A Business Approach for Higher Ed Strategic Planning Success Using Data Analytics and Change Management:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 098 with Guest Dr. Mark Lombardi

Table of Contents

A Business Approach for Higher Ed Strategic Planning Success Using Data Analytics and Change Management

Maryville University’s commitment to innovation is paying dividends for the institution. Maryville has grown to over 10,000 students and is on track to have multi-million-dollar surpluses for more than 12 consecutive years.

The institution is completing its second strategic planning process, which has set in place initiatives that have laid the path for this positive trajectory, even during the pandemic. In Fall 2021, Maryville was named the fourth-fastest growing private university in the United States by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

A Business Approach for Higher Ed Strategic Planning

President Mark Lombardi takes the approach that a university is a business and needs to run that way. Money is necessary to reinvest in the education of students and faculty delivery of great programs. The president noted that he initially learned this lesson through his father and others who were in business.

When he was a faculty member, Lombardi noticed faculty members’ tremendous passion for students and their intellectual content knowledge. He also saw a real lack of understanding that the university is a business and needs to run that way. He initially felt caught between the two worlds, but eventually gravitated toward the world that he felt he could make the biggest impact – the administrative side of the institution. He applied many of the business principles he learned from his father and others over the years, working in partnership with the board of trustees, faculty, and staff.

Lombardi incorporates many start-up company principles into Maryville – move fast, embrace change, experiment, innovate, don’t be afraid of failure, take risks, and deliberate (but move quickly). When the university has done this, it’s unleashed a reservoir of creative talent among the faculty, staff, and students. For example, the institution planned to add a wrestling team based on its strategic plan. When the University of Nebraska-Omaha wrestling team was disbanded as a program immediately after winning the national championship, Maryville sent the institution’s vice president for enrollment to UNO the next day. The result? Six weeks later, Maryville held a press conference that it was bringing the UNO wrestling team to Maryville.

Lombardi noted that many higher education institutions consider similar innovative ideas as Maryville, but they fail in innovating by putting those ideas through a 20th-century process that involves endless deliberations and committee meetings, no endpoint, and no goal. In comparison, Maryville puts these ideas through a very effective, fast, and efficient decision-making process that allows the institution to seize emerging opportunities in a variety of areas, including wrestling, a new cybersecurity degree program, and buildings.

Rethinking the Deliberation Process in Strategic Planning

Many in higher education think deliberation involves endless thinking, but not Lombardi. For him, deliberation is not dependent on time – when there is a strong strategic plan and an institution knows where it’s heading, it can identify emerging opportunities and move quickly. Lombardi noted that the reason this approach results in faster movement is because institutional leaders are not just beginning to think about these ideas; instead, they are already thinking about them and have them on the back burner. This earlier deliberation during the planning process speeds up the analysis process because everyone has done their homework ahead of time and can move forward quickly when opportunities present themselves.

Traditional higher education culture is often hesitant about this approach, but once they see the benefits after several decisions have been made, they start becoming more amenable to this approach. This rapid deliberation process then becomes part of the culture.

Maryville’s strategic planning process is focused on creating the vision and where the institution is heading. It isn’t about the numerous steps needed to get to the vision because participants don’t know what opportunities will become available during the ensuing years. Therefore, it’s important to maintain flexibility.

Not Being Afraid to Fail is a Key Change for Higher Ed

One of the challenges that higher education faces when it comes to innovation is that it is afraid to fail. This is not the right mindset that is necessary for innovation – they need to be willing to embrace innovation which means taking (smart) risks. For example, Maryville decided it wanted to enroll more than 10,000 students in 2005; at the time, the university had an enrollment of roughly 5,000 students. The question becomes, “How can the institution get there?” The first answer in 2015 was, “We don’t know yet.” The second answer is there are multiple avenues and opportunities, and the institution needs to be prepared for those. This includes identifying new programs and new careers that are emerging. By maintaining flexibility and being willing to take smart risks, institutions give a variety of constituencies the room to experiment and take chances.

This approach also requires reframing the idea of failure as being a learning experience that can serve as a way of creating adjustments. Both success and failure become great learning exercises and move the ball forward.

Maryville has infused this approach throughout its academic ecosystem so that students see institutional leaders, faculty, and staff modeling this behavior. When students become less afraid of failure, they’re willing to push themselves more in the learning process and expand their approaches, scope, and ideas that they are studying. And there is an added bonus – failure helps everyone build resiliency and grit, which are important traits that can’t be given to anyone.

A Culture Change: Asking for Input vs. Asking for Assistance

Culture can’t be changed if the institution embraces certain processes from the 20th century. For example, consensus is difficult because of the diverse interests and stakeholders both on and off campus.

