Ethics and the Paper World:

Some Partially Aristotelian Thoughts on Academic Planning


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A Disclaimer

My comments here on academic planning derive from my experiences at my home institution. I do not have enough experience to make comparisons, but my assumption is that the process is not dissimilar at many other public universities. Planning has received considerable attention during the last decade at my school and the process has undergone a series of changes. Last year's self-study for our regional accrediting agency resulted in several reccomendations that would help alleviate some problems I describe here. It is too soon to know what will come of them.

An Analogy

In Ralph Ellison's novel The Invisible Man, the narrator meets a worker pushing a large wheelbarrow of blueprints down the street. When questioned, the wheelbarrow-pusher says these are plans that have been changed and scrapped; this one office contains so many of these discarded plans, the worker says, that it will take him all day to cart them away. I mention this scene not because I think the main problem in academic planning lies in the rate at which plans are changed or discarded, but because of the salience I find in the image of a whole wheelbarrow, indeed, a whole office full of paper plans.

For Aristotle, of course, things should be judged according to how well they perform their functions, with the maker of the artifact being allowed to define what its function is. Thus, the function of a blueprint for a house is to convey to people properly skilled at building houses the requisite specifications for the intended house--how many rooms, of what size, of what shape, etc. The blueprint is the plan for the house. It is the product of a process of consultation and deliberation involving the people for whom the house is being built and the architect or plan-maker. While a blueprint may also serve a side function, such as providing evidence to a governmental agency that the building was designed according to code, its main function is to convey the information essential for the actual building of the structure. The usefulness of the blueprint will depend both upon the skill of its drawing and the quality of thinking by the designer and the people who are going to live in the house concerning how those people wanted to live and, therefore, what their living space should be like.

But what if the house has already been built? What kind of planning might be appropriate concerning an existing structure? The occupants of the house might devise an annual plan for repair and inspection. They might initiate the planning process that will lead to blueprints for, and the eventual construction of, an addition. Planning for this addition would, of course, require the same kind of thinking that preceded the original drawing of the blueprint for the house.

But what if the house is part of a public housing project under the control of a consortium of banks and public agencies? And what if each of these has distinct ideas about the characteristics houses should have and standards they should meet? Clearly the picture is becoming confused. However, let us add another layer to this confusion by positing that some of these banks and agencies are more aggressive and insistent than others about having the houses a certain way, but that the internal dynamics of some of these banks and agencies are fluid and subject to sometimes unpredictable change. Thus, the architects hired by the consortium have a difficult time knowing how much attention they should pay to a given superior entity's agenda at a given time.

The situation described above is in ways analogous to the situation in which academic planning at a public institution takes place. One can start to translate by substituting majors or various types of programs for rooms or houses and the state legislature, bureaucracies, and relevant accrediting agencies for the members of the building conglomerate. Planning in both cases is difficult. In neither case can the planners simply use their best thoughts and efforts to try to benefit the people who will live in the houses or the students who will attend their institution. But the parallel I've drawn leads to what I see as a major difference between an architect's blueprint and the academic planning documents with which I am familiar, for the former allow properly trained builders to construct the intended structure, while the planning documents and process I have seen focus on the allocation of funds and, increasingly, on the goal of formal or "paper" accountability. The result of this focus is that the planning process as I know it does not encourage, and even impedes, thinking within the university community concerning basic goals and the optimal means for achieving these. It fails to foster the communal vision and sense of purpose particularly important to universities.

Dangers in the Design of Academic Planning Systems

One important reason for this failure is that formal planning usually focuses on mechanical goals, means, and measures rather than on values. This may be inevitable and even proper, but it also poses a hazard. Philip Selznick (1992) claims that it is important in social structures such as universities that values be "more central than goals or at least equally important," and that goals be "multiplied in order to accommodate a broad range of interests" (238). This multiplication of goals to accommodate a broad range of interests is necessary because universities and other institutions are in many ways most accurately described as "open" or "loosely coupled" systems, even ones that can approximate "organized anarchy"(236). But for an organization such as a university to have a seriousness and cohesive purpose, for it to be, in Selznick's terms, a moral community, a university must not allow formalized and often factional goals to supplant and submerge core values, the things that are the life-blood of the institution and that it is its function to embody.

