Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thoughts on Being Asked to Endorse a Strategic Planning Framework

by Jeff Baldani
Professor of Economics

The faculty will soon be asked to vote on a resolution of support for the strategic planning (SP) framework.  That framework includes a long list of new initiatives, most of which are clearly desirable in principle.  How can anyone be opposed to providing equal access through need-blind admissions, fostering increased globalization of the curriculum, or enhancing integration of living and learning?  Well, I’m an economist.  My field focuses on scarcity, opportunity costs, and understanding the marginal impact of choices.  I look at the strategic plan and quickly come to the conclusion that the faculty should be asking for much more information before being asked for an endorsement.
The SP website has a spreadsheet (or more accurately, a PDF of a spreadsheet) with more than 150 initiatives.  Some of these have monetary costs, while some merely place demands on faculty or administrative time.  Many of the costs aren’t yet filled in.  There is no bottom line total for the SP.  The planning framework starts with an admonition that future revenue increases (both tuition and endowment) will be constrained and then lays out a relentlessly expansive vision for spending on new initiatives, programs, and positions.  How does this fit with funding the ongoing business of departments and programs?  There don’t seem to be any strategic deletions here, so how is this picture consistent with future budget projections?  Are there priorities in the SP, i.e., what will or won’t get funded if money is not available for the entire wishlist?  Part of the problem here is that last year’s working groups were charged with coming up with good ideas without regard to budget realities and did that job well.  We have a Budget Committee as part of our governance system and they should be the group evaluating the budget implications.  Before endorsing the SP framework, faculty should ask our elected colleagues on the budget committee report on budgeting for the plan.  Some possible topics:
  • How the SP initiatives fit with future budget projections, including an assessment of whether the overall level of spending is consistent with balanced budgets and adequate support for ongoing programs.
  •  How initiatives in the strategic plan we are already committed to will be financed (for example, the new athletics facility is listed as a $500K hit to the annual budget and the Center for Art and Culture, with property taxes, added staffing and other costs, will not be cheap either), and the same question for other items that are APC identifies as high priority and/or cost.
  • How new initiatives may increase risks in future budgets, including, in particular, an analysis of the risks of added debt costs, operating costs, and uncontrollable costs if tuition revenues and endowment returns grow slowly.  (A prime example of uncontrollable costs would be need-blind where the financial aid budget is no longer under Colgate’s control.)
  • Whether (as seemed to be the case with the last strategic plan) the plan’s financial realities will exhaust all possible new initiatives, i.e., whether the plan leaves any room for other new initiatives that might be proposed by departments and programs.

Beyond the big picture that the Budget Committee might provide, faculty should also be asking pointed questions about the effectiveness and costs of individual initiatives.  We are not going to be asked to vote on individual initiatives, but that makes it all the more imperative that we feel comfortable enough with the particulars to be willing to endorse the plan as a whole.  As a cautionary example in this vein, the faculty should be demanding a careful analysis of need-blind admissions.  As compelling as the principle of equal access might be, need-blind has been examined in strategic planning before and rejected on the basis of cost effectiveness, i.e., despite the enormous price tag, need-blind was projected to have only a minimal impact on the academic quality of an entering class.
Understanding how this conclusion about need-blind was reached is straightforward once one focuses on facts rather than anecdotes.  The admissions landscape I recall is from decade-old data, but I would be very surprised if the general outlines have changed.  There are three key facts:

  • The bottom 25% of an entering class (as defined by admissions office overall academic ratings) consists primarily of students admitted for special reasons, including student athletes, OUS and LPRs (legacies, politicals, and relations).  Need-blind does not alter the composition of this group.
  • The top 25% of the class includes AMS students, aided international students, and both aided and non-aided “regular” admits.  Colgate was (and likely still is) already need-blind for regular aid applicants in the top 25%. 
  • The impact of being need-aware thus falls (or did fall a decade ago) squarely in the middle 50% of the class.  The only real question is a matter of where in the middle 50%.  Answering that requires actual data on the cutting-room floor and statistical analysis.  In particular, there are diminishing returns and anecdotes can be highly misleading because the main impact stems primarily from initial aid dollars: swapped students display increasingly similar academic profiles as aid is expanded toward the need-blind goal.

