“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don’t know.” — Former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

Here’s a question for today’s academic strategist. Pull out your file and the final documents for your institutional strategic plan for the period of 2005–2010 or so. If you conducted a standard SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis in preparation for your planning efforts, under the “opportunities and threats” categories, how many of the following factors were on your list?

  • Near collapse of the financial markets in 2008–09
  • Meteoric (and yet uneven) rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
  • Federal government pursuit of a set of standardized student outcomes across all of higher education
  • Significant shifts in public perception about the true value of higher education

Perhaps your institutional planning process and risk assessment skills were prescient enough to foresee at least some of these (and other) opportunities and threats. Yet even the most lucid and trusted analysts of financial markets largely missed the “course correction” in the stock market in 2008. Hindsight is 20/20. There’s no one that could have successfully predicted all of these and other forces that together would shape the broader context in which higher education currently operates.

Throughout the course of history, those nations, corporations, and nonprofit institutions and individuals who have most successfully weathered the “unknown unknowns” in life are not necessarily the brightest, the strongest, or those with special powers of foresight. We can never “out manage” risk in life, especially given the realities of the “unknown unknowns.

  • This simple fact, however, still leaves plenty of room for today’s academic strategist to think strategically AND tactically. What are the particular forces and factors that are shaping your institution today? In your planning process, how honest have you been in stating not simply the “known knowns” of your institutional position in the marketplace, but also those “known unknowns.”
  • How well do you know the current marketplace in which you seek to recruit not only the class of 2018, but the classes of 2020 and beyond?
  • Do you have a clear sense of the strengths and weaknesses of your academic programs, and what changes may be necessary to balance the academic portfolio so that your programs are relevant to the changes taking place in the marketplace?
  • Does planning at your institution ask the truly hard questions about the continuing purpose of, and need for, the particular educational experiences that you offer?

Successful strategic planning in higher education today requires a willingness to confront those factors that we know to be difficult and challenging—to not sugarcoat “the known knowns.” At the same time, the successful academic strategist who helps lead the institution in its planning processes should also be prepared to frame the “unknown unknowns” conversation in ways that lead to greater engagement and creativity. Keep moving forward. The great unknowns will always be there—but they don’t have to control your institutional destiny.

To learn more about the Strategic Planning services at Stamats and to schedule a phone consultation, please contact Ron Mahurin at ron.mahurin@stamats.com or call 319-861-5085.

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