Put simply, the formal planning process with which I am familiar too closely approximates a mechanism for the competitive allocation of physical and fiscal resources. As such, it does not advance and often impedes efforts to face and solve what A. Bartlett Giamatti has called the "deepest need" of the contemporary university. According to Giamatti, that deepest need is "for the permanent parts of the place--the members of the faculty and administration--to reforge common aims, to establish a common set of goals and values, to lay aside the mistrust that corrodes the capacity to educate" (Brigham, 1996, p. 17). While Giamatti collapses Selznick's distinction between values and goals, they are saying compatible things. For our purposes, I would like to keep Selznick's distinction and underline Giamatti's emphasis on the importance of common frames of reference and trust.

The planning process at my institution works on a four year cycle, but planning documents are revised every two years. The planning process starts top-down, theoretically from the Mission Statement of the University, which is established by the state, and from the unversity's documents on "Institutional Goals" and "Strategic Directions." Most of the statements in these documents are too general and obvious to give much guidance, and their main practical use is as numbered items that can be cited by academic units to justify various additional cost objectives, or, in simpler language, budgetary requests. Except for these very general statements of goals, the main kind of guidance or leadership for the "planning process" provided from the top is in the shape of the small-cell, highly reductive forms that units must use.

The planning forms include one for a prioritized list of "Additional Cost Objectives"; another for a prioritized list of "No Additional Cost Objectives," which includes a column for "Objectives/Intended Outcomes" and one for "Assessment Criteria/Procedures"; and a third form entitled "Progress Reports for No Additional Cost Objectives." This includes columns for "Results of Assessment Activities," and "Use of Results to Improve Effectiveness." The emphasis on assessment has been, as elsewhere, the most recent addition to what is called the planning process, and the final feedback loop envisioned by the column entitled "Use of Results to Improve Effectiveness" is only gradually taking shape. These forms flow up the administrative ladder, with deans making compilations based on the departmental forms, and vice- presidents only filling out the forms calling for prioritized lists of "Additional Cost Objectives."

Thus, as one goes up the chain of command, the emphasis on the assessment and accountability of that level disappears. The focus comes to fall completely on the prioritized "wish list" for additional cost objectives. How centrally this whole process focuses on the allocation of funds is vividly suggested by the fact that the final document produced by this process, the university's "Strategic Plan," consists of the Mission Statement, along with the statements of Institutional Goals and Strategic Directions and the prioritized "Additional Cost Objectives" forms filled out by each vice-president, and that is all. Similarly, the Planning Department's flow chart of the planning process lists only one use for the Strategic Plan, once it has been reviewed by the Institutional Planning Analysis Committee and received its final approval by the Institutional Planning Committee, and that is to serve as the basis for the university's budget request to the state, which, in turn, provides the basis for the internal budget.

For the purposes of the formal planning and accountability process, the goals of each unit are its list of "Assessment Criteria/Procedures." These are "performance goals" that can be measured--e.g., "At least 75% of faculty members will engage in scholarly activities," or "Maintenance of licensure pass rate of 85% or higher annually." While there is not anything objectionable about such performance goals in themselves, they tend to be mechanical and, therefore, very faulty measures of the extent to which the institution is acting upon or transmitting its basic values. For one thing, since this whole system focuses on programs and degrees, the basic general education goals and values of the institution tend to evaporate. Secondly, the emphasis on these measurable performance goals directs attention away from discussion of basic instituional and departmental values and the goals that should legitimately flow from them. Perhaps the main problem is that what I have described here is less a planning process than a reporting and requesting process that offers little help or encouragement to serious, thoughtful planning or stock-taking, particularly of a non-budgetary type.

