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Strategic planning improvements key to Higher Learning Commission progress

Astute strategic planning is a key component to success.

In the early 2000s, administrators at The University of Toledo and the Medical University of Ohio were acutely aware of the fact. A few years before the 2006 merger, each institution had received word from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools that strategic planning processes needed improvement.

UT and MUO promptly created initiatives to strengthen strategic planning. When the institutions merged to form a new University of Toledo, the momentum gained from each entity’s progress toward more comprehensive strategic planning was evident.

Bryan Pyles, associate vice president for finance, led a team evaluating UT’s progress toward continuing accreditation from the HLC. His subject, Criterion 2: Preparing for the Future, dealt heavily with UT’s progress in strategic planning, among other guidelines.

“Shortly after the merger, the president led a strategic planning initiative, and a few years later it was followed up with another strategic planning initiative that resulted in a document called Directions 2011,” Pyles said. “It was very easy for my team to say that strategic planning had once been a weakness, and now it’s become a real strength.”

Strategic planning is one of several facets the HLC targets in assessing an institution’s preparation for the future. Others include:

• The organization realistically prepares for a future shaped by multiple societal and economic trends.

• The organization’s resource base supports its educational programs and its plans for maintaining and strengthening their quality in the future.

• The organization’s ongoing evaluation and assessment processes provide reliable evidence of institutional effectiveness that clearly informs strategies for continuous improvement.

• All levels of planning align with the organization’s mission, thereby enhancing its capacity to fulfill that mission.

As Pyles and his team gathered information for the 57-page section addressing Criterion 2 in UT’s self-study report, the University’s action during the economic downturn already had made a case for readiness during challenging times.

“Our conclusion is that UT is well-positioned to be successful,” Pyles said. “We had a bit of a debate; how can we say this when we’re constantly talking about challenges of the budget? But when you look at our financial performance over the last couple of years, we’ve done very well. The changes we’ve made in the budget process to evaluate our resources allocations are in line with our strategic plan, and we’re making investments to ensure we’re successful in our strategic initiatives.”

Significant progresses in the areas of global expansion, campus infrastructure, technological readiness and student-centeredness also are documented throughout the self-study report. The expansion of programs into the Middle East and Far East represent UT’s commitment to being a global leader. Enhanced technologies have allowed UT to offer an array of online programming as well.

“We do a lot more online than almost any other public school in the state of Ohio,” Pyles said.

With progress also came opportunities for improvement. Pyles cited examples in the area of student-centeredness, where documented problems with student services were met with the reorganization of Rocket Solution Central, enhanced online capabilities and diversity initiatives that have furthered UT’s stated goal of creating “an organizational culture that is welcoming to all individuals regardless of their age, color, ethnicity, gender, religion, disabilities, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity and national origin.”

Pyles said the accreditation process isn’t finished even after representatives from the commission complete their on-site survey Feb. 27-29.

“I think the self-study report is exceptional,” Pyles said. “It’s a great document for someone who wants to discover what our institution is about. But it’s also a reminder that we have to go back and identify the areas we found to be opportunities for improvement so we can continue to work on them.”

Pyles’ Criterion 2 team members were Marcia Culling, William Fall, Dr. Shanda Gore, Dr. Johan Gottgens, Brenda Grant, Dr. Thomas Gutteridge, Dan Klett, Brenda Lee, Dr. Susan Pocotte and Dr. Ellen Pullins.

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