Developing Institutional Vision

While I have many great ideas on how we might improve higher education I strongly believe it is counterproductive to arrive at an institution with a vision in tow, preferring to have a vision for a visioning process and good methods for converting vision into action. 

The nature of the vision 

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. This initiative created a national sense of excitement and fueled many innovations. It made the United States special and its people proud to be Americans. I believe that one of the fundamental jobs of a senior university leader is to implement a likeminded “race to the moon” initiative that unites the Board, faculty, staff, students, alumni and donors around a distinctive vision for the institution. This vision must be grounded in best practices, local culture and values, and help all divisions navigate a cohesive path toward excellence. It must challenge the community and its members to grow, generating an exciting story to tell our alumni and potential donors so that they invest in the University and support our students.

There is a big difference between institutional vision and a visionary institution. The first determines what the institution wants to be in perhaps the next five or ten years. It is often stated in terms such as achieving the status as the best comprehensive or research institution in the region, or perhaps in terms of rankings. This is an admirable approach and one you are likely to find on the vast majority of university web sites. On the other hand, a visionary institution is one that goes beyond this, taking a leadership role by adopting an approach or emphasis that others may not and thus distinguishes itself in the marketplace. I believe this stance is necessary for an institution to truly thrive. For example, the first universities to implement student laptop programs saw massive enrollment growths the following year because they were perceived as cutting edge. Other examples of visionary institutions are Western Governor’s University for its competency-based approach, and Evergreen University for its use of flexible pathways and evaluation systems. 

Developing vision 

There are two guiding principles that I use to help create vision; 
  1. “We do not hire intelligent people to tell them what to do, we hire intelligent people to tell us what to do” – Steve Jobs 
  2. “A change imposed is a change opposed” – Spenser Johnson 
Institutional vision must be distilled from the ground up. Vision created at the top, even when altruistic in nature, will not be successful. It is the role of senior leaders to help the institution form its vision by using our broad experience and knowledge of outside forces to help clarify the challenges facing us; motivate the change process by illuminating the burning platform; stimulate thinking by asking the right questions; provide opportunities to our faculty and staff to broaden their perspectives through interactions with colleagues across the World; use entrepreneurial thinking to add to the pool of potential solutions developed in-house; and ensure training and support is available to members of the community expected to undergo change. We must also use our management experience to guide what can be effectively operationalized, prioritizing based on reasonable return for the level of investment (financial and HR) and realistic timeframes for achievement. Finally, we must provide leadership on effecting the vision by coordinating across divisions and by providing guidance to our team members on converting ideas into action through project management principles.

Enacting vision

I am an entrepreneur by nature, and have successfully enacted vision through my work in Academic Affairs at multiple institutions, and in the business world.   For example, during the early stages of the Internet I had a vision to create the first online School of Pharmacy and what may have been the first professional doctorate delivered online.  This is still a highly successful school at Creighton University.   I also created, and for many years ran my own innovative software company which developed knowledge management software to support learners. I have had experience, not only developing vision, but also implementing it with strategic planning and measuring progress toward its accomplishment with appropriate metrics through the institutional effectiveness process.