Why you need to care about the Academic Plan…even if you’re not an academic

by julia.hanigsberg | August 18th, 2014

Here is my challenge to non-academic university administrators: how do you use the Academic Plan to frame your own 5-year strategic plan?

And a note to my academic colleagues: yes, we admin types are reading, parsing and thinking about the Academic Plan too!

Guided by Priorities

The Administration and Finance Management Group’s fall retreat will be on Ryerson’s new Academic Plan. For all of us, its four priorities will be the foundational guideposts for our administrative and operational responsibilities over the next five years:

Priority 1: Enable Greater Student Engagement and Success through Exceptional Experiences

Priority 2: Increase SRC Excellence, Intensity and Impact

Priority 3: Foster an Innovation Ecosystem

Priority 4: Expand Community Engagement and City Building

This fall’s meeting will be our second retreat related to the Academic Plan and to defining how we can support the university’s mission. Last spring we took half a day to examine the provincial, national and international context related to post-secondary education and then reviewed the then draft academic plan. Later in the spring the group of 50 or so non-academic directors and managers we call “AFMD” (Administration and Finance Managers and Directors) invited Provost Mohamed Lachemi to be its keynote speaker and lead in to an interactive workshop on innovation.

Planning that is Integrated

The objective of our fall 2014 retreat will be to give the Administration and Finance Management Group the time to collectively identify crosscutting values, goals and objectives which will underlie the strategic plans they will each be developing with their own teams—collectively a group in excess of 650 people. This is the first time Ryerson’s Administration and Finance areas have taken on this kind of cohesive and integrated planning related to an Academic Plan. This exercise will build well upon the Mission, Vision and Values we established in 2010.

This isn’t to say that administrative units individually haven’t created their own strat plans in past years. Many have and some are published on those departments’ web sites. We have also developed interdepartmental project teams to address particular challenges or operational needs. For example, right now we are building on work conducted by the Research and Innovation Office to identify opportunities for improved research administration with a team drawn from the Office of the VP Research and Innovation; Financial Services, Human Resources and CCS (VP Administration and Finance). However, in the past we have not together established Administration and Finance longer-term goals and objectives.

This integrated approach to strategic planning for 2014-2019 was contemplated not only by Provost Lachemi’s groundbreaking consultation (notably meeting with leaders in administrative areas multiple times before the plan was finalized), but also in the next steps identified in the Plan itself:

“All academic and administrative units will prepare or renew individual plans that support the university’s future direction set out in the academic plan. Units set goals and objectives for their respective areas and act on strategies contained in the academic plan that are relevant to them.” [Emphasis added]

Building on Strengths

As my team embarks on this process we are enthusiastic but realize we have a daunting task.

We are working within the context of enormous strengths. Ryerson’s reputation is soaring. We have more first choice undergraduate applicants for available spots than any other Ontario university. Our funded research has increased by 40% in the last two years and growing rapidly. We have terrific morale and benefit from students, faculty and staff who have enormous affection for and loyalty to Ryerson. We have in our DNA an academic commitment to societal need that means that we are connected in ways that inspire unique programs, teaching, scholarship, research and creative activity. We are located in a diverse, dynamic urban core. We have a growing commitment to a People First culture that enables the greatest success for our students, faculty and staff. We stand behind our commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion with meaningful commitments. Our governance bodies act collegially in all senses of that word and our relationships with our unions are excellent.

We benefit from having a lean administration that permits us to be more nimble than many counterparts (believe it or not!). However, in many respects, we are the same “administration” as we were as a university of 10,000 students that we were not that long ago. Perhaps one way to think of it is that as a relatively young university (just past our 65th anniversary) we are in the administrative equivalent of adolescence: full of talent and potential, fully grown in some respects but not others, perhaps a bit gawky with limbs we can’t always properly control! (I am, after all, the mother of teenagers so this is a metaphor that I can relate to.)

Facing Up to the Challenges

At the same time as an administration we have grown and that means flow of communication isn’t as easy as it once was. We occupy buildings across campus so we no longer find ourselves able to build relationships and get work done in the Tim Horton’s line in the way we might have before. Activities that were the responsibility of one person or at least one unit now might touch multiple departments requiring consultation and collaboration and adding time and complexity.

Systems and processes that evolved when the university’s priorities were different (eg when research intensity was much less) need to meet current and future needs and aspirations. What were cutting edge and early adopter achievements a decade ago may not have the user experience we have come to expect today.

The fiscal, public policy and compliance environments have been in a period of tremendous change over the past decade so accountability measures and expectations (eg audit, risk, safety, procurement directives, granting council and other research funding models, information and privacy legislation and information security norms) have become increasingly onerous and public.

Of course technology and the place of technology in higher-ed have had, and will continue to have, a huge impact on our work and our lives. From big data, to the ubiquity of wireless devices and mobile computing, MOOCs to flipped classrooms, and the “paperless” process from e-hire to online catalogues for procurement: the needs of today and prognostications for tomorrow impact what we all do now (eg planning classroom size and AV/IT requirements for buildings that will open five years from now) and allow us to reimagine our futures. The Academic Plan rises to this challenge explicitly: “Potential enhancements and modernizations to the university’s IT assets, digital communication channels and enterprise platforms will be evaluated, taking into account Ryerson’s reputation for strong digital, design and technology capabilities” (p. 14).

And there is of course space – what some have called our greatest deficit. As a downtown urban campus we have to build space efficiently and thoughtfully. We must consider how and why we use, build and otherwise acquire spaces.  As the Academic Plan indicates: “The university will also consider how existing space might be better used and shared. When future opportunities are presented to build or update facilities, consideration should be given to developing spaces that reflect the principles of the Master Plan, encourage collaboration and foster cross-disciplinary interactions to spark creativity and innovation” (p. 14). Collaboration and partnership are key strengths whether with the private sector (eg Mattamy Athletic Centre with Loblaw), the broader public sector (eg research space with St Michael’s Hospital), or internally (eg hi-def simulation suites to be shared amongst multiple departments in our new building on Church Street). The kind of spaces we build have the potential to create enormous benefit to enhance student experience, as well as enhance the experience of those who work at the university.

Eyes on the Future

We need our administration and operations across the entire University, to achieve the same standards of innovation and excellence as the greatest aspirations of our teaching, scholarship, research and creative activity.

We need to think through what investments (human, technology, space, services) we need to make. We need to determine how to have seamlessness between administrative entities regardless of reporting structures. We need to make it easier to understand what you need to know and how to find that information whatever your role in the university. We may need to consider stopping doing some things in order to do other things better or to start new priorities. We need the leadership capacity to enable all of this important work.

And we need to achieve all of these plans in ways that are not only consistent with, but that enhance and celebrate the University’s mission and vision and breathe life into its values: excellence, the whole person, community and inclusion.

These are all the reasons why an Academic Plan is meaningful for non-academics.

Let the planning begin!

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