The Need for a Strategy for an Institution of Higher Education

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For some, a strategy is something that has been written — sometimes through a process that involves countless meetings and untold memos — and then put on a shelf to be forever ignored. Others have operated in an organization that, as far as is known, does not have a strategy. A lucky few of us have worked in an organization that has a clearly stated strategy. In this article I make the case for having a strategy and at what level of the organization it should be defined and be operational.

Higher Education Strategy Series: This is the first entry of this series. This page describes the whole series and provides links to all of the articles.

What exactly is a strategy? I will defer formally answering that question for now, but I define it loosely and provisionally as the following:

A strategy is a statement describing where the organization is going to compete, how it is going to compete, how it is going to win, why it will win, and the steps that it will take to achieve success.

What does a strategy do?

The process of defining a strategy exacts its toll in the time and attention of organizational leadership, taking time from other, seemingly more pressing tasks. However, leadership should make the effort to construct a robust strategy since the benefits of having one are significant:

  • Direction and priorities: At its very foundation, a strategy is a statement of what’s important to the institution. It’s a declaration to its leaders, employees, students, contractors, and vendors of what it hopes to accomplish and how it will do so. The people operating within the strategy’s span change over time, they have different pressures affecting them, and the environment is constantly shifting around them, but the strategy acts as a given, a reference point for setting priorities for both action and investment. This institution-wide priority setting is also the best means of driving large, transformative investments throughout the organization. Any smaller scope would limit the ambitions of such an investment.
  • Alignment across the organization: A higher education institution typically is a large, complex, diversified, and dispersed organization. It is impossible for its leaders to make decisions about any but the most global and significant issues. A clearly stated, well-publicized, and effectively enforced strategy can be a tool for guiding the decision-making of people throughout the institution at its many schools, departments, institutes, and programs.
  • Continuity across leaders: Leadership of higher education institutions changes quite significantly over time. Presidents, provosts, deans, department chairs, and heads of programs turn over fairly regularly. Fortunately, the boards of these institutions are relatively more stable and can provide some sense of stability over time. In addition to these boards, another tool for creating stability and continuity across leaders is a clearly stated strategy. This should guide the actions of the institution’s leaders and inform all prospective leaders of what the organization stands for and what it hopes to accomplish.
  • Communication: A clearly stated strategy communicates priorities and processes to those not only within the organization but outside it as well. Vendors can better understand how they might help. Prospective students can use the strategy to find a school that is the right match in which to enroll. Adjunct faculty and contract employees can more easily gain an understanding of what the institution stands for and how it hopes to succeed. In short, a strategy is an institution’s stake in the ground that states “This is who we are, what we do, and how we hope to compete.” It can help the institution attract the right people and organizations to it.
  • Simplify decision-making: Finally, the bane of a decision maker’s existence is a limitless set of possibilities. Such a horizonless landscape takes longer to comprehend and navigate successfully. It takes more resources (both time and money) as well. This is the life of a decision maker in an organization without a strategy. A strategy sets parameters around the choices available to an institutional leader at any level of the organization, thereby speeding up and simplifying the decision-making process. It also presents clear guidelines for what the organization wants the decision maker to emphasize and prioritize.

The benefits of a clearly stated strategy are clear. The next topic to address is at what organizational level a strategy should be created.


For this series, I will be posing activities for an educational leader to complete. The unifying project for these activities is to define a medium- and long-term plan for competing and winning online.

  1. What is your university's official strategy?
  2. Does your school/college have a separate strategy? If so, how are these two similar or different?
  3. Does your institution's strategy answer all of the questions posed by the definition of strategy above? If not, what is it missing? For those parts that are missing, fill in your answer for each one.

Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or comments. 

Keep Learning

Define and Act on Your Institution’s Strategy

Dr. Scott Moore has written a 15-part series on defining and acting on a higher education strategy to guide leaders during these difficult times. It is targeted at educational leaders who are participating in shaping their school's actions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.


Dr. Scott Moore

Dr. Scott Moore is a former Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine. In this role, he led the global Custom Learning Experience practice. He worked with dozens of nonprofit, higher education, and learning business organizations as they considered using online learning to support their mission and margin, using his deep understanding of organizational dynamics, online learning, strategic differentiation, decision-making, and more. Prior to joining Extension Engine, he was a faculty member, administrator, and dean at Michigan Ross and Babson College for 20+ years. He holds an M.B.A. from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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