How to Start a Higher Ed Master Plan the Right Way

Creating an institutional master plan is an exercise that can both excite and scare higher ed leaders.  Whether it’s a strategic plan, academic plan, master planning or other visioning exercise, leadership must establish greater clarity about where the institution is going in the future. This glimpse into tomorrow is tempered by today’s demands. A wide variety of constituents both within and outside of the institution have needs and aren’t shy about sharing them. It’s important for leaders to prevent themselves from getting caught up in the excitement and start their planning efforts on the right foot to satisfy all constituents.

Start with the End, Before You Meet with Master Planners

Master planning of any kind doesn’t start when the outside planners show up on campus. Institutions that expect a master planning firm to solve all of their issues are start off behind the proverbial eight ball. Waiting for master planning consultants means losing precious time, making it more challenging to achieve the transformative results they are seeking. Before you engage with an expert, it’s important to know what outcomes you wish to see. Think of it like telling your barber, “I’d like to look good.” Your barber may have a version of “good” that is different than yours. On the other hand, if you tell your barber you’d like a haircut just like soccer star David Beckham’s, you are more likely to leave the shop looking how you expected to look.

Master planning has some surprising parallels to this simplistic scenario. Whether we’re talking about a barber or a planner, it’s much more challenging for an expert to determine the best path forward if your goals are unclear. Before the planning team arrives, determine where you want them to help you go. Having clear outcomes will lay the groundwork for a successful master plan.

Gather Facilities Performance Data and Build a Story

Knowing where the current state of your institution is a critical first step to determining the ideal future state. Objective, trustworthy data that applies to stakeholders provides a neutral ground for setting the baselines. Datasets on their own have limited use, bringing them together and creating connections between them is what will really set the master plan up for success. Before you begin a master plan, be sure to gather scheduling data from the registrar, asset condition data from facilities, operational cost data from finance and capital plan data from planners. This is not an exhaustive list of facilities performance data, but it gives you good place to start.

Tying the data together into a coherent story allows leaders to confidently start asking strategic questions before the master planners even arrive. Does the scheduling data support what faculty are asking for in their project requests? Is there an opportunity to remove classes from a building whose assets are in poor condition while maintaining the programmatic needs?  Are there corners of campus that are continually underutilized because of their distance from housing buildings? How can our spaces be updated to meet our needs?

Merging traditionally siloed datasets together helps leaders separate fact from fiction when creating strategies that will impact multiple stakeholders.  Weaving these threads together into one cord creates a single point of conversation to determine where the institution is today and what the goals are for the future.

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Prioritize Facilities Needs

With facilities data gathered in a central location, priorities will direct the master planning team to the most critical storylines. Priorities which are chosen in line with institutional mission and vision ensure the team directs the master plan toward a unifying goal.  Typical priorities focus on outcomes like student success, life and safety, reliability of program and fiscal sustainability. There are many routes to meeting priorities and it’s important for the team to be flexible enough to accommodate multiple paths to success. Importantly, the priorities should be built with objective criteria which can be compared side-by-side. This approach allows for fully transparent decision making, from both the institution and the planning team.

Keep Facilities Mission at the Center of Planning

Weaving together facilities data points and stakeholder needs is no easy task, but the effort invested in creating the appropriate baseline will help determine mutually beneficial outcomes and set the entire master planning process up for success.  Finding a team of people with the right experience can alleviate pressure to come up with the framework to set the baseline for the plan. This process also ensures that the institutional mission remains at the center of the planning discussion, aligning the resulting plan with a unifying vision for the future.