Particularly Now, Question the Assumptions

By William Donaldson August 3, 2020 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

These are extraordinary times in academia. In my role as systems thinker, strategy consultant, board member, and professor, I am often asked by university board members: What are the essential questions we should be addressing during these turbulent times? Here I look to answer that question.

Peter Drucker, in his seminal article “The Theory of the Business” (Harvard Business Review, September-October 1994) addresses this key governance question directly. He asserts that three critical assumption sets undergird an institution’s strategic plan:

  1. Environmental assumptions about the demographics, students (customers), parents, funding, pedagogy, technology, and other factors that drive an institutional response.
  2. The environmental assumptions create institutional purpose, vision, and mission assumptions. These address such questions as why the institution exists, what value the institution brings to the market, and what the institution is designed to do.
  3. Finally, the above sets of assumptions generate a third set of organizational assumptions concerning the academic offerings, pedagogical methods, systems, skills, and competencies required by the institution to sustain itself.

Drucker’s theory notes that these three sets of fundamental assumptions provide the organizational and cultural context for the institution, shape its purpose and the resulting systems, and predominantly influence the institution’s response to its environment. Yet many of these assumptions were made years ago and have survived unchallenged, and without regard to any changes in the overall society, economy, or culture that the higher education organization serves.

Therefore, the fundamental assumptions that shape the very existence of many of our higher education institutions today may be out of touch with the realities of the external marketplace. COVID-19 is bringing into sharp relief some of academia’s most firmly held assumptions. To wit, many have assumed that:

  1. There will be an ever-growing flow of candidates anxious to enroll at our institutions.
  2. The only road to wealth and societal prominence is through a degree.
  3. The value of a college degree is unquestioned in the minds of most parents and students.
  4. Old academic models—the sage on the stage, publish or perish, towering academic buildings—are the real essence of academia.

One has only to read the daily Chronicle email feed to find examples of these old assumptions being challenged. Yet, many are acting as if long-standing, yet relatively unchallenged assumptions are still valid, moaning about the need for changes, or wishing for a return to the good old days.

Embedded in Drucker’s simple model are three very profound and strategic implications for boards and board members in the months ahead:

  1. Our institutions rest on core sets of assumptions that were created in response to the environment. The environment has changed. Therefore, boards must initially be questioning these fundamental assumptions. Are the underlying assumptions still valid? If not, what are the new assumptions that must be articulated? What are our new assumptions about the institutional environment, purpose, vision, and mission?
  2. Once we review these and determine their validity, we can then review the final set of core assumptions regarding curriculum and outcomes, pedagogies and delivery systems, and faculty and student skills and competencies. In other words, the resulting structures, processes, and products that derive from the core assumptions.
  3. The above two steps will align the institution’s purpose and systems with the new reality. We must then continuously revisit and renew these assumptions to ensure that our institution remains in alignment with the current reality. So, our third important question to address as governing boards is: How can our institution continue to respond and change as required by the new reality? What structures, processes, and cultural attributes can we ingrain in our organization to ensure this assumption questioning and alignment thrives?

All strategic plans derive from the fundamental assumptions the institution makes in assessing the environment. Therefore, the most consequential questions boards must be asking at this time are: What are our underlying institutional assumptions, are they valid, and are they in alignment with the current environment?

William Donaldson, PhD, is an assistant professor in management at Christopher Newport University.

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