The Practical Limits of Planning
Robert Heterick, the president of EDUCOM, has observed that planning usually is based on the projection of trends into the future. "We think the future will be like the past," he said, "because in the past the future has been like the past"(IBM-EDUCOM Seminar, Washington, D.C., November 5, 1996). But not anymore.
In the environment in which we find ourselves today, the whole notion of planning takes on a different character. Strong, inflexible systems are exactly what is not needed. We need instead systems that are deeply rooted in common values and objectives, but whose constituent parts are able to adapt quickly to unanticipated developments. We need systems that are like reeds that bend in the winds of change, but are not uprooted. Fortresses and fixed lines of defense will not do.
Here again, Virginia's approach over the past quarter century puts us in an excellent position to make further adaptations. Statewide planning in Virginia higher education, which is the responsibility of the Council of Higher Education, has several characteristics. First, the Council has recognized and respected the autonomy of the state-supported colleges and universities, and even has called for greater autonomy for general administrative functions that have been overseen by central state agencies. The institutions are governed by boards that are responsible for their curricula, students, faculty and staff, and a variety of activities directly or indirectly related to teaching, research, and service. Each is a community in its own right.
Second, the Council has sought to accomplish as much as can be accomplished at any given time, given the circumstances. The Council has pressed for continuous improvements in quality, access, and accountability, all the while recognizing that asking institutions to do more than they reasonably can creates unnecessary resistance, destroys working relationships, and invites stalemates.
Third, and following from the first two characteristics, the Council has sought to avoid pointless confrontations. The application of standard planning techniques to Virginia higher education during the past quarter century would have resulted in numerous battles between the Council and individual institutions about their roles within the system. Given the statutory autonomy of the institutions, these battles then would have been fought over again when and if institutions sought roles proscribed by a detailed plan. Since 1974, when the Council's statutes were substantially revised, Council members have agreed that while it clearly is necessary to contest some institutional aspirations, contesting many of them twice makes no sense and would erode the system's credibility and the Council's informal authority in the long run.
Each state-supported college and university should have a strategic plan for its future. And while a detailed systemwide plan would be unproductively confrontational, irrelevant, or compromised to the point of banality, it is important that the Council of Higher Education provide guidance at the state level. It should insist upon an accurate description of the environment within which higher education works, set goals that reflect the needs of Virginia and its citizens, and suggest various strategies that might help institutions meet these goals. It should provide the most general elements of a statewide strategic plan and recognize that the responsibility for implementation -- the responsibility for delivering services -- rests with the individual colleges and universities.
In addition, discrete planning activities such as enrollment projections, capital outlay recommendations, faculty salary increase plans, and equipment inventory replacement schedules are useful, provided they are never carved in stone. So are plans for programs like restructuring, which is a dynamic process in which the Council and the institutions work together to respond to changing circumstances and new opportunities.
One of the most important services the Council can provide is to stimulate imaginations and provoke consideration of where higher education should be going. Often it does this by helping the Governor and the General Assembly express their general intentions about higher education, as when it provided leadership and staff support for the Commission on the University of the 21st Century (1988-89) and the Commission on the Future of Higher Education (1995-96). Sometimes it proposes new funding mechanisms, like the Deferred Maintenance and the Equipment Trust funds. Sometimes it works with the institutions to devise new initiatives that respond to the current environment, like restructuring and post-tenure faculty review. Each college and university then shapes its own response within the general framework that has been established. The system has rarely been managed, or micromanaged, through legislative or executive action.
This report is not a plan. But if I were to set planning objectives for Virginia higher education over the next several years, I would list six.
"We tend to approach the future from the point of view of predicting and forecasting," said Wallace Stettinius, retired chairman of Cadmus Communications. "Most of us have found that this is pretty futile. . . . Planning is about the future of present decisions. Your future is the accumulation of . . . your present decisions" (Virginia Business, December 1996). Virginia higher education cannot afford to get caught in the assumption that its future will be a linear extension of its past. Because it won't, and one role of the Council of Higher Education is to remind itself and others of that.