Instead, leaders need to drive cultures to understand that they need to move on a specific program or initiative and then ask people to assist in implementation not ask for input (instead of making the decision). Lombardi said the first time they took this approach at Maryville was a struggle; the second time it was easier. Each time after that, people began to realize that they could have a real impact on the design and delivery of innovation, especially when there is success.

Never discount the importance of getting small wins in changing a culture.

Institutions need to have the courage to take 20th-century artifacts – such as consensus – off the table. While sometimes consensus is important, this approach does not need to be used every time. Instead, the structure of the process needs to be planned in such a way that input is gained early, but the project can move forward in a timely manner.

Maryville also uses a process in which they determine the endpoint, based on where they want things to happen and the timeframe, i.e., start with the end in mind, and from there, leaders work backward to where they are now. If it doesn’t fit into the timeframe and it’s not effective, leaders jettison that part of the process and move forward. Otherwise, the planning process and resultant strategic plan becomes a large document that sits on the shelf collecting dust instead of a living, breathing, organic part of the institution is trying to achieve.

Additionally, Lombardi is trying to move away from the stereotypes of administrators, faculty, staff, and students. He said that there are innovative and engaged change agents in all these groups on campus, and there are some static individuals in these groups as well – it isn’t one or the other. He believes it’s important to find the change agents on campus, knit them together, and then empower them. These individuals have become the leaders of Maryville’s ethos of innovation at all levels.

Lombardi is a big proponent of tenure and does not believe it is a problem for the academy. However, he does believe that there is too much emphasis on seniority. The reality is that there are creative faculty at all levels – senior, young, and new – so the idea that seniority should equal influence is an antiquated notion that stifles innovation. Instead, influence should come from the power of the individual’s ideas.

Training Faculty Leaders as Innovators

When Maryville started working with Apple and introduced their 1:1 Initiative with the iPad, they made the decision to invest more in faculty development.

Previously, these trainings had been brown bag lunches. However, leaders decided to put more resources behind the initiative so they added 2 weeks to every faculty member’s salary. They arranged professional development to be held 1 week in May after school ends and 1 week in August before the semester begins. Those weeks are dedicated to faculty development and are organized and designed by the Center for Teaching and Learning. These peer-to-peer experiences are structured to help faculty tap into innovation.

This process allows young faculty to showcase their skills and abilities. They also get to work with senior faculty so that everyone is learning from each other. This has created an ecosystem of innovation.

Additionally, Maryville is being strategic in developing and training leaders. This effort involves looking at values and processes and then being prescriptive in how to lead. It also involves learning how to set a timeline, let people craft what that will look like, and create a sense of urgency. It also means anticipating opportunities and issues to be ready to seize them. The university has leadership training to help individuals become ready for those opportunities.

Lombardi also believes that to overcome resistance to change, the key is how you do it – and not what you do – that makes the difference. For example, in the 1:1 Initiative, Maryville did not require all faculty to embrace this effort. Instead, they engaged what Lombardi calls the Pied Pipers who were already well-versed in using the technology and let them structure the initial faculty development of it.

This group was the early adopters, but eventually, other groups that were initially skeptical started buying in. Within a few months, about 90% of the faculty had received some level of training so when the institution launched the initiative, most of the faculty knew how to use the iPads and incorporate them into instruction effectively. Additionally, students “voted with their feet” – they opted to enroll in classes that used the iPad technology, thus pushing laggers to buy into the program.

The university’s culture now is about piloting any innovative idea that has merit. The pilot will allow the institution to figure out if the idea has merit and works and whether it can be expanded.

The Future of Data Analytics and AI in Higher Ed Strategic Planning

Maryville is leading a revolution in higher education based on data analytics and artificial intelligence. The institution is well down the road in using data analytics and data analysis to create a completely personalized learning environment for every student, whether in-person or online.

They also are using artificial intelligence to create an education system whether the faculty member and each student have an intricate personalized profile of the student’s learning approach. Then by combining that data analysis with AI, they can analyze students’ progress in real-time, instead of waiting for exams. Lombardi believes this approach will open up access for every student, including those who are first-generation or under-represented in higher education.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  • Don’t assume that there will be opposition to every innovative idea. Instead, have the courage to believe that innovative ideas will be embraced more than you realize.
  • Change is absolutely fundamental to the academy today as well as to every other walk of life. There is no longer “steady as she goes.” Instead, leaders need to find ways to move into a digital arena and be innovative.
  • Students are natives in the digital age and higher education needs to tap into the expertise of faculty, staff, and students to understand the spaces they are truly in. Once this understanding is created, you can adapt instruction to meet these students’ needs.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides strategic planning, implementation, and change management consulting, to higher education institutions. 

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