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The Review of Higher Education 23.3 (2000) 257-280

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The Realities of Strategic Planning:
Program Termination at East Central University

Christopher C. Morphew

Presidential Address

It is not difficult to find advice for colleges and universities about management and restructuring during periods of financial stress. Texts and chapters on strategic planning (Keller, 1983; Rowley, Lujan, & Dolen, 1997; Schuster, Smith, Corak, & Yamada, 1994) and restructuring in lieu of retrenchment (Karr & Kelley, 1996; Leslie & Fretwell, 1996; MacTaggart, 1996; Myers, 1996) provide recipes for proactively managing a university through hard times. These texts and chapters guide managers interested in such topics as environmental scanning, resource reallocation, dealing with faculty, and the role of campus culture. Primarily, however, these sources provide "macro" case studies: they aggregate examples of restructuring at colleges and universities [End Page 257] (Hyatt, Shulman, & Santiago, 1984; Leslie & Fretwell, 1996; Schmidtlein, 1990a; Schuster et al., 1994; Steeples, 1988) or describe restructuring at the state level (MacTaggart, 1996).

While useful for understanding broader examples of institutions that have successfully restructured themselves, these macro case studies are less useful for those interested in the institution as the unit of analysis or the examination of a specific outcome of the strategic planning process. Their approaches paint in broad strokes and, as a result, fail to provide a useful version of "what really happens" during the restructuring process on an individual campus. None of these macro studies delve, for example, into the more subjective aspects of reallocation strategies or program termination. Instead, they describe program terminations as a useful tool for the manager seeking to restructure or rightsize his organization. Yet such an approach ignores the subjective decision-making scenario that precedes such an event. For example, Myers (1996), describes institutional approaches in a brief section on "program review and elimination":

After reviewing institutional goals and conducting program reviews based on the quality and centrality of programs to institutional mission, institutions such as the University of Washington, the University of Idaho, Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan cut some programs in order to strengthen others. . . . Columbia University, for example, closed its library school and linguistics department in the 1980s in order to direct reallocated resources to prestigious programs in medicine and business.
(pp. 72-73)

Myers's description of program review and termination is typical of those in other texts and chapters on strategic planning and restructuring. The description is accurate but simplistic and truncated. What is missing are answers to key questions about the interaction between strategic planning and program terminations. How is the institution's mission operationalized and linked to specific degree programs? How are "strong" programs identified? How had the terminated programs become weak? Had the "stronger" programs and terminated programs received similar institutional support in the past? What happened to the students and faculty invested in the terminated programs? These important questions require analysis of a specific program termination that resulted from an institution's strategic planning effort.

The case study described here presents, at the micro level, the termination of a program resulting directly from a university's decision to construct and follow a strategic plan. Unlike other studies of program terminations (e.g., Slaughter & Silva, 1985; Gumport, 1993), this study is unique and significant in its examination of the interaction between a strategic plan and a program termination--an interaction frequently mentioned [End Page 258] in planning literature but one that remains largely unstudied. While the findings from this case study cannot be applied generally to other program terminations, it should nevertheless add to our knowledge about program terminations in higher education and the realities of strategic planning.

Program Terminations in Higher Education

The termination of a degree program is a traumatic event for students, faculty, and staff involved with the program (e.g., Nicklin, 1994). Often, each group has different interpretations of what the termination means. For example, when Washington University terminated its sociology degree program in 1989, faculty throughout the university criticized the decision as a "pig roast" precipitated by the university's continued lack of financial commitment to...


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