The official description of this planning process, as given by the head of the planning department, emphasizes the amount of faculty input at all levels, and, by means of the Institutional Planning Analysis Committee, the presence of horizontal cross- fertilization. In fact, few non-administrative faculty members are meaningfully involved in the process. In some departments, the chair fills out the planning documents with a planning committee; in some departments, the chair simply handles the matter him/herself. My experience as a member of the Institutional Planning Analysis Committe, the body that theoretically offsets the severely vertical design of this process by providing for horizontal communication and critique, and, particularly my experience as the Chair of its Academic Affairs Sub-committee, have led me to conclude that it not able, or really intended, to serve this function. It is, instead, designed mainly to serve as a rubber stamp certifying the results of the paper planning process without subjecting it to more than token review.

Planning Versus Reporting

As I have already suggested in passing, what I have described is more of a system of reporting and creating a "paper record" and "paper accountability" than a process of planning, and it is a process that sends information up and sends down decisions concerning budget allocations and program creation or elimination. It is deficient in actual intellectual leadership from the top and in opportunities for people at different levels of the hierarchy and in different units to talk seriously together about what they do or about what students needs or will need in the future. It does not fuel or encourage the serious communal thinking that should take place before plans are made and embodied in reports. If this is so, then, logically, the next question is whether there is some place else, another institutional site, where more substantive academic planning takes place. My answer is "yes, at least in a sense," or "sort of."

One finds more thoughtful, institutionally soul-searching discussion among faculty and administrators of different units in the work of the dozen or so committees formed to produce the once- a-decade self-study required by the regional accrediting agency. The focus in these committees is not on budget requests, and their thinking is fueled by extensive questionnaires filled out by faculty, as well as by their experience. This is probably as close as the university community comes to a communal taking stock of itself that could serve as a partial basis for intelligent planning. But the outcome of this process is a large number of specific suggestions and recommendations designed to alleviate specific problems, and the usefulness of the whole exercise depends upon how interested the administration is in trying to make improvements as opposed to formulating responses to satisfy the accrediting agency and that involve as little change as possible.

What is still lacking from the planning process, from the total of the university's attempts to provide the appropriate equivalent to blueprints? First, it is important to recall that the most important planning that needs to take place in a university is not for rooms or buildings, or computers, as important as these are, but for ways of life, for the development of intellectual and moral practices, to use an Aristotelian term repopularized by Alisdair MacIntyre, on-going ways of learning, valuing and acting. These include the practices appropriate to a particular major, but not only those. Indeed, the general education and, in particular, the non-cognitive aspects of a college education are the most difficult to subject to formal assessment and the most likely to be left out of formal planning processes. At this point, my paper makes contact with the paper I wrote for last year's conference: we need to engage in a great deal more public conversation about what we are doing now, how, why, what the choices are, how we need to change to help students prepare for the future, etc. The conversation should take place partly in formal committee sessions, and partly in formal public lectures and round table discussions, but it must also take place in the halls and as the result of informal initiatives.

It is an important part of the planning process, largely conceived, and an important part of the leadership task of the academic vice-president and other high administration figures, including those in the planning office, to help initiate, encourage, and facilitate these kinds of public, communal discourse. This is where the large issues need to be raised, where informed estimates about aspects of the future need to be presented publicly, where interchange, trust, and, when possible, consensus need to be developed. These goals simply cannot be achieved through exclusive reliance on the generation and flow of information upward and downward through the formal bureaucratic structure.

University planning has to be seen as different from the planning of a house or an added room, for what is being planned is not most importantly a physical object but a complex way of life, patterns of interaction and experiencing in which the whole academic community, that is, all the potential planners, must be vitally involved. In other words, part of what members of a university community need to participate in the planning of is themselves. This is a matter of ongoing stock-taking and revitalization or renewal, both communal and individual. It is considerably harder to talk about pedagogy, intellectual vitality, morale, or vision on planning forms than about computers or GRE scores, but good planning and vital institutions require that at least as much attention be paid to the former as to the latter. A university that places too exclusive reliance on its official structure and its official forms risks being an empty shell, or, to change the phrase, something that only makes sense on paper. To avoid this fate requires widespread leadership, commitment, and continued thought. In other words, it must itself be an object of serious, and not simply paper-world, planning.

Works Cited

Brigham, S. (1996). Participatory probes for a new future. Planning for Higher Education, 24, (summer), 14-17.

Selznick, P. (1992). The moral commonwealth: Social theory and the promise of community. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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