Around Campus

Updating Carolina Next

Last spring, University leaders reexamined several of the eight strategic initiatives in light of COVID-19 and heightened racial tensions. Bob Blouin and Lynn Williford discuss Carolina’s “living, breathing, evolving strategic plan.”

Four people appear on a computer screen.
Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert A. Blouin and Assistant Provost for Institutional Research and Assessment Lynn Williford recently talked to The Well about the changes made to Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good and why the updates were needed. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

In light of the global pandemic and heightened racial tensions, Carolina’s leadership, working with teams across the University, spent the past nine months revising the University’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good. The plan aims to turn the University’s vision and aspirational goals into strategic opportunities and initiatives and prioritizes where the University can achieve the greatest impact.

Eight strategic initiatives frame the plan: 1. Build Our Community Together; 2. Strengthen Student Success; 3. Enable Career Development; 4. Discover; 5. Promote Democracy; 6. Serve to Benefit Society; 7. Globalize; and 8. Optimize Operations. Each strategic initiative is grounded in an environmental scan that provides a macro view of the external environment and emerging trends and articulates the opportunity for change within the University. Strategic objectives capture the goals of each initiative, and each objective identifies opportunities. A timeline and metrics for each opportunity are noted for monitoring progress.

The Well recently talked to Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert A. Blouin and Assistant Provost for Institutional Research and Assessment Lynn Williford about what changed and why.

The University Board of Trustees endorsed Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good on Jan. 20, 2020, six weeks before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted campus activity. How did that disruption impact the strategic plan? And what did you do in response?

Blouin: The global pandemic had a significant impact on the strategic plan. Around mid-spring, we decided to take a fresh look and reexamine several of the eight strategic initiatives in light of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement and the heightened racial tensions that were clearly evident at the national, statewide and even local level. None of us expected the changes that these two events would have on this University, this state and this country.

Our original expectations were that it would be a living, breathing, evolving strategic plan. If this plan is going to be relevant and be a compass for decision making and priority setting within the University, it makes sense that we would be paying attention to changes that were occurring within our environment. A strategic plan is designed to help prioritize where the institution feels that it has the greatest need to create positive change.

The priorities established in the strategic plan and the opportunities that have been identified represent those collective ideas that the majority of our units feel is where we need to make our greatest change in order for us to not only pursue our mission, but to do it at a national and globally competitive level.

What updates were made to the plan and how extensive were they?

Williford: We started by looking at the environmental scans for each initiative and examining what might need to be changed. At the same time, we began to look at the strategic opportunities we had identified earlier. Given all the changes, some were not relevant anymore or were impossible to carry out. Some initiatives had to be re-written, particularly Globalize.

For Globalize, goals included sending students abroad and increasing the faculty’s ability to go abroad and to do their research. It became more evident that not only did the spring semester plans have to be changed significantly, but the fall semester plans would be changed too.

Because we had that early opportunity to revisit some of the strategic opportunities, what we’re doing will be more relevant.

Blouin: I think it’s important for everyone to realize that each of the strategic initiatives is preceded by an environmental scan. The purpose of that scan is to answer the questions of what, why and when. Why do we believe that it is important, timely and strategic? When is the right time for us to execute that strategic initiative, objective or opportunity? That’s what makes a strategic plan strategic.

It’s knowing what factors are likely to influence in a positive or negative way the feasibility for us to successfully implement and execute that initiative, objective or opportunity. When COVID hit, it changed a lot. It required us to take a fresh look because we had not considered a global pandemic in our strategic thinking. It would be irresponsible on our part not to factor in something as influential as a global pandemic or something as important as the racial equity issues that surfaced during the Black Lives Matter movement in the spring.

I think that Globalize was a great example of us having to react. We had 700 students all over the world, having an experience of a lifetime, something that they had been planning as part of their life experience and their educational experience. Then COVID-19 hits in Asia in late December and then Europe in January. Our first reaction was to make sure that our students were safe. COVID-19 had an impact on our aspirational goal of creating a global opportunity for all of our students.

Instead of enabling them to stay and flourish in their global experiential site, we had to call them all home. How disappointing was that for them? But also how difficult was that for us?

Williford: I would also say that there were some strategic initiatives that changed less than others in terms of how we had originally stated them and the strategic opportunities under them, but COVID-19 and many of the other changes brought the importance of that area into a lot sharper focus.

The pandemic had quite a financial impact on how the University operates and our revenues. We realized that our dependence on information technology was much greater than we had ever thought about and that we were reliant on technology to help us get through, but we also had to rethink how we do business in the future.

We realized the importance of doing things efficiently and always searching for a better way to be more effective. Optimize Operations is one initiative that we did not change substantially. But we are paying more attention to that now.

Build Our Community Together is the first strategic initiative. Why was it prioritized and how has it changed in light of the recent events that you mentioned?

Blouin: When we wrote the eight strategic initiatives, we thought that we would align them in no particular order. As we reflected on the last three years here on this campus, we had our own issues with regards to race.

The campus and the community experienced a great deal of turmoil and anxiety around a symbol, the Confederate Monument, also known as Silent Sam. As a result, it put a clear focus on race on this campus, the history of this state and the history of this University. As we were reflecting on the last couple of years and the toll that it had, we thought it would be very difficult for us to achieve the aspirational goals of this strategic plan if we did not get this particular challenge addressed well. Our decision was highly influenced by some of the opportunities that the chancellor and I had engaging in various community sessions on campus and listening to thoughts and ideas, but also the pain and frustration that our community, particularly our community of color, was experiencing.

Much of that came about as a result of addressing the monument issue. We didn’t think we would be able to be successful in the other strategic initiatives if we did not get this one correct.

