Chapter 10: Strategic Planning and Opportunism: Leaving Room for Serendipity

by Dr. Kevin M. Ross

Posted on April 25, 2018

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To state the obvious: the future is uncertain. To make it less so, we make valiant efforts to chart the course for our institutions through strategic planning. In broad consultation with campus communities, we envision bright futures and set bold aspirations for ourselves. We take into account our strengths and build upon them, while also making efforts to improve those areas that need attention. We take stock of our peers’ programs and pricing to see where we fit in our regional ecosystem to ensure our offerings remain relevant and attractive to prospective students and supporters.

Our numerous stakeholders look to the campus leadership, especially the president, to marshal these efforts in a manner that is inspiring and simultaneously custom-tailored and authentic to the culture of the campuses we serve. This is tricky business. It is challenging to be certain everything that needs to be in a plan makes the cut. If we make our plans too broadly or with too much specificity, we risk missing the mark or misreading the trends that might just have the capacity to propel our institutions forward.

Dr. George C. Keller, a leading scholar of higher education and the author of Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education, wrote “A university must innovate continually to take advantage of the changing demographic, technological, intellectual and economic developments in society.”

Colleges and universities that are agile enough to recognize and act upon the opportunities created by disruptive innovations are well positioned towards the future.  

Today, these developments occur at a blistering pace, and colleges and universities that are agile enough to recognize and act upon the opportunities created by disruptive innovations are well positioned towards the future.

There is an alchemy to planning. Though some strategic plans follow a formulaic approach, this approach can be institutionally limiting. Sometimes, what is left out of a plan may be critical to future opportunity. Purposely planning to reserve some institutional bandwidth and capacity permits us to explore and experiment with what might come our way. That is where the good stuff happens. Unforeseen opportunities that may have been previously unimaginable are made possible.

The Journey that was Lynn 2020
In January 2005, Lynn University engaged Dr. George C. Keller to help us create a strategic plan for our institution.

Over the next four months, George got to know us well by conducting interviews and research and meeting regularly with our 17-member strategic planning committee. The result was “Lynn 2020: The Strategic Plan for Lynn University.” “2020” referred to the 15-year plan’s projected end point. Three “I”s emerged in its vision statement, which became a campus clarion call: “Lynn’s vision is to be recognized as one of the most innovative, international and individualized small universities in America.” The plan contained 51 strategic initiatives under five priorities which, when accomplished, would significantly alter our institutional course.

Now, less than 13 years later, our plan has been completed, along with a number of significant items that were not originally intended – hosting a 2012 presidential debate and our subsequent iPad initiative.

Priority Four of Lynn 2020 called on our University to construct a performing and fine arts center, and in 2010, we proudly opened the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center. With this magnificent new venue, we took a chance to apply to be the host site of a presidential debate.

On October 21, 2011, we received the news that we would be hosting the third and final 2012 presidential debate – and we had one year to prepare. We constructed two new entrances, expanded our parking, and relocated our campus nature preserve. Our faculty created more than 100 debate-related courses for our students and developed a K-12 debate curriculum. Our gym was transformed into a media filing center, and our Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center was configured to the exact specifications given by the Commission on Presidential Debates. A wireless network to support up to 5,000 additional users was put in place, along with 70 miles of cabling.

On October 21, 2011, we received the news that we would be hosting the third and final 2012 presidential debate – and we had one year to prepare.  

Not only did Lynn University become the youngest school to host a presidential debate, but because we embraced that opportunity, we now had the technology in place for our second unplanned, yet desired, initiative.

Our iPad initiative is one of the most extensive tablet-based learning efforts in the country. All faculty and students are provided with iPads, and this initiative has allowed us to make our entire curriculum digital, mobile, and collaborative. Due to the success of the initiative and overwhelmingly positive feedback from both students and faculty, we continued expanding iPad-powered learning on our campus. We created a digital press, and our faculty have now authored more than 50 multi-touch books. These interactive, digital textbooks are provided to our students for free and saved them about $250,000 in book costs in 2016-17. Since we launched Lynn 2020, we have seen the number of print volumes in our library decrease by 41 percent, while the number of electronic books has increased by 345 percent.

As an early adopter institution, we launched our iPad initiative in 2013 after putting in place the essential technology for the presidential debate. Recently, we were pleased to note that the Ohio State University is making a similar move by providing iPads and the iOS learning environment for their students.

