Nathan Urban and Chris Cook

Provost Nathan Urban and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Initiatives Chris Cook are leading the strategic planning effort.

Lehigh’s Strategic Planning Process: A Conversation with Nathan Urban and Chris Cook

With ‘Our Lehigh, Our Future’ in full swing, Lehigh’s provost and its vice president of strategic planning and initiatives talk about the themes, process and generating ideas.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

“Our Lehigh, Our Future—an open dialogue on the strategic direction of the university” is now under way, with members of the Lehigh community sharing their ideas with university leaders and each other, and working groups helping to flush out and refine ideas. The campus community is invited to participate through in-person and remote events as well as through an on-line Idea Portal

The strategic planning effort is being led by Provost Nathan Urban and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Initiatives Chris Cook. Here they talk about the themes, the process, generating ideas and getting involved.

Four themes emerged to guide the Strategic Planning process: Education with Purpose, Lehigh User Experience, Research with Impact and Smart Growth. Why those themes?

Urban: We got to those themes through an interesting process. We started off with a pretty blank slate, asking different groups of people–mostly deans, people in leadership roles across the university–what are your big ideas, your thoughts about the future? There were 300-plus different ideas that emerged through that process. We then looked at that set of ideas and said, what are some of the themes that seem to be emerging? Some of those ideas were problems to be solved. Some were opportunities. Some were ways in which people thought we could differentiate Lehigh from similar universities across the country or world. …

We had a set of conversations over the course of the summer with a number of different groups, including some groups of faculty recommended by the Faculty Senate… as we tried to gauge people's level of enthusiasm. From that feedback, we refined the thematic areas and the questions that we're asking around these different thematic areas. 

Cook: It wasn't just that these themes were emerging, it was that there was really shared and consistent interest in these particular themes that those 95 people [at meetings over the summer] really thought were the important things to talk about.

The Strategic Planning Forums and the Idea Portal have generated myriad ideas as Lehigh charts its course for the future. Have any particular ideas risen to the top of the list?

Urban: We're still in the stage where new ideas are emerging and being refined. So I wouldn't say we're there yet in terms of identifying particular ideas for initiatives, things that we must do. There certainly is a lot of interest around Mountaintop and what it is that we should be doing there. There's a lot of interest in different aspects of the Lehigh user experience. How can we improve the way in which faculty, staff, students, members of the community work with Lehigh, making that more efficient, more effective, more transparent?

Cook: The process is very early. We want this to be a rich discussion throughout the community. Those big ideas will continue to emerge. The Idea Portal is an online tool for the campus community to engage and submit ideas to the process. Ideas that emerge from the in-person sessions are also being added to the portal for a transparent repository of the discussions. What we expect to find [as we evaluate the incoming ideas and really listen] is …  if we put three or four ideas together, they're sort of moving us in a particular direction. That's what hasn't yet emerged, but I think it will over the course of the next few months. 

What kind of ideas are you looking for?

Urban: That has been a question that's come up a couple of times … Here's my current version of that answer. If you think about the last 50 or 100 years, what are some of the biggest, most important changes that have happened here at Lehigh? Well, I would put a few things in that bucket. One is, 50 years ago, we started admitting women as undergraduates. Over the last five years we've developed the College of Health as a new college. Some 25 years ago, we acquired the Mountaintop Campus and began to develop that as a new, different type of campus for the university. Those are three big changes that occurred. We're looking for ideas and initiatives that are on the scale of those changes. That's the kind of impact that we're looking for, something that would be a signature event in the history of the university.

My view is that good ideas are very widely distributed. ... The success of this effort will really depend on our ability to identify and elevate the ideas that come from lots of different people. 

Provost Nathan Urban

How will ideas be selected? 

Urban: Working groups will assemble the ideas that have been generated into specific initiatives. Those initiatives will be described and fleshed out. …. At that point, there will be an opportunity for people on campus to hear about those proposed initiatives and give feedback. 

An advisory council and groups that are critical to particular ideas will work on trying to further develop them, so that we know what [resources] it would take, so that we know not just, yeah, this is a great idea, but this is something that will require a certain amount of space, a certain amount of money, a certain amount of commitment on the part of the university. Once we have that vetting process underway, we'll be able to decide the work to pursue. 