The takeaway from past analysis was that need-blind would spend many millions of dollars to swap ~60 full-pay students somewhat below the median (B-/B students) of the entering class for ~60 aid applicants somewhat above the median (B/B+ students).  Publicly reported admissions statistics on an entering class either wouldn’t have changed at all (such as the 25%-75% percentile of SATs for admitted students) or would have changed only marginally (an increase in average SATs in the single digits).  Almost no one involved in past strategic planning viewed this as a good - never mind transformative - investment of scarce resources when evaluated on the metric of academic quality.  The one-year experiment with need-blind, the class admitted in 2002, was almost exactly what the data analysis predicted. 
I don’t know for sure whether analyzing current admissions data necessarily yields the same conclusions as a decade ago, nor am I considering other arguments in the need-blind debate and saying the initiative should be rejected.  (I am, however, skeptical of the other arguments for need-blind whenever those arguments seem to be based on vague hopes rather than evidence.)  My point here is simply that the APC should be insisting on careful modeling of data and be sharing the results with the faculty before asking for an endorsement of the initiative.
Need-blind is an example that I know well from involvement with previous strategic planning exercises, but it is certainly not the only place where questions are appropriate.  A strategic plan is a complex document, much too complex to fully consider every opportunity cost or tradeoff.  Nevertheless, asking about cost, projected impact, and the metric for judging success of individual initiatives is a starting point.  Getting answers that indicate that issues have been carefully thought through - answers that indicate APC has done its homework and that there is substance behind rhetoric – would be reassuring when the faculty is asked to cast a blanket yes vote on the SP as a whole.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time and trouble to write this. It's really helpful to have my fuzzy-brained hunches confirmed by articulate experience.

Anonymous said...

The proposed Strategic Plan and associated working group recommendations embody many different objectives and plans. How each fits into working toward Colgate’s mission is not well defined or articulated. A lack of cohesiveness of the many parts hinders the plan’s widespread adoption.


The Draft Framing Document for Colgate’s proposed 5 year strategic plan identifies, more or less, four missions:

“Fostering a creative and expansive learning community dedicated to preparing individuals who can think for themselves — and beyond themselves.”

“Foster a close-knit community where people live out new ideas.”

“Living the liberal arts in our current era means living, learning, and working with people of all backgrounds. And to live the liberal arts is to learn to think for ourselves with concern for the well-being of all.”

“We aim to open our doors to students who have the intellectual habits of mind, flexibility, and curiosity to succeed in their chosen pursuits, to be dedicated citizens, and to seek to learn throughout their lives. And we aim to make a Colgate education accessible to all such talented students who promise to contribute to and benefit from our shared liberal arts educational experience.”

These mission descriptions might also be construed as institutional goals.


The guiding strategy is stated thusly:

“Reaffirm our model of education by increasing the number of students who are attracted to Colgate and by making our residential academic program compelling to families who increasingly will search for the best educational value. This strategy of promoting access and enhancing outreach is by far the best approach— it will build on our current strengths and identity, align well with our mission, and is eminently achievable if we focus on our most important priorities.”

What follow are seven seemingly broad areas that are described as strategies:

Need-Blind Admission Policy
International and Global Engagements
Technological Innovations
Civic Engagement
Pedagogical Innovation
A Residential Liberal Arts Education
A Campus for Colgate’s Third Century

The University web-page that describes the strategic planning initiative lists eight areas of planning, described slightly differently and in a different order:

academic excellence
campus master planning
rightsizing the student population
technology and teaching
teaching and learning
global and international initiatives
living the liberal arts

An associated spreadsheet containing specific recommendations from different working groups provides numerous recommendations for attaining strategic planning goals:

Financial AID (1 Sub-recommendation)
Living the Liberal Arts (4 recommendations, 13 Sub-recommendations)
Campus Master Plan (11 Recommendations)
International and Global Initiatives (7 Recommendations, 53 Sub-recommendations)
Teaching and Learning (14 Recommendations, 1 with 4 Sub-recommendations)
Athletics (11 Recommendations, 12 Sub-recommendations)
Technology and Teaching (10 Recommendations, 1 with 4 Sub-recommendations)
Academic Excellence (7 Recommendations, 2 Sub-recommendations)
Rightsizing (1 Recommendation, 4 proposed options)

9 Categories – 66 Recommendations – 83 Sub-recommendations

How all of these initiatives are strategic and fitted to Colgate’s Mission is articulated in general and not specific terms. Why these ostensibly disparate initiatives were selected, and where they came from, is not explained. Faculty would benefit from clearer understanding at a more granular level as to how these numerous initiatives will actually realize the given missions. With so many initiatives some sense of the relationships between strategies, the relative importance of each endeavor, and a notion of rank or priority would create a more complete context for community consideration and adoption. The strategic plan as is could be more broadly and firmly supported by the community if there was a better presentation: how and why the many components are necessary for realizing the University’s missions.

Anonymous said...

It may be worth remembering the frictions during the final polishing of the last planning process. The minutes of that faculty meeting have some terse words between President Chopp and the community, with a not-so-subtle reminder that faculty were invited to join in a process that is the board's prerogative based upon the bylaws of the institution (which supersede the faculty handbook).

Of course we should ask questions, but they should, in my opinion, be asked from a perspective of respect for the process and the people involved.

A search for "planning" in the faculty handbook...

Advisory and Planning Committee
This committee is concerned with institution-wide planning at the University. It meets regularly to oversee the implementation of existing institutional plans, to examine issues of long-term planning, and to advise the President on matters of importance to the university community. A faculty member chosen by the faculty members of the committee reports to the Faculty at least once a year.

And then, from the current Faculty Handbook, the powers of the Board of Trustees include:

To establish annually the budget of the University upon presentation by the President of the University and recommendation of the Budget Committee of the Board;... To institute, promote, and support major fundraising efforts of the University... .

The board will tackle whether need blind is affordable as they will be responsible for obtaining the funding. And, let us not pretend this has to be a zero-sum game. There well may be donors for financial aid who would not give for a new chair in University Studies, nor an art building, just as there are those who will give towards a hockey arena but not a science center, or a library but not a dorm.

The whole package is complex and hard to process without having been present at all of the meetings and seeing all of the data. Thus I admit I have to trust my peers. But the framing document is ambitious but sensible, and stays true to our mission while being attentive to the realities of the changing landscape of higher education. All we are being asked to do is state that we support the framing document as a set of guiding principles. Everyone understands (or should understand), that the implementation will depend upon fundraising success and future decisions based upon cost/benefits.

theoldguywhoisboredwithpasswordsandprofiles.... said...

Jeff has given us an excellent commentary -- for which, many thanks. My main reactions to the plan are twofold: 1. Nothing presenting 150 (!) objectives is "strategic" in any remotely sensible meaning of the term; 2. The only objectives that will be backed up with meaningful resources and commitment will be those that the top admin types want to see happen anyway; others will compete for trivial resources, or will become empty gestures.

And... the whole package, presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis? Really, people...

Anonymous said...

Having reread the framing document and the committee recommendations with some care, I have three) specific concerns, bred of my experience I at Colgate over 35 years of teaching.

1. "Academic excellence" seems to me, on its face, to be incompatible with some other recommendations in the plan. I sense that the "academic excellence working group" was an afterthought, and that its recommendations have been essentially ignored.
I am particularly concerned with the recommendation about accepting on-line courses for transfer credit, especially to fulfill "pre-requisites." When the faculty of a department establishes its curriculum, it takes its pre-requisite courses as seriously as its more advanced specialized courses. To single out "pre-requisite courses" as unimportant enough to be farmed out on-line trivializes the work of faculty who have carefully established a graduated curriculum.
Moreover, and I speak as a member of the Division of the Humanities, I am doubtful that even the best on-line courses can teach writing with any care. If there are writing assignments included in MOOCs, they must be graded either by 1. computer; or 2. grossly underpaid "readers." There can be no comparison with the teaching that occurs when a paper--or a series of papers, more properly--is being graded by a full-time, professor who can insist that a second or third paper be discussed one-on-one between student and faculty, well in advance of the next due-date, when the first paper has been deemed unsatisfactory.

2. I have certainly been aware over many years of the tradition of, as the current saying goes, "kicking the can down the road," in the matter of a performing-arts center. I am concerned to see in the minutes of the October Faculty Meeting that the President seems to conflate support for the arts (as represented by moving the Longyear and Picker Galleries downtown) with support for the PERFORMING arts. We have no concert hall--unlike Hamilton College,our smaller neighbor school. When a dance minor is discussed, we hear that such a program is impossible, because it would require a "sprung floor"--as indeed it would. But how much does a "sprung floor" cost, in comparison with, to keep it in the area of paving, a new hockey rink? When we are told that "no donor" has been found for a performing-arts center, we wonder, has such a donor been sought or cultivated, or do we expect such a philanthropist to appear out of the blue?

3. I have admitted above to 35 years on the faculty. My point? The faculty is aging: the long-range planning people once described us baby-boomers as "the elephant moving through the snake" (--it was Dick Heck, at a faculty meeting). The reorganization of the campus towards pedestrians is on its face an absolute improvement: who's not in favor of greenswards and sustainability--and the banishing of student-carpooling SUVs outside Lathrop and Lawrence Halls every morning? But remote parking and shuttle-bus-waiting will present a genuine hardship for us aging faculty, with our bulging satchels of books, especially in the winter.
Will the shuttle-busses have wheel-chair lifts? This is not a frivolous question. Our campus presents unavoidable difficulties for anyone who cannot make a serious climb up a serious hill, whether carrying a bag of books or not. There are simply too many challenges for the pedestrianizing ideal. (And could such a policy be made compliant with the ADA?)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 9:14 p.m. rightly notes the faculty are being INVITED to participate in the process, and presumably for that we should be grateful. What concerns me is the "invitation" is essentially an invitation to rubber-stamp and add validity to a process in which faculty played a pro forma role and, in doing so, to add our considerable weight to both the process, the document, and this administration's lack of regard for meaningful faculty input. That we have heard the President say over and over and over and over again (and over again) that faculty played a key role in framing the document is troubling in countless ways. As I understand it, the process actually entailed the President farming out a set of predetermined objectives and then permitting faculty to carry out his vision. To now present that as a vision of the faculty, I hope, is grossly problematic to those of us who are being asked to get in line and go along. Without question, I understand and very much appreciate the undoubtedly tremendous efforts my colleagues have poured into making the best of what they were asked to fine-tune.

But, let us not lose sight of what is at stake here. It might have been better, at least from a faculty governance and integrity standpoint, if the President had proceeded publicly as it seems he has behind the curtain--with the minimalist of faculty input. To be clear, this is a vote on the work some of our colleagues did on the President's plan. We should be most appreciative of their efforts. Whether we should be grateful that we are now being INVITED to join the bandwagon in hoisting this process and this vision is, in my mind, the fundamental question.

Bob Turner said...

I'm not sure it's fair to say that faculty members have had a minimal role. I wasn't part of any of the working groups, so I can't say for sure, but it at least seems as if faculty members have put in a lot of time and effort into the specifics. This is an important issue, though. If the vote on Monday is best characterized as rubber stamping of something faculty members have not really been part of, then I want to vote no. If it's the result of careful deliberation by our colleagues on APC and the working groups, then I'm more favorably inclined, though I have one very serious concern:

I want to reiterate one of Jeff's most important points: the working groups were charged with coming up with great ideas, without much if any regard to costs. This kind of process inevitably leads to the sorts of questions Jeff and others of us are asking now: who is it who decides whether these are affordable? For the many ideas that, according to the document circulated with the Faculty Meeting agenda, will be funded by re-prioritizing spending, who is it who decides whether the new ideas are more important that what we are already doing? We have faced this same problem with earlier strategic plans: the new ideas seem more exciting that what we already do, but we end up starving, in one way or another, existing (successful) programs in order to feed (sometimes inadequately) the new ideas. I hope we can get some sort of articulation of the ongoing process of deciding on priorities, especially the relative priorities of new ideas versus what we already do. It's fine to say that the Board will have to do the job of deciding what is affordable, but if a vote of support on Monday is seen as faculty endorsement that the new initiatives are more important than what we already do, I don't think I want to cast a supporting vote.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to everyone who is chiming in.

I've served on SP committees under 4 presidents. Each effort had its quirks, but the current one seems different. Previous SP committees "owned" the SPs that they worked on. The members debated ideas, priorities, and language. The APC (I only served in 2012-13) had very little involvement in the planning process last year. Planning took place in the working groups, whose chairs were chosen by administrators. APC did not choose working group members although every group had some member of APC on it. With some oversimplifying and one meeting as an exception, I don't think it is unfair to say that the infrequent APC meetings were often about administrators being able to say that the APC was consulted. For example, the APC would meet to discuss a working group report for the first time after the report had already been completed and forwarded to the Board. There were lots of faculty involved in working groups, but most of that took place outside of elected governance. I don't mean to impugn the faculty on the working groups or their efforts by saying that, just that it is inaccurate to claim that APC was a planning committee last year. I've heard that APC has been more active this term. They really need to be since a SP can't just be telling working groups to go out and come up with lists of good ideas. As a historical note, the last strategic planning committee included all of the faculty on the Budget Committee. Directly elected members were added after the faculty complained about the original composition. We seem to have been much more quiescent on the issue of governance this time around.

There is a comment above that strategic planning is ultimately a Board decision. That is correct. Faculty should still be fully involved in evaluating a SP before voting an endorsement. Board members are smart and dedicated, but don't generally have expertise as educators. That's where faculty need to weigh in on priorities and impacts. Even on the big initiatives that are clearly Board prerogatives our voice is important. It was on-campus voices pointing to admissions data modeling that caused initial Board enthusiasm for need-blind to wither when Buddy Karelis was pushing the idea.

Finally, let me reply to the "zero-sum game" comment. The right ideas and projects will (we hope) unleash more giving. It is also true though that a strategic plan will guide Advancement's efforts, e.g., steering donors away from a performing arts center so long as there is a museum or a hockey arena in the SP. There are other ways in which many initiatives are zero-sum even if the right ideas generate incremental donations. First, buildings come with annual budget costs. Annual costs for capital projects add up to more than $1M in the spreadsheet. Will those funds get covered by new donations or be at the expense of other items in the annual budget? (I can't, by the way, figure out the $200K for the $15M museum. Maybe property tax rates are lower for businesses than homeowners?) There are also lots of items in the spreadsheet that won't get funded by donations. The instructions to department chairs for next year's budget told us to absorb any cost increases - including the rise in student wages due to a 20% increase in the NY minimum wage by January 2015 - and submit flat overall budgets in order to free up funds for strategic initiatives. Those guidelines would result in my department's budget being cut significantly in real terms. The SP will almost certainly become a "no" document in the future in that it will largely exhaust funds for new initiatives that aren't in the plan. The real question is whether it will also extend to continuing real cuts in ongoing programs in future years. As I said in my original post, I'd like to hear from the Budget Committee on that.


Anonymous said...

I was quite interested in this perspective on need blind admissions, as I my child is applying to Colgate, and needs financial aid to attend. She wonders whether she will wind up on the cutting room floor because of financial need (and of course, she could be rejected for any of a hundred other reasons).

Going need blind to gain SAT points is a poor reason to do so. If Colgate wants to increase its SAT scores or the overall academic caliber of its students, it could simply move to a less holistic application process.

Adding a little more brilliance to the school is far from the only reason for going need blind. My thought is that the long-term result will be a boost to Colgate’s reputation, as well as to the diversity of the campus. If need-blind, the school will be able to broadcast this, and over the long haul, will raise Colgate’s profile.

I am a Princeton graduate, where the financial aid is now tremendous – should my daughter be able to get into Princeton, an extremely difficult feat even for a legacy, our cost would be $10,000 a year less than Colgate’s. Princeton is also need blind. Princeton’s financial aid has increased significantly since I attended in the late 1970’s, and the complexion of the school has changed. We had far too few minorities, including athletes (only one black football player out of 100, example). The school is far more diverse in numerous ways than it was then. Colgate’s location may make it less likely to bring on as diverse a class as Princeton’s, but the more aid that is provided, the more diverse the school will become. By diverse, I mean that the school would have a class that is more ethnically and geographically diverse, and that there would be more with stellar, unusual non-academic achievements. This wouldn’t happen overnight, even if the school went need blind tomorrow. It would take time for the student body to gradually change. Word would take time to get out, and the diverse students would become more and more comfortable as there were more of them on campus.

Looking at the financial aid situation at Colgate, it appears that my daughter will be applying to Early Decision to Hamilton College now. Obviously, she may not get in there, but she knows that financial aid won’t be the reason, as they are need blind. How many others does Colgate lose to other need blind schools that they never get a chance at because they are need aware?

Although it isn’t cheap to go need blind (another article I read said that Colgate would need an additional $10-million per year in its total financial aid budget to make the school need blind), it is a highly worthy goal, and one that would make Colgate a greater institution than it already is in the long run.