Taylor Stuck’s 2020 Christmas day reporting on the Marshall “Strategic Vision” revealed but another example of university governing boards’ lackluster “in-the-box groupthink” being polished to a glistening sheen by university public relations/marketing units.
For example, we are informed the “Vision” plan will utilize “a template to clearly distinguish goals, plans, strategies and required resources.” Moreover, the “strategic vision model allows the university to revisit, reevaluate and reallocate” — surprisingly, the polishers left out “reboot” — “in a shortened one- to three-year cycle to allow adaptability and innovation.”
And that’s not all. This envisioning, planning, modeling and strategizing is built on “pillars,” with each “pillar” having “objectives” and each “objective” having “goals.” This is reminiscent of an earlier “strategic initiative” plan launched in 2008 where we were informed, “The multi-layered plan has branches and branches of parts, all leading back to the trunk that is the main goal.”
Is this the kind of “informative” drivel one expects from a leadership that speaks of inculcating customers — they were students before higher education became a commodity — with “critical-thinking” skills? And while we’re thinking of it — critically, of course — think of Wade Gilley’s “Vision 2020” plan (2000 to 2020), Dan Angel’s 2010 “Master Plan” (2000 to 2010), and Stephen Kopp’s seven-year “Bold Constellation for the Future” (2005 to 2012), all “visions” overlapping in indecipherable jargon. That’s planning? Or is it something else?
I believe it’s something else. Robert Samuelson once wrote, “Clarity of language reflects clarity of thought. It can create a consensus for action. Obscurity of language encourages sloppy thinking. It betrays a bias for inaction.” Clearly, all the “Visions” we’ve been treated to are just obscurities of language designed to baffle the reader. Such obscurity of language gives the impression our leaders aren’t quite sure what to do, or that they are unwilling to do what is necessary to advance the academic enterprise. And so, this most recent “vision,” with its obscure references to pillars, objectives and goals, is just more of the same bias for inaction.
There is, however, one interesting twist; today’s “vision” has no author, unlike the Gilley, Angel, Kopp “vision” versions. The most recent “vision” is simply presented to us as having been “approved” by the board. It seems today’s “visionaries” want to avoid “owning this” because they’re aware of the perils associated with initiating vast projects with half-vast plans.
One yearns for a four-step McNamara plan (after Robert McNamara, President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of defense) to change the thinking of any organization: 1) unambiguously state an objective; 2) work out how to get there; 3) cost out everything; and 4) systematically monitor progress against the plan. His systems and data analysis approach was successfully applied at the Air Force Office of Statistical Control (1943-45) to analyze success rates of bombing sorties and later at Ford Motor Co. (1946) to make Ford more competitive with GM by “shaking things up.” I’m confident we have professionals in our midst who possess the analytical and managerial skills to do this (i.e., change the thinking). It is only a question of mustering the courage to do so.
To “stay the course” is an invitation to ridicule. Since 20 years of “strategic obscurities” have produced nothing of value, we might see the satirists conjure up a different sort of “vision” for us. Since we’ve made the university degree a commodity, maybe our “customers”, or “clients”, could just pull into the Old Main drive-through and order their certificate or degree off the menu at the speaker box. After ordering, our customers would proceed to the first window to pay their tuition and fees and then advance to the second window to receive their diplomas, where they would be greeted by a cheery voice inquiring, “Do you want a magna cum latte’ with that?” (Well, yeah, now that you mention it, I think I will have one of those “Lattes”).
If you’re wondering why I am able to look so far out over this vision landscape, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of (visionary) giants.