Cook: One of the things that's really important to this process is that we continuously help the campus understand that the plan that emerges is connected to the ideas that were developed, the ideas that were submitted. They are not necessarily going to sound exactly like whatever particular idea was submitted. It's our job to articulate how the input led us to these larger,  more aspirational concepts. Many of the tactics that are being identified right now are going to be very important to making those big initiatives come to life. 

How can alumni get involved in the process? Is there a role for them?

Urban: Certainly there’s a role for alumni. As we develop these ideas and go further down the process, there will be opportunities for alumni to contribute and to make suggestions. More specifically, we are interested in surveying alumni to ask what elements of the plan they feel most excited and energetic about, likely in the late winter or early spring timeframe when the strategic initiatives are taking shape.

Cook: Joseph E. Buck, the vice president for Development and Alumni Relations (DAR) is working with us to identify opportunities where we can engage alumni when the topic is relevant to them. ... There are four members of DAR on our advisory council and in different roles throughout the structure of the planning process. That’s very intentional because they’re an important part of this community

What hurdles to achieving goals have already been identified?

Cook: We've been hearing about hurdles since we started having conversations in January. We found that some aspirational discussions, such as what should be the vision for Mountaintop, were challenged by logistics—parking, buses, dining—so the conversation couldn’t easily become visionary. So, we started clearing these hurdles so we can be more aspirational, more strategic. To name a few…we identified Mountaintop logistics as a priority and developed a Mountaintop Fieldguide. Grad health insurance improvements have been made to address concerns about competitiveness. In addition, we're developing an “inside Lehigh” course to provide more transparency around how we work as an institution. That will all aid in people understanding just how we do business here and the realities of our infrastructure. We have a process to address hurdles and an (inhurdle@lehigh.edu) email address for submissions.  

Urban: There are some things that I've heard about that relate to the process of scheduling classes and scheduling classrooms. Those are in some ways small scale things that can be a major annoyance for somebody who's trying to get work done. Those are some things we'll be looking to address. Something came up on the Idea Portal about helping faculty do a better job of communicating about their research to broad audiences, and that's something we can work on addressing this semester.

strategic planning forum

Nearly 500 faculty, staff and students in total attended the four in-person forum events. 

How has the strategic planning process been received in the Lehigh community? 

Cook: The response has been great so far, and the number of people participating in the Idea Portal is well beyond 700 right now. I think that will continue to grow as ideas are submitted that are really tapping into people's interests. We had nearly 500 people attend the in-person forum events. So it's been really tremendous. There's a clear appetite for engagement. 

Perhaps the fact that we haven't had a formal strategic plan since 2009 means the campus is really interested in participating and engaging in this, and they want to tell us their ideas. There's still some healthy skepticism, I suspect. It's our job to continue to be transparent and to continue to be really consistently openly engaged and interested in the input.

Are people saying, okay, I'm going to give you my ideas, but are you really going to listen

Cook: I would say that the skepticism is, well, what are you going to do with this? … Do you really care? The reality is, yes. This is called “Our Future, Our Lehigh, an open dialogue on the strategic direction of the university” for a reason. It is intended to be an open dialogue, and it is really everyone's input that will matter here.

In addition to the forums and Idea Portal, are there other ways for the Lehigh community to get more involved?

Urban: The working groups are in the process of scheduling meetings. Those that are open to different groups will be listed on the Lehigh strategic planning website so people can see the groups that we're meeting with. …  Not all of them have been scheduled yet. There's more work to be done there, but we want to have opportunities for people to provide that input. 

We also are planning an opportunity for feedback in November on ideas that are emerging. Each of the working groups will identify one idea that's furthest along in terms of being developed and talk about it, present it, pitch it. There'll be an opportunity for members in the community to see that description and provide feedback, both in person and virtually online.

We want this to be a rich discussion throughout the community. Those big ideas will continue to emerge.

Vice President of Strategic Planning and Initiatives Chris Cook

People have asked, why now? How do you respond?

Urban: Why now for strategic planning is, in part, because it's been a while since we have had a strategic plan–2009. It's a long time ago in the life of higher education. There have been a lot of changes, and there are currently a lot of changes that are occurring in higher education. A strategic planning process is something that allows us to look at those external forces and think carefully about what we need to do, what we can do to make sure that we are thriving in that environment of today, but the environments that we project over the next five to 10 years. 

Think about the pandemic and all the changes that happened in higher education because of the pandemic in terms of how it is that we teach, the financial stresses associated with a pandemic, both for institutions and also for families, but also [think about] the importance of education at this moment. … After the 2008 financial crisis, 98% of the jobs that were created were filled by people with some kind of college degree. That is just a testament to the importance of higher education in the world today; that is, having a degree is absolutely critical for so many career paths today, where it didn't used to be. 

