Demands on Long-Range and Short-Term Planning: A Balancing Act

August 20, 2020

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By Gayle R. Davis and Margaret E. Winters

This post is the seventh in a series from the Association of Chief Academic Officers.

Given the multiple responsibilities and wide scope of a CAO’s job, a common complaint is that there is barely enough time to finish everything in the portfolio, let alone stand back to contemplate the broader vision. As senior administrators (often second only to the president), CAOs are involved in university or college planning as well as planning for their own division. Obviously, these plans have to mesh with and, ultimately, further the university’s mission.

All of this takes time, to be eked out around the daily round of meetings, short-term projects, and, inevitably, crises which arise despite the best of planning. We’d like to address the planning process here, touching on aspects of this balancing act as a dialogue between two retired CAOs.

Margaret: One of the challenges is to keep the wider campus plan in mind when planning for academic affairs. Sometimes this is not immediately obvious, if the topic is facilities, for example, instead of curriculum, new faculty, and so on. In fact, to best support faculty and students, the CAO, along with the deans, needs to assess what physical space is most needed (classrooms? labs? offices?) and work with the facilities planning office.

Gayle: I fully agree, and when you stop to realize that all parts of the university depend on the success of the academic side of the institution, it is clear how much time is needed for coordination, discussion and compromise among all the divisions as everyone works toward advancing the overall mission. We could name many examples of cross-divisional collaboration. The development office needs to know what academic areas are most in need of resources in order to prioritize their efforts. Even less far-ranging aspects of planning call for a coordinated approach, like determining the best timing for students to receive University messages or for the institution to send out surveys.

Margaret: I would add that the CAO should even be involved in a decision to declare a snow day!

Gayle: The fundamental key to the success of this planning concept is that all the divisions with relevant interest in a given decision are represented in the planning process. It may be a big change at any decentralized institution to incorporate this level of planning integration while maintaining the specific responsibilities and roles of each divisional leader. Collaboration is time consuming, but its compensation is the smooth operation of the University for all involved and fewer times ‘cleaning up’ after less inclusive decisions are made.

Margaret: You’ve made the case, Gayle, as to why CAOs has an additional “senior” or “executive” vice president title at many institutions—so much depends on their vision and leadership! The term primus inter pares ‘first among equals’ comes to mind.

But CAOs also have to run their own divisions, since planning should take place at all levels. They must work with deans and division heads both to understand the institutional plan and to formulate their own plan for their schools and colleges.

Perhaps the best way to characterize what the CAO must do here is to be mindful of the contribution by each division to academic affairs and also to the whole institution. Often, we’re talking about more specificity as we go further down into the organization, but there may also be variations on the institutional or academic affairs plan to accommodate a given sub-unit. The health sciences divisions, for example, would have to plan for clinical training which probably wouldn’t be addressed at all in the humanities.

CAOs model planning strategies to the deans who work with their departments or other subdivisions for even more specific planning. And another point: it’s not all top-down! Planning has to be inclusive and higher units benefit as well from the vision of faculty, chairs and  students.

Gayle: Yes, it can really get complicated to manage the achievement of the institution’s many levels of long- and short-term goals. And I would add that the complexity of this work only grows when you consider that the timelines for various institutional plans often overlap, and unexpected urgent demands outside of our plans are common. A CAO can find herself facing competing needs and deadlines—what my former office called “fire drills” that prove the “tyranny of the urgent” and upset any well-conceived divisional plan.

One strategy to alleviate or prevent some of these pressured moments related to strategic planning is for all division, university, and governing board levels to communicate their individual timelines for their strategic goals to each other for the upcoming academic year. With everyone’s cooperation, an aggregated university calendar including major project timelines can show where any timing conflicts and workload issues exist so that they can be solved or lessened.

As for the unexpected demands, cross-training your academic affairs office staff will at least give you more informed people to cover the work!

Margaret: Cross-training is an excellent idea and often welcomed by staff who hope to go on eventually to higher-level positions that call for wider knowledge and experience. As for the “tyranny of the urgent” (I like that phrase!), it is true that often the CAO has to make some quick decisions in the face of a crisis. They may be in-house decisions leading to immediate solutions or just involve how to juggle one’s calendar to attend quickly convened meetings.

But at some point the CAO needs to  pay attention, perhaps more here than normally, to how the crisis arose and how it might reflect either sheer bad luck (a student is diagnosed with TB, for example) or a flaw in planning (graduation has been announced for the same day as a religious holiday). The aftermath of a crisis is a good time to draw senior staff and other leaders into an analysis of what happened, how it was managed, and what needs to be done to avert other instances, if at all possible.

Gayle: “If at all possible” is a key phrase in your statement, Margaret! Even with careful planning, working out the coordination of efforts won’t always be smooth.

Margaret: Perhaps that is the place to end our conversation, much as I have enjoyed it, and provide some direct advice:

  • To the extent possible at your institution, gain the support of all campus leaders to value planning as a university-wide collaborative endeavor for the smooth functioning of the overall operations.
  • Encourage divisions to include representation from all areas of the institution that are relevant to each major planning topic in order to capture and consider their perspectives and needs. This is important at the start of planning deliberations but also during idea-development and decision-making.
  • Use knowledge of the entire institution’s mission and that of the various divisions to judge what should be local planning and what should take place campus-wide.
  • At all levels of planning, structure communication lines to ensure frequent and regular updates with all relevant parties.
  • Include the timing of major initiatives in this university-wide collaboration by developing an institution-wide calendar to strategically pace the work and allocate resources.
  • Decide ahead if the objective is far-ranging or if the planning will create goals to be reached under the current budgetary situation, and plan accordingly.
  • Know that not all plans will come to fruition, especially far-ranging plans; keep tracking results and be ready to modify plans as situations change and crises occur.
  • To sum it all up: More planning, more institutional collaboration, more flexibility … less angst!

ACAOacaologo aims to enhance the effectiveness of CAOs by providing networking and professional development opportunities and engaging members in academic affairs issues that cut across the diversity of higher education institutions and missions.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog post, please contact us.


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