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November 3, 2022 | Institutional effectiveness, Strategic planning

3 challenges strategic planning and institutional effectiveness share in higher ed

Sean Bean's character Boromir from The Lord of the Rings gesturing frustratedly while saying "one does not simply institutionalize their effectiveness"

Institutional effectiveness or IE (much like this classic meme) is not a new concept. In fact, just like the ever quotable roles of Sean Bean, it’s been around for decades.

The Society of Colleges and University Planning (SCUP) define institutional effectiveness as “a higher education institution’s effort to organize evaluation, assessment, and improvement initiatives so the institution can determine how well it is fulfilling its mission and achieving its goals.

So we know what it is and many institutions recognize IE’s value, which has led them to create their own institutional effectiveness plans and employ innovative leaders to make them a reality. The concept has endured because of its timeless purpose: to create a holistic view of the various programs, policies, and key players of an institution in order to evaluate its success and achieve its’ mission.

And yet, like Boromir [see Sean Bean meme above] says, “one does not simply institutionalize their effectiveness.” Incorrect grammar aside, it's true. Institutions have a vision but face many challenges in achieving their goals. Implementation has remained elusive. Why?

3 strategic planning challenges facing higher ed

Well, we can look to institutional effectiveness’s cousin strategic planning for help answering that question. It turns out the two have a lot in common. In a Fall 2021 Chronicle of Higher Education article, “The Truth About Strategic Plans,” author Lee Gardner describes the challenges that make it difficult for stakeholders to rally around a college’s strategic plan. These challenges, which can be distilled into 3 key themes, mirror the same challenges encountered in IE implementation.


An image showing four individual blocks divided by a line, two of the blocks are identical while the other two are different1. Decentralized or insular decision-making

Often, strategic planning in higher ed is developed by a small group of leaders and then disseminated into the community. But that insular decision-making can make community members feel like they don’t have a say in the college’s future. And if that small group of decision-makers lack insight into key departments or functions, this could result in a plan that does not capture all of the needs—or potential—of the institution.


An silhouette of a human head with multiple different arrows crossing paths through their mind2. Failure to make connections between investments and  outcomes

Campus leaders may not clearly communicate the purpose and the goals of a particular project or change, which can make community members wary. “A plan can be undermined if members of the broader campus community can’t see how their work relates to strategic goals,” notes Felecia Commodore, an assistant professor of higher education at Old Dominion University. “That expensive new campus construction project, for example, might get less pushback if its larger purpose were clearer.” 


An image of two puzzle pieces and a question mark

3. Lack of metrics, or an inability to define success

Finally, a lack of metrics (or a lack of transparency around metrics) during strategic planning can also hinder implementation. Stakeholders need to know what they are striving for, and how to know when they’ve fallen short. “Without specific goals, such as raising the graduation rate by X percentage points or increasing the endowment by Y dollars,” says Rob Zinkan, RHB vice president, “employees don’t begin to get that clarity to know, as a member of this university or college community, what am I supposed to do differently than I’m doing today?”


Faced with these challenges at the strategic planning level, higher ed leaders often have to make decisions under less than ideal circumstances. Choices are based on assumptions and potentially skewed or siloed datasets — resulting in flawed outcomes which can dramatically impact an institution’s long-term success.

But just because something isn’t simple doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Institutional effectiveness, like higher ed and Sean Bean memes, continues to evolve. We’re now in the era of Institutional Effectiveness 2.0: a new, data-focused methodology that will help shape both long-term and short term decision-making at colleges and universities.  And we talk about how higher ed institutions are leveling up their approach to institutional effectiveness through a broader understanding of institutional goals and plans, and via a greater visibility around success metrics.

Perhaps the best is yet to come…

Sean Bean's character Ned Stark from Game of Thrones looking defensive and holding a sword with text saying "Brace yourselves... institutional effectiveness 2.0 is coming"

Download the full
Institutional Effectiveness 2.0 guide book to see what a new path forward for higher education might look like at your college or university. 

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