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The Review of Higher Education 23.3 (2000) 281-298

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The Use of Institutional Incentive Grants for Strategic Change in Higher Education

Joshua B. Powers

Presidential Address


Much has been written in recent years about the need for reform in higher education. Issues such as the quality of undergraduate education, faculty tenure, accountability, tuition increases that repeatedly outpace inflation, and general suspicion about the management of colleges and universities have challenged institutional leaders. One way that college and university administrators have responded has been to implement strategic planning processes as tools for transforming their institutions. Such efforts often produce strategic planning documents that articulate a range of proposals or recommendations about what the college or university will do to address its "problems" and achieve its vision. As Keller (1995) suggests: [End Page 281]

If any educational group intends to reinvent its university or college, it will need to have some idea of what the newly invented institution might look like. It is not sufficient to move away from existing problems, inefficiencies, and outmoded structures and programs. Toward what new directions should the group move? The changes will require a vision of what the renovated university or college could or should become. (p. 381)

While the specific packaging and presentation of their intended responses to the change pressures differ, most colleges and universities articulate similar ways of addressing the concerns. In essence, strategic plans show considerable similarity, a phenomenon not wholly unexpected considering how universal some of the issues are and how much collegiate institutions rely on mimicry (Covaleski & Dirsmith, 1988; Gates, 1997; Meyer & Rowan, 1977).

However, conspicuously missing from many planning documents are clear implementation plans. Strategy enactments are usually confined to generally vague assignments that "units will be responsible for identifying and implementing initiatives in support of the plan." How will units be held accountable? Who will be responsible for ensuring that action is taken? How will goal achievement be measured? The lack of specificity is not surprising; many have argued that institutional-level goal-setting in higher education should be general (Chait, 1979; Davies, 1986; Hodgkinson, 1971). The diverse units of the loosely coupled enterprise (Weick, 1976) are then free from the central bureaucracy's control that can thwart creativity and innovation at the school and department level (Hearn, 1996). Nevertheless, reading these planning documents often leaves one feeling that achieving the substantive changes espoused is, at worst, unlikely and, at best, possible only incrementally. Neither of these outcomes may be satisfactory to an institution's stakeholders.

Yet embedded in the text of a few plans is an implementation approach that deviates from the norm of vagueness. These institutions allocate financial resources through a competitive, internal grants process to fund faculty and staff initiatives that support one or more elements of the college or university's plan. While the specific process and amount of funds involved differ among these institutions, the approach basically resembles the grants process of many public and private foundations.

Specifically, the college or university issues a request for proposals to faculty and/or staff that are then evaluated by an institutional review panel. The university then funds the most "meritorious" projects in full or in part, reviewing multi-year projects annually. These colleges and universities assume that such funding will encourage constituent interest in advancing the institution's strategic initiatives. [End Page 282]

Purpose of the Study

While research on the use of resources as an incentive tool is not new (Jenkins, Mitra, Gupta, & Shaw, 1998; Lasher & Greene, 1993; Massy, 1996), few or no studies have investigated its application in the form of internal incentive grants designed to enact college or university strategies. Thus, institutional leaders seeking to stimulate faculty and staff effort toward particular institutional priorities currently have little empirical evidence on how to initiate a grants program.

This article helps fill the research gap by reporting a longitudinal case study of Indiana University's experience with a competitive grants process tied to its strategic plan. To set the context, I first describe the historical and...


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