Q&A: Larry Lyon

November 9, 2006
Baylor faculty and staff have been busy this fall preparing proposals for strategic initiatives that will move the University closer to the goals of Baylor 2012. Randy Fiedler of BaylorNews spoke with Dr. J. Larry Lyon, Vice Provost for Institutional Effectiveness and Dean of the Graduate School, to find out about Baylor's strategic planning process.

Baylor News: First of all, what is Baylor's definition of strategic planning?

Larry Lyon: Strategic planning is the consideration of the best ideas of faculty, staff, students and friends in moving Baylor forward. It is Baylor's way of assuring that we are good stewards of our resources, and a way to increase the likelihood that the time, money and effort we devote to certain projects are 1) connected to our mission and vision, and 2) likely to succeed. There are always a number of things that Baylor could do, but not all of them reflect our mission and our vision. Not all of them are likely to succeed, so strategic planning is a process that asks, "Does this move us toward the goals of Baylor 2012? If so, how? Does this have a good chance of success? If so, why?" Answer those questions and you can begin to allocate scarce resources in the best way for the University.

BN: So, strategic planning is a way of going around the University and discovering what things are needed, and which of those things are feasible?

LL: Strategic planning at Baylor is divided into two categories: operational plans, which are incremental improvements in what we do, and major strategic plans, which will require significant resources. Major strategic plans will truly change the University in demonstrable ways, and if we enact them, we can count on moving closer to achieving one or more Imperatives of Baylor 2012. Operational plans may not take a lot of resources to achieve, but they may require, for example, a reallocation of existing resources or new resources for a part-time person. Operational plans achieve the same thing as major strategic plans, but at a more focused level. Operational plans might not be grandiose or get your heart pumping the way some big strategic plans do, but they make sure that all our individual offices and operations work as efficiently as they can, and work with the mission and the vision of the University in mind. So when the president talks about strategic planning, he is talking about two levels of planning: operational planning that we use to allocate smaller resources for incremental improvement, and then major initiatives that will be prioritized and will require ordinarily major investments.

BN: How does strategic planning take into account both short and long-term goals?

LL: Usually, operational plans are more short-term, while major strategic plans often unfold over five to ten years with funding required over that same time frame. The operational plans will support the traditional budget requests that have been considered three times a year. The major strategic initiatives will be considered by a larger group of individuals constituted solely for that purpose and will finally go to the Executive Council and the President. In some cases, approval by the Board of Regents will be required.

An example of a major initiative is a new building. You have to find the land, you have to draw up the plans, you have to build the building and you have to move the people into it. It would require several years of planning and funding before we ever see the benefits of that building. So, a major strategic plan typically takes several years to complete while the impact of that building may stretch over another 20 or 30 years. It's a bit different with an operational plan. Say we need a part-time person in the Admissions Office to deal with an increase in applications. We can move on that fairly quickly. But while one takes less time to complete than the other, neither operational nor major strategic plans should be done capriciously. Even an operational plan needs to be justified in terms of why it is important.

BN: As part of Baylor's strategic planning process, deans, department chairs, and others on campus have been asked to submit strategic proposals. Can you explain how that works?

LL: Major strategic proposals can be initiated at any level of the University -- by faculty, staff, administrators, or even by friends of Baylor. The first step is that she or he would develop a plan and present it to the academic dean or administrative vice president responsible for guiding this plan as it moves through the process. At that point there would be some discussion back and forth: "How about this aspect of the plan? Did you consider what's also going on in another department? Have you checked with them about this?"

When all the questions are answered at this level, the academic dean or vice president submits the strategic plan to a newly created entity called the University Strategic Planning Council, which has about 15 members representing all of the various elements of the University. There will be representatives of Staff Council, Faculty Senate, undergraduate and graduate students, and administrators. The council will receive all major strategic proposals and evaluate them, looking at the strong and weak points, and then make assessments. Those assessments then move to the Executive Council and then up to the president. In July 2007, President Lilley will announce a number of strategic initiatives to which the University will commit.

BN: Would it accurate to say that major strategic proposals should be for things that aren't now at Baylor in any form, as opposed to somebody simply wanting to expand something already here?

LL: It depends on the level of expansion. Let's suppose a department that's had a high enrollment the last three years needs another faculty member or two. That would be considered an operational plan, calling for an incremental increase. But let's suppose a department wants a new, state-of-the-art research facility and a new PhD program. Adding a doctoral program would require providing for at least a dozen doctoral students. The new research facility would cost 10 million dollars and necessitate hiring five more faculty members. Those kinds of increases are clearly strategic. Can you always draw that line clearly? Well, I've seen proposals coming in now where it's a little tough to do, but generally you know it when you see it.

BN: How detailed do major strategic plans have to be when they're submitted? I'm assuming they have to do more than announce, "We'd like a new building."

LL: They do, and we've got templates available online to help people submitting plans know exactly what's required. There are certain things you have to address. You have to have a detailed budget, and there is an Excel spread sheet where you fill in all the blanks detailing the estimated cost for 10 years. Inflation rates and other kinds of expenses will automatically be figured in to provide a final cost estimate. Each person submitting a plan also is asked to tie it to Baylor's mission and vision.

BN: How many pages does this application contain?

LL: First, there is a required two-page executive summary. As for the proposal itself, we haven't put a page limit on it but I'm assuming 10 to 20 pages would be the norm. Of course, a lot of proposals also will include attachments, and some of those attachments are going to be long. For example, if someone claimed in their proposal that several major experts believe that by creating the new program they're asking for, Baylor could become one of the leaders in the nation in this particular field, they could supply links to attachments where those experts are saying those things. You could click and view those reports if you wish, or keep reading the 10 to 20-page proposal.

BN: Will the people submitting major strategic plans be able to monitor their progress as they make their way through the process?

LL: Yes. The President stressed to me several times as we were developing this process was that while he will present the final list of approved projects, several venues for evaluation must exist before that list ever gets to him. He also wanted transparency at every level of the process so that anyone would be able to make a proposal and keep up with its progress. Project Office will allow the submitters to keep close tabs on their proposals. The process is geared to maximize input and transparency.

BN: Will all of the chosen major strategic initiatives announced by the president be funded immediately by the University?

LL: No. Some will receive funding immediately, but in other cases the University will be committed to the raising of funds for the project. When funds need to be raised, different parts of the plans might have different start dates. For example, the drawing up of architectural plans might begin the day after President Lilley's announcement, while fundraising and the hiring of faculty for the creation of a new department might take place months or years down the road.

BN: What are the timelines for the major strategic planning process?

LL: All major strategic proposals have to be in to the appropriate dean or vice president by December 15. Then, in March 2007, the proposals will go from the dean and vice presidents to the University Strategic Planning Council. The council will then have a couple of months to meet, ask further questions and make their priority list, and then it will go to the executive vice president and provost. Finally, in July 2007, it will go to the president.

BN: Is this process of submitting major strategic planning proposals going to be an annual event?

LL: Yes, this will be done every year. If you weren't successful the first year you can resubmit your proposal as is, or you can retool a bit before resubmitting it. And of course, you can always come up with new proposals.

BN: Is this a more simplified way of asking the administration to approve long-range strategic proposals than we've had in the past?

LL: This process, if not simpler, is more transparent and allows broader input than we have had in the past. I think it has the potential of producing better proposals, and the potential for building greater support for those proposals because of the breadth of input and the transparency of the assessments as they work their way up to the president.

BN: Is there an advantage to evaluating all of these significant and sometimes costly proposals all at once, instead of dealing with each throughout the year on a piecemeal basis?

LL: Sure, there's no doubt about that. Suppose I have a good idea and go to the president and say, "Here's my good idea, Mr. President." He responds, "Well, it's a good idea all right, let's do that." Then, a month later, someone else has an even better idea and goes to the president. This time, the president might have to say, "This second idea is better, but gosh, you're a month late. I already gave the money to that less worthy good idea because it was here first." The very best way to allocate scarce resources is to view all the competing demands at the same time.

BN: You mentioned there are online resources designed to help those making proposals. What's available now?

LL: Right now we have a Blackboard site with answers to frequently asked questions, sample templates and documents for timelines and criteria questions that have to be addressed. By the end of 2006 we'll have a separate website up that will provide similar information.

BN: As of this time in late October, have a lot of proposals already been submitted?

LL: I'm pleasantly surprised at the early interest. We've got three major strategic proposals in now, but I know of at least a dozen more that are in the works. We're going to have more major strategic proposals coming through this process than I anticipated, and they're critical for our forthcoming comprehensive fund raising campaign.

BN: Is there any way to categorize the proposals you already know about?

LL: It appears that we may have most of our major strategic proposals coming from the academic side of the university. But, we're an academic institution and that probably shouldn't be a big surprise.

BN: What role will the people proposing each major strategic initiative be expected to play in raising the money to fund it?

LL: One thing President Lilley wants is for the proposers to help finance the proposals. In other words, they should ask themselves, "Is there something I'd be willing to give up and transfer those resources over to this new thing I want?" Then they should ask. "Are there some grant requests I can initiate that will help provide the equipment for this laboratory? Is this proposal likely to engender private support?" Now, if the answer to all those questions is no, then think about this: If you're not willing to give anything up, if there is no research money to support your proposal and if this project were not likely to be attractive to potential donors, then maybe this isn't where the University needs to go. In other words, these questions are more than just trying to determine if the proposer will help bear the financial burden. They're also internal indicators of much the proposer really supports the proposal and external indicators of "How much does the larger society want this?"

BN: Is the new major strategic planning process something that was mandated by the ongoing self-study?

LL: SACS does mandate strategic planning. It mandates assessment, accountability and continuous improvement. It requires us to assess what's happening, hold people accountable for what's happening and ask these people to get better at what they're doing. We could have done that in a number of ways that would have satisfied SACS but would not have been as significant a process as what we've just talked about. What the President did was decide that we are going to build on the work that we did for SACS and do much more than that. He wants to use strategic planning to get the University to where it needs to be. We're going to use strategic planning to make sure we allocate resources in the very best way to create a Christian research university. The reaffirmation of accreditation work we did for SACS makes this much easier to do.

BN: Let me finish by asking a big picture question. What do you think the end result for Baylor is going to because of the major strategic planning process?

LL: My hope is that Baylor will initiate University-changing major initiatives that will do two things: move us closer to the goals of Baylor 2012 and engender support for those initiatives. I think in the past we've had a number of good plans and initiatives that were designed to move us towards the goals defined by 2012, but we haven't always had broad support for those initiatives. We need both.

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