, where $3 billion is a lot of money and goes a long way. Accordingly, the plan is critical: It helps determine where the money raised in the capital campaign over the next several years goes.

    So what’s in the plan?

    Much of it is fluff, to be honest, and says very little about where the money will go. These parts are designed to reassure core constituencies on campus and let the 12 schools know that none of them are going away.

    For example, “Vitalize our community of faculty, staff, and students with our diversity of race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, religion and geographic origin, political perspective and economic condition.”

    Translation: Um, everyone’s still welcome here, I guess?

    The list of academic and research priorities emphasizes multi-school collaboration and participation, and basically includes everyone with catch-all categories like “writing and oral expression” and the everything-else “markets, social structures, and public policy.”

    But we can work with the rest. According to Morty, the plan proposes “bold, compelling” moves. He’s right — there are some of those in the plan.

    Some will-do items, like experiential learning (which I will address in a separate column) are truly exciting prospects for students, but have a low likelihood of succeeding.

    Others, like increased investments in better educational and communication technology (read: CAESAR, BlackBoard, Smart Boards, etc.), are very doable, long overdue and will have a tangible, positive impact on the student experience.

    Still others carry with them an element of common sense. Getting staff and alumni involved in career and academic advising is a brilliant yet simple strategy. As Provost Linzer said, many professors haven’t stepped out of academia since graduating from college, and administrative assistants frequently offer better, more practical advice than deans or directors.

    And what do these proposals mean for Northwestern?

    All these basic fix-ups, along with commitments to global health, nanoscience and renewable energy and sustainability (among other critical fields), point to one of the underlying themes of the plan: prominence. The word itself is mentioned only twice — but it’s at the beginning and at the end.

    With enhanced curriculum, cutting-edge technology, global engagement and alumni connection and outreach, it’s clear what’s on the minds of administrators and trustees. It’s actually what’s on the minds of students as well: ranking.

    Northwestern is tired of being on the wrong side of the top 10 cutoff of widespread recognition, and even though Linzer vehemently disavowed rankings and lists during the presentation, the strategic plan is designed to catapult us to the next level.

    We want to be mentioned in the same breath as Harvard and Princeton, and Morty and the trustees are willing to spend big bucks to get us there.

    While our institution’s overriding priority should not be to climb a few spots in the U.S. News and World Report pages, none of us are going to complain if that happens as a natural by-product of our efforts to improve nearly everything about Northwestern. It’s certainly not a problem if it’s a side effect of Northwestern taking on national and global issues, as is our responsibility.

    The strategic plan is vague, and not everything it does hint at is going to happen. Obviously.

    The president and his senior staff have their own list of priority projects, and a strategic plan supposed to reflect the consensus of the Northwestern community gives them cover. And there’s no reason students can’t use the plan to similar ends.

    The discussion over what exactly needs to be done to achieve the plan’s proposals — the tactical elements — are just starting up. For example, it’s unclear what it means to “ensure that all members of our community can access…the Chicago area.”

    More Purple Line trains and more shuttles? More free tickets to Chicago events? U-Passes? (Gasp!)

    Our student groups and leaders need to make the case for our wishlists, and the average student has to be ready to support them. The goal should be to craft programs and initiatives that clearly answer the plan’s call to action, and then run with them, using the plan as a shield à la Captain America.

    The strategic plan is open to interpretation. Go big, and go fast.


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