As we first developed the initiatives,Build Our Community Togetherwas prioritized as our number one strategic initiative because it centers on our people. I think everybody would agree that we are a great University because of our people, our faculty, our staff, our students. If we cannot bring our community together, then what hope do we have of being able to achieve these lofty aspirational goals of these other strategic initiatives? We need to bring this University to a place where we can all thrive and flourish.

How were some of the other initiatives significantly impacted by the pandemic?

Blouin: Beyond Build Our Community Together, another strategic initiative impacted was Strengthen Student Success. Learning via a remote connection may seem easy to some, but for many it is challenging. We had to rethink how students can learn best. Also, teaching remotely does not come naturally to everyone. It has changed the experience for our faculty as well as our students.

We started using some new terms like digital deserts. With students back home, not everybody has access to Wi-Fi or a strong Wi-Fi connection or a learning environment that is conducive to studying and taking remote classes. I don’t think that we ever fully appreciated how inequitable education can be until COVID-19. And I hope that our understanding will make us a better University for our students.

Promote Democracy, our fifth initiative, also changed. When we were envisioning it, we were thinking about the whole process of elections and how important so many things are to democracy in this country. I’m not sure that any of us could have envisioned — given the events over the last couple of weeks or months — how important this initiative is.

What an opportunity for us, as a global public research university, to have a strategic initiative with the title Promote Democracy. I’m proud that we incorporated that into our plan, and I’m proud of the work that’s being done by our faculty, staff and students, as well as members of our community, to help elevate awareness around the whole issue of democracy.

How are you going to measure the progress and share that with the community?

Williford: Each of the opportunities should have an outcome that helps us move the needle on the strategic objective. We’re going to measure both the opportunities that we are carrying out as well as impact.

For example, there are several opportunities about various kinds of training to promote career development for faculty, staff and students. We would measure: Did the training happen? Did it get designed? What was the reaction to the training? Did people say they changed a behavior as a result of the training?

We are taking a multi-method approach, designing performance measures that could be quantitative and qualitative.

What do you hope to accomplish by the end of this calendar year?

Williford: We are collecting information from the captains who are spearheading the work on the initiatives to learn what they achieved in 2020. I’m astounded at how much work they got done. They initiated a lot of infrastructure changes and I think they are well suited to take off in 2021 toward some of the larger projects that they had envisioned.

Blouin: One of the surprises has been that despite COVID-19, the many disruptions that have touched the campus, some of the anticipated economic impact on the campus, the region and the country, we’ve been able to get a lot accomplished. One of the things that we have promised our community, including our Board of Trustees, is that we would generate an annual report.

We have goals and measures to assess our success in pursuing these strategic initiatives. Our team captains who oversee each of these initiatives have been able to do a tremendous amount with relatively few new resources, which is something that I am extremely proud of.

When we started this, a lot of people were concerned that we didn’t have a budget that was associated with this particular plan. We were reluctant to align a financial dollar amount to each of these initiatives because we felt that in order to successfully accomplish these initiatives, we would have to leverage not only the University’s central resources, but also existing resources. We have a lot of partners that focus their attention on each of the strategic initiatives, and each of these partners has their own resources that they can bring to bear on the successful implementation, execution and completion of each of these initiatives, objectives and opportunities.

Williford: We know there’s lots of good work that goes on within schools and departments in all areas and by faculty, staff and students, too, that are related to our success in these initiatives. It’s a great chance to look at that and to be able to point to people and organizations that are doing good work that might go unrecognized or unappreciated had we not had this this formal opportunity to measure our success.

The University is facing some financial challenges. How will the eight Carolina Next initiatives be funded?

Blouin: Funding of any initiative is going to have to be evaluated in real time. This strategic plan is meant to be an evergreen plan. We’re working around a three-year rolling horizon. We’re always refreshing the initiatives, the objectives and the opportunities. The timing of launching an initiative is critical. The key factors, in addition to having the talent to do it and having the right environment to accomplish it, also includes the right resources to implement and execute it.

Some initiatives are better positioned now for implementation than others. Others will become more executable in a year or two years when appropriate resources become available. We want to make sure we recognize that resources come from many different directions. They can come from new dollars. But currently, in our present economic situation, we’re not counting on new dollars to fund many of these initiatives.

How can faculty and staff contribute to the success of these initiatives?

Blouin: When we launched the plan, there was some criticism about the plan being too top down, and not enough people involved in its creation. I accept that criticism.

It’s important for people to know that we incorporated ideas from all of the strategic plans across our campus, from schools, units, centers and institutes. Those plans were created with full participation from faculty, staff and students, even though that might seem a little distant with regards to this plan. Creating a strategic plan is not an easy task. Because we had envisioned it as an evergreen plan, we envisioned that faculty and staff primarily and some students would need to own this plan and lead parts of it. To help, we identified eight to 10 team captains or co-captains, along with about 60 leads. These are rank and file faculty and staff with some administrators associated with it. But it is not an administratively driven plan.

As the plan rolls out and new ideas come forward from individual units, they will bubble up into the plan as new opportunities and objectives. I hope anyone who has an interest in contributing to the strategic plan can look at each of these strategic initiatives and perhaps can see their work embedded in this plan.

How can people get regular updates about Carolina Next?

Williford: Our new website, carolinanext.unc.edu, describes what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, along with our progress in executing our strategic initiatives.

The website is going to be our primary mechanism, but not the only one. We are highlighting some of our successes on the website; others will appear in The Well and campus publications. We also want to look for other ways that we can make the strategic plan concrete to people. We may meet with various groups on campus, sharing what we were doing and hearing their ideas. We want to be active in keeping Carolina Next in front of people as a way of encouraging them to give us their ideas and their involvement.

To read other stories in The Well’s ongoing series about the eight strategic initiatives visit Updating Carolina Next.