We need to be responsive, and we need to reflect on some of those changes that have occurred in our country and in the world and make sure that we as a university are fulfilling our mission and can fulfill our mission for the next decades. 

Cook: And I would add that, to position Lehigh competitively, we also want to clarify and build on our unique strengths. What makes Lehigh distinct in this very large pool of higher education? Having this important dialog will allow us to surface those things that highlight our distinction.

Are there any early answers to that? What makes Lehigh distinct?

Cook: We are unique in an urban setting to have such rich land assets. That's one distinction. So let's capitalize on that. Let's make that really something special. We do have tremendous program offerings. The students tell us why they came. Well, let's double down on that, and let's make sure that that's really highlighted and that we bolster those programs and create clear access points for students to find those uniquely Lehigh experiences. 

Urban: One thing that's very important about Lehigh in this particular moment is that students who graduate from Lehigh are successful. You can pick different measures of success, but the outcomes for our graduates are really outstanding. … Georgetown's Center for Education in the Workforce put together an analysis of return on investment for 4,500 colleges and universities across the country. Looking at the 20-year, 30-year, even 40-year return on investment, Lehigh ranks extremely highly in those measures. … I don't think there's any question about the economic value of a Lehigh degree. 

That's something that we need to make sure that we promote, but also enhance, because we want to look at areas where we are strong and see how it is that we can become even stronger in that area.  That's something that's so important now and is going to be so important in the future of higher education–to make sure we open doors for people who graduate from here, we provide a transformative experience that gives them access to opportunities that they wouldn't have had otherwise. Some of those opportunities translate into economics and some translate into students having the opportunities to make the kind of impact on the world that they want to make.

Cook: The other point of distinction that we want to make sure we're articulating is, why Lehigh for faculty and staff as well? What makes this a place to work to do your research and scholarly endeavors? That's one of the reasons why the Lehigh user experience concept as a theme was so important to the people that we met with. How do we make sure that faculty can find their best scholarly endeavor here? What can we do to make sure that we're supporting them and retaining the best and brightest faculty in the world? And likewise, how can we make sure that this is a rich place for staff, where they feel valued and belong and also where they can be innovative as administrators.

How will you ensure the plan doesn’t wind up on a shelf? 

Urban: From my perspective, one of the key reasons to have a strategic plan is because it's something that we will consult as we make big decisions going forward. It will be something that, as we're trying to decide about where we're going to invest resources, where we're going to hire faculty, where we're going to expand programs, where we're going to build buildings, that's not going to be done in a one-off way based on the narrow facts in front of us. That has to be done in the context of a bigger picture. And that is really the strategic plan. And so, in my view, it won't be left on the shelf because if we do it right, it will be a very valuable tool in informing the decisions that we're making going forward. 

That said, it's not written on stone tablets. … We need to have room to pursue opportunities that are in front of us as the landscape changes.

Cook: The creation of my position and the Office of Strategic Planning and Initiatives is a real signal that we're committed to making sure this doesn't stay on the shelf. This is an important part of our ecosystem. We will have structure and accountability for the plan in a way that we haven't in the past. 

So every year we will be monitoring the plan. We're going to have a transparent dashboard that will show us where we are with our measures of progress. And we will be able to see the trends to know whether we need to pause, be nimble, either evaluate those measures of success—maybe that's not really successful, or is that not the right thing to measure, and is some external force driving this change, and we need to adapt. Having the focused effort to keep an eye on all of those elements, and having an office focused on that, is a real privilege. 

Anything else you would like to address about the process?

Urban: What are the most important efforts underway right now? It really is the engagement piece, making sure that people across campus in a whole variety of different roles understand that we're interested in their contributions. My view is that good ideas are very widely distributed. It's not that all the good ideas sit in the deans’ offices or vice presidents’ offices. There are good ideas that are out there in the community that reflect the experience of people in lots of different roles—faculty, staff and students. The success of this effort will really depend on our ability to identify and elevate the ideas that come from lots of different people. 

Cook: That’s why the Idea Portal is so important. In addition to engaging in person where we have these more structured discussions—this Idea Portal gives everybody an opportunity to share ideas. And that, I hope, is kind of a game changer in our ability to really shake out those ideas from all the nooks and crannies of our campus community.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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