A little over a year ago, I was asked to leave the work I was doing with the Recruitment and First Year advisement team (partially rolling out a CRM) and go help with student engagement/retention and getting our university’s first academic plan written. A committee of 22 administrators, faculty, staff and students was assembled to craft the next four years of the academic – and to some degree research – direction of UPEI. We spent a year working on it, starting first with our campus Strategic Plan and then through various feedback approaches. We crafted the 28 page Academic Plan that was endorsed by the Board of Governors after having been approved by our Senate. The content of the plan came out of the vision of our Strat Plan and the needs and ideas of campus, but my role was to direct structure and build consensus. I had to develop an iterative vision and process around core questions: What does a good Academic Plan look like? What should it do? What does ours need to do?
What is an Academic Plan anyway?
The term means lots of different things to different people. For some, it is a Strat plan for an entire campus. For some, it is the direction that they will take with regards to programming. For UPEI, the Academic Plan is:
- Our method of enacting the UPEI Strategic Plan on the academic/research end of the house.
- An attempt to give us some of the tools that we need to be more effective in getting good ideas up and running
- A way to respond to academic/research related possibilities/challenges on campus
Data Gathering/Research method
We did web based surveys, world cafe style sessions, and had an open door policy for people who wanted to come in and share ideas/concerns. We used a provisional coding strategy with an initial set of codes from the UPEI Strat plan. We then went through individual and program based feedback and adjusted the code as we went along. Those codes eventually morphed into the 35 initiatives that appear in the final draft of the Academic Plan. We very much took an iterative approach, returning to the committee with the results, the adaptation in the code, and the ways in which those codes translated to initiatives. Lots of good discussion.
What is an initiative?
I spent a fair amount of time wringing my hands over this one. We wanted each initiative to have a goal and objectives, to be assigned to people… to be clear. We also wanted to create a scenario where our subject matter experts would have the latitude to innovate in the ways in which they responded to the challenges. If we waited for that innovation to happen before we wrote the document, we’d be finishing the projects before they’d even been approved. We decided on a middle ground that reflected the codes and responses from campus as best we could, but still allowed the groups that would be running those initiatives the chance to do new and interesting things without being committed to our initial thoughts on the matter. Here’s a nice clean example – Initiative 29 – Student Employment on Campus
Goal: Use our employment of students as a training ground for job search skills
Description: Each year, over 500 students work on the UPEI campus supporting the mission of the University. This provides an ideal opportunity to create supports to help shape their future career skills. This project will provide supports to student applicants before, during, and after their work time here at UPEI.
Responsibility: Office of Skills Development and Learning
Success measures: Baseline of student applicants and successful applicants; new communications procedures and follow-up (including mentorship); number of students supported by providing job hunting, résumé building, and interview skills
Project management on an initiative
Having the initiatives detailed in a document is one thing, figuring out how we’re going to go about getting them done is something else. We have a campus full of smart people who are already working on projects. The challenge for us from a project management perspective was to find an approach that would allow 35 initiatives to all get planned out and completed but still allow people to have a window into the process.
The first step for an initiative is to create a charter. A charter basically sets the high level milestones, sets broad timelines for those milestones, assigns the tasks to specific individuals, has a discussion of scope (in and out), and has a common sense section where we can talk about what success looks like. Think of it as an internal contract with ourselves, where we promise what we’re going to do and commit to actually getting it done. The initiative charters are shared google docs that have a rich history of discussion attached to them. These charters will go to Senate for approval and then will get posted on the academic planning website. We have 7 charters going to Senate this month. Fingers crossed.
This document gets down to the details. I’ve created a streamlined project management approach that has a google sheet for each project stitched together to a central dashboard giving us a sense of the health of all the the initiatives that we are running. Google lacks some of the fancy features of the pro-style project management software, but everyone can use it, assigning view/comment/edit rights is super easy inside our organization and ‘importrange’ is easy for my caveman mind to use to build a dashboard.
The project plan has what you’d expect. A place for general status of the project. A place to talk about what the challenges might be and what possible resolutions could look like. A breakdown of each milestone into tasks, delivered outcomes, due dates etc… Its one spreadsheet that will get used by all project members and where key details get centralized for efficient obstacle removal. I’m trying to make this an email-less project if possible.
What I hope the Academic Plan will mean
There are a number of individual initiatives and specific outcomes in the plan that I care a great deal about. Higher ed is in a very interesting place right now. Our ability to understand things like networked participatory scholarship, the impact of the new focus on ‘career skills’ and the need for good mentorship doesn’t actually need to conflict with maintaining the things that make a university a university (autonomy, academic freedom, research etc…). We can have both of these things, I think. We just need to find effective ways to work on the things that we care about – to get the job done while still being who we are. If we managed to do anything in this project… that’s what I hope we did.