Chapter 10: Sustainable Strategic Planning in Times of Turbulence

by Christopher L. Holoman, Ph.D.

Posted on April 22, 2024

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“The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,

Gang aft agley” – Robert Burns

For many presidents, one of the primary appeals of this difficult position is the ability to create and share a vision and lead the development and implementation of a plan to bring that vision about. The skills needed for this process have long been recognized as key qualities in effective leaders. I suspect that the story of Moses leading a “stiff necked people” in a forty-year journey to a long-promised destination resonates with many presidents.

The tangible result for many colleges and presidents is often a shiny new strategic plan. Like many new presidents, when I started my current position in 2016, we took a year to develop a new five-year plan, and then proceeded to work that plan effectively. By the time the plan was sunsetting, of course, the world had changed. The COVID pandemic has forced a reconsideration of how colleges and universities plan. Some of these developments had begun earlier and have gained increased urgency. Other changes in our thinking and processes are the results of the unique nature of the challenge that the pandemic put before us. The overarching topic of this year’s series, sustainability, requires us to think not just about the consequences of our actions (as in environmental sustainability), but also the resilience of our processes. Are they sustainable in the face of the kinds of shocks that our interdependent and interconnected world puts before us?

It is worth pausing for a moment to reiterate the importance of a coherent, functioning strategic plan for colleges, because it is certainly an understandable reaction on the part of both institutions and individuals to simply throw up our hands and say, “How can anyone plan in this chaotic environment?” Yet it is exactly this reaction that proves the need for an anchor in this time of turbulence. Without one, we run the very real risk of lurching from one path to another, grasping onto the “next big thing” without even a clear sense of where we are headed.

Many pages have been written on the basics of planning, and those do not need to be revisited here. Instead, I will consider four areas where college and university leaders might reflect on how their planning processes and outcomes may need to be revisited in light of what have we learned from our experiences of the past several years. There are not many answers, but I hope clarifying some questions may be helpful.


It is important to be clear on how the strategic plan will function for your institution. Clearly, no one aspires to the stereotype of a strategic plan that sits gathering dust on the top shelf of the president’s office. But there is a range of legitimate roles for a plan. Perhaps your plan is crafted largely for an external audience as a way of communicating the longer-run vision and aspirations of the school. At the other end of the spectrum, one school of thought holds that the strategic plan should be a detailed guide to action for the faculty, administration, and staff, with clearly defined performance indicators, individuals responsible, and deadlines and costs specified. Each of these varieties has merit; a danger arises with a plan that tries to do both. It can become an unworkable combination of “wish list” items and urgent tasks that don’t necessarily rise to the “strategic” level.

It is important to be clear on how the strategic plan will function for your institution.  

Where on this continuum a college lands is particularly important regarding the Board of Trustees. If a plan is detailed enough to serve as a guide to action and decision-making, it may encourage trustees to get “down in the weeds” at an inappropriately tactical level. A more recent, and troubling, development is a result of the increased politicization of the debates around higher education. There are instances of trustees using the approval (or lack thereof) of a plan to address their perception of problems of “wokeness,” “indoctrination,” or other talking points of the day. Meanwhile, the college must remain committed to the necessary work of inquiry and challenging our students, while also creating a welcoming and supportive campus for all students.

Striking this balance often entails multiple versions of a plan—internal and external, strategic and tactical, summary and detailed. Care must be taken that the versions align, since each stakeholder group, including accreditors, will hold the college accountable for whichever version of the plan they are presented with. 


As with strategic plans, fashions in mission statements come and go. The trend towards shorter and snappier catchphrases has led to a certain homogeneity, since there is a limit to how distinctive you can be in something that can fit on the back of a business card. It has also prompted many schools to craft more expansive descriptions: vision statements, principles, or simply the previous “wordy” mission statement repurposed. While adopting a more memorable statement is not inherently problematic, as the cornerstone of a strategic plan, the mission of the institution must be clear, accurate, and shared by all constituencies. Has your institution wandered from its mission, either through incremental “mission creep” or as a result of pursuing new pathways in response to the pandemic?

More fundamentally, as documented in Student Success in College (Kuh, et al. 2005), our mission statements must reflect the “living mission” of our institutions and that they be “lived” by our community. As we re-gather face to face, is there still a common understanding of what we are about? Have new faculty and staff, who may have missed in-person on-boarding, had a chance to be truly introduced to “the campus” in all of that term’s meanings: the people, the traditions, the culture? While sometimes the pandemic already feels long ago, the aftershocks in many areas are still being felt. 


Well before COVID, strategic plans were already getting shorter. It was not all that long ago that ten-year plans were considered optimal. For the last decade or more, five years seems to have been the norm. Now, in the business sector, the recommendation is clearly to go shorter. Some businesses might need a five-year plan, but three years is seen as more realistic, given the pace of technological change and other external factors. And as is often the case, the trend in the business sector is trickling down into higher education.

It is certainly true that the longer your plan, the more likely that exogenous shocks will upset it. At my previous institution, one key element of our five-year plan was turned on its head when the 2008 economic crisis turned a campus housing shortage, pointing to new construction or acquisition, into a housing surplus. A major initiative and engine for growth was no longer necessary or affordable. But I have my doubts about the workability of three-year plans for colleges and universities. Most of us are tied, at least to some extent, to the four-year cycle of an undergraduate degree, especially as codified by the college catalog. And is three years really a strategic level time period?

Here are two alternatives to consider:

  • The most typical solution I have both observed and used is to proceed with a five-year plan, but leave the institution some “outs.” Some institutions have pre-committed to a formal review of the plan at some mid-point. Another possibility works more at the level of operationalizing the plan: as the strategies are translated into tactics or action steps, these are assigned a time frame, and metrics are not attached to those which come later in the period.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, some institutions and organizations have embraced a continuous cycle of “do-plan-do-plan.” Indeed, the phrase “strategic doing” has been trademarked as one particular model of agility and problem-solving (Morrison, et. al. 2019.) This approach has the virtue of being able to be more responsive to changing environments and demands but runs other risks. For example, I have disclosed to my leadership team my belief that college presidents (or perhaps just me) can fall victim to “bright shiny object syndrome” as we are bombarded by e-mails, conference presentations, and webinars on the great new way we can meet our seemingly insurmountable obstacle, be it enrollment, deferred maintenance, or faculty morale. It is also possible that without a clear aspirational target, this style may devolve into fine-grain and short-term problem solving, contrary to Burnham’s famous exhortation to “make no little plans.”


An early stage in many strategic planning processes is a review of the environment in which the institution finds itself. Often this takes the form of a SWOT analysis. While remaining a useful starting point, the pandemic also reminded us of a potential shortcoming in this method, especially as usually practiced. In identifying threats, we have often taken too little account of the “unknown unknowns.” Of course, almost by definition, these are hard to identify, and thus difficult or impossible to prepare for.
The concept of the “black swan event” has spread beyond its original home in finance. I find it helpful as a way of summarizing the nature and challenges of a particular type of situation. Although the black swan—an animal that was thought not to exist until one was actually seen—as a metaphor goes back to antiquity and was used by both Hume and Mill, the recent usage was developed by essayist, mathematician, and Wall Street trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his formulation, a black swan event:
  • Is unexpected
  • Creates widespread and severe (and generally negative, in most versions) consequences
  • Is subject to “hindsight bias” where, after the fact, it is seen as having been predictable
The latter point is critical. Rather than recognizing the inevitability of deeply surprising events, we fall into a trap of thinking that “if we just had better data,” “if we just did better SWOT analyses,” etc., we would have avoided this. Instead, as Taleb argues in later works, we should focus on our ability to adapt quickly to black swan events and take advantage of new opportunities presented.
Again, the pandemic provides examples. For some traditional residential colleges, the necessity of pivoting to distance learning has helped faculty and administrators recognize they can effectively deliver courses in non-traditional modes, even if that will not be a core part of their program. Alternative academic calendars have been retained. Dining halls have become more customer friendly. Are there ways our planning processes could help us recognize desirable changes outside our normal frames of reference without having to go through a crisis?

An effective plan must take account of new types of risk that can endanger the survival of even well-prepared institutions.  

Closely related is our need to broaden our conception of risk and how we mitigate risks. An effective plan must take account of new types of risk that can endanger the survival of even well-prepared institutions. The list is, disturbingly, almost endless, ranging from greater intensity and frequency of weather events brought about by climate change, to cyberthreats, to active shooters, to reputational risk exacerbated by the firestorms of social media. Identifying the risks then leads to difficult judgments around preparation. Concretely, leaders confront this in questions of insurance: how much are you willing or able to pay to insure against events whose likelihood is unknown or unpredictably volatile? Some colleges have recently been forced to leave some of their campus buildings uninsured following astronomical increases in property insurance in the wake of higher numbers of named storms, severe floods, tornados, wildfires, and on and on.

The recent explosion in the availability of artificial intelligence tools promises even greater and faster changes and challenges. At a pace not widely anticipated, the “information revolution” appears to be on the verge of presenting challenges faster than we are prepared to address them. As David Brooks has written recently, “This is a period of radical uncertainty, a period in which predictions are likely to be wrong and midrange plans are likely to become obsolete.” As with insurance, we must ask how much time and energy we are willing to spend anticipating and planning—simulating, “table topping,” and so on—for events that are very unlikely, but potentially catastrophic? 


Higher education leaders have been talking for years about the need to adapt to the new rate and magnitude of challenges we face. “Rafting the whitewater,” “building the plane while it’s in the air,” and so on. You can surely add your own overused metaphor. COVID-19 demonstrated our failure to adequately anticipate the black swan, to consider the unknown unknowns. We must now acknowledge the inadequacy of traditional strategic planning processes.

If we are to be sustainable, we must push ourselves and our institutions to think and plan in new ways so that we can respond to the rapidly changing environment while not becoming so completely reactive that we lose our grounding in the mission and legacies that have defined our colleges and universities for generations.


  1. Brook, D. (2023, May 11. “The Second Phase of the Biden Presidency.” The New York Times.)
  2. Kuh, G., et. al. (2005) Student success in college: creating conditions that matter. Wiley
  3. Morrison, E., et. al. (2019) Strategic doing: ten skills for agile leadership. Wiley