With our nationally praised core curriculum, the Dialogues, and our iPad initiative in place, we have transformed teaching and learning. And with state-of-the-art new facilities and enhanced technology, we have transformed our campus. Our Mohammed Indimi International Business Center, home of our College of Business and Management, achieved LEED Platinum certification and features the Snyder Idea Lab, a Bloomberg Terminal, and a trading room. In the future Christine E. Lynn University Center, currently under construction at the heart of our campus, we decided to add a third floor as a social impact lab to enhance our growing academic offerings in social innovation and entrepreneurship.

With our nationally praised core curriculum, the Dialogues, and our iPad initiative in place, we have transformed teaching and learning.  

We have also created new learning pathways, including accelerated degree programs and academic partnerships, both of which have been made possible by our adoption of mobile and collaborative technologies. In our new initiative with Watson Institute from Boulder, Colorado, students can earn a Bachelor of Science in social entrepreneurship for building a social venture. They can choose to study at either campus and will receive seed funding, intensive mentorship, and training in ideation, rapid prototyping, fundraising, leadership and management, and team building. Through our collaboration with Miami-based coding boot camp Wyncode Academy, undergraduate students can gain immersive web development skills on our campus.

Lynn University also recently acquired the assets of Digital Media Arts College, which are being combined into our recently renamed College of Communication and Design. This addition will allow us to expand the college’s offerings on subjects like graphic and web design, game art, animation, and visual effects. Not only did this opportunity fit academically, but also culturally. Just like Lynn University, Digital Media Arts College is a small school with a supportive community, which should help make the faculty, student, and staff transition more seamless. We look forward to welcoming this talented group of digital artists to our campus community.

Along our path to complete Lynn 2020, we have learned a lot about ourselves. We have practiced and honed a persistent patience to pursue the right opportunities at the right time – and in the proper sequence. Call it the perfect blend of strategy and serendipity.

The completion of the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center in 2010 provided an ideal venue for the 2012 presidential debate. Our many campus improvements for the debate paved the way for important future facilities, including the Mohammed Indimi International Business Center, Bobby Campbell Stadium, the Perper Intramural Field, and the Snyder Sanctuary. They allowed us the opportunity to begin construction on the Christine E. Lynn University Center and recently open the Mary and Harold Perper Residence Hall, which provides housing for upperclassmen.

We have practiced and honed a persistent patience to pursue the right opportunities at the right time – and in the proper sequence.  

The technology upgrades required to host the presidential debate provided the infrastructure essential for the success of the iPad initiative. One opportunity led to another, and because our institutional culture is disposed towards strategic opportunism, we were able to take advantage of what we perceived to be a set of favorable circumstances to take calculated risks and punch above our weight. Some thought that a small, relatively new school like Lynn University could never accomplish the things we have, but that just emboldened us all the more. During the 2012 presidential debate, everyone on our campus proudly wore t-shirts that said “We’ve never heard of you, either.” Much has changed since then.

As we tackled the priorities of Lynn 2020, and added those new ones along the way, our collective accomplishments and accolades grew. Our iPad initiative led to us being recognized as one of the “most innovative” and “most international” schools in the country by U.S. News and World Report, as well as a three-time Apple Distinguished School for our willingness to work with students on how they live and learn today. None of that would have occurred without first taking advantage of the opportunity to host the presidential debate, which allowed many more to learn about Lynn. During this milestone event, we had more than 4,000 media present and more than 33,000 news stories produced. Our campus welcomed thousands of spectators, along with more than 59 million debate viewers watching from their living rooms.

I am proud to say that our debate t-shirts are no longer accurate, and that is due to all that we have accomplished as a university through Lynn 2020.

George Keller passed away in 2007, and our strategic plan was his last masterpiece. While he did not live to see us complete it, he was confident we would. We have enhanced almost every aspect of our university, yet somehow we are more “Lynn” than ever.

What a journey Lynn 2020 has been. When you venture out into new territory, you are filled with anticipation and excitement – and a little uncertainty. You have an idea of how you will reach your destination, but you are not 100 percent sure about it until you arrive. We have arrived…not at our destination, but at a significant milestone. We have accomplished our vision to be recognized as one of America’s most innovative, international, and individualized small universities.

While we have been sure to take time to celebrate the significant accomplishments under Lynn 2020 and thank all those who made it possible, significant progress has already been made on our new strategic plan. We have been using a design thinking lens to help shape our future course. Numerous hands-on, interactive sessions have engaged hundreds of members of our campus community, resulting in different perspectives and impactful ideas by actual end users of our programs and services. Our next act will focus on expanding new learning pathways for students, engaging with our campus community and alumni in even more meaningful ways, and continuing to elevate our current and future programs. We will be certain to leave plenty of room for experimentation and evaluation so that we can again capitalize on strategic opportunities that come our way.