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President's Corner

Strategic planning at UCAR: What’s in it for universities?
Community members and UCAR/NCAR/UOP leadership met in Boulder for a planning retreat in July 2005. (Photo courtesy Rick Anthes.)

Over the past three years, UCAR has been carrying out a complex process now culminating in a new strategic plan. (The last one was written in 1992.) I expect the UCAR Board of Trustees to approve the plan later this year, after our members and academic affiliates discuss it at the annual October meetings. Here I briefly summarize our process and some milestones along the way, in hopes that other institutions might find our experience interesting and useful. The box on page 3 shows a few highlights from the draft plan that may be of particular interest to academia. We invite you to read the full draft (see "On the Web") and we welcome your comments, which may be sent to me at

Most universities and other organizations are continuously involved in one or more aspects of strategic thinking and planning, even if not identified as such. Periodically, it is useful to formally reconsider an organization's mission, vision, values, goals, and priorities in a process that leads to a new or revised strategic plan. This process encourages management to step away from solving daily problems and look at the big picture. As is well recognized, the process is often as important as the final plan itself—a vital way of communicating internally and externally and stimulating the type of debate, self-examination, and creative thought that prepares an organization for the future.

There is no recipe for either the strategic planning process or the type of plan that is finally created. There is a variety of processes, which are often chaotic, and many types of valid and useful plans emerge. As we began development of our new strategic plan, I reviewed dozens of plans from other organizations. They ranged from two-page documents with no figures or photographs to a 400-page document with hundreds of graphs, tables, and figures. Some plans were written at an extremely general level, with few details. Others contained many specific action items and programmatic details with assigned responsibilities, required resources, schedules, and metrics, as might be expected in a quarterly or annual operating plan.

Our process evolved over several years and involved many UCAR staff and external participants. The cycle began at the UCAR Members Forum in October 2003 with a keynote speech by James Duderstadt (president emeritus, University of Michigan), "The Future of the American Research University." Afterward, the attendees met in breakout groups with UCAR staff to discuss how NCAR and the universities could work more closely together in five thematic areas: the water cycle, biogeosciences, cyberinfrastructure, next-generation observing systems, and faculty development. These breakout groups were successful in increasing communication among those interested in these specific areas and creating input that informed the development of a new NCAR strategic plan (see sidebar).

A month later, the UCAR President's Council held a three-day retreat that was the first of its kind in our organization's history. It included managers from NCAR, UOP, and UCAR's Education and Outreach (EO) office, as well as 40 other staff drawn from across the institution. The three-day retreat began with a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) exercise on the first day, in which senior UCAR leadership participated as observers only. On the second day the President's Council (a subset of UCAR/NCAR leadership) met alone to discuss the SWOT results, and on the third day the NCAR, UOP, and EO directors heard summaries of the first two days and continued the discussion. The retreat successfully involved a very diverse group, elicited candid points of view from within the institution, and stimulated further discussion in subsequent management meetings.

More groundwork for a new strategic plan was laid over the next two years through the following steps (see "On the Web" for relevant links):

  • the UCAR members meetings in October 2004 (which included two panel discussions led by university faculty around the theme of preparing for the future of UCAR and the community) and October 2005 (which included an open-house poster session and a discussion of synergy and collaboration among UCAR and the universities)
  • a major survey of the UCAR community in 2005 seeking its views and input into UCAR programs, plans, and priorities
  • an intensive study of metrics that can be used to assess progress and quality of UCAR programs
  • the development of a new NCAR strategic plan, NCAR as an Integrator, Innovator, and Community Builder (see "On the Web"), which was approved by the Board of Trustees in December 2005 and which informs the new UCAR plan
  • the development of strategic plans for UOP, EO, and UCAR Finance and Administration.

Putting it together

As a model format for our plan, we chose the Colorado School of Mines Strategic Plan 2004-2014. It devotes one page each to seven overarching strategies, briefly described and fleshed out with specific goals. We found this plan quite readable and we felt it conveyed a clear sense of the school's vision, mission, priorities, and goals for the next decade.

Members of the UCAR Management Committee (UMC), a leadership group of approximately 50 managers and directors from across UCAR, began writing the UCAR plan in early 2006. After the UMC agreed on seven strategies (an eighth was added later in the process), breakout groups from the UMC tackled one strategy each, with input from other UCAR staff who felt passionately about those particular areas. Concentrating on one strategy and an associated set of goals per group, and limiting the written material to one page, helped the groups focus on only the most important aspects of their strategic areas. We also asked the UMC to reconsider statements of UCAR mission, vision, and values in light of recent scientific and societal developments.

Next we turned to the university community for input. A rough draft plan was sent to the UCAR University Relations Committee (URC) for review and comