Getting the Most Out of University Strategic Planning

Essential Guidance for Success and Obstacles to Avoid

by Charles A. Goldman, Hanine Salem

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Research Question

  1. What are the most challenging and important aspects of strategic planning?

Higher education institutions often find themselves in a competitive marketplace, looking to attract highly respected scholars, top-tier students, and donors, as well as to increase their visibility and reputation. In such an environment, strategic planning — which Crittenden defines as "attempt to systematize the processes that enable an organization to achieve goals and objectives" (2000) — can help universities maintain stability in a changing situation and respond constructively to increasing competition or external threats. Our experiences supporting universities in their strategic planning efforts, and literature that has influenced our practices, have identified factors that drive success — and create obstacles — in the planning process.

Key Findings

Goals can address internal or external demands.

  • Strategic planning proceeds more smoothly and successfully when the strategic planning process is oriented to satisfy specific motivations.

Broad goals should guide the planning process.

  • One approach to achieving goals is to emphasize linear flow, breaking down higher objectives to departmental and sectional objectives.
  • Another approach is to coordinate action toward more abstract shared goals without breaking down objectives specifically from one level to the next.

Strategic planning efforts benefit from clear, formal processes.

  • These must not become a mechanical bureaucracy that strangles creativity.
  • Planning processes should limit the number of key performance indicators to help managers focus on the most important information.

Organizational units cannot play their role in strategic planning successfully unless universities engage and empower planners and implementers.

  • Faculty buy-in is vital.

Resources must be aligned to the strategic plan.

  • Universities may have trouble formulating strategies feasible within their resources.
  • Implementing the plan well requires alignment of budgets and expenditures with the objectives of the plan.


  • Begin with a clear understanding of the motivation for planning.
  • Institute clear, formal processes to organize the planning effort, but don't allow them to strangle it.
  • Maintain leadership focus on the big picture.
  • Engage and empower middle management and staff from the beginning, but channel input and efforts toward the institution's major goals.
  • Realign existing resources and cultivate new ones to fully support the plan.

The research reviewed in this perspective was conducted within RAND Education, a division of the RAND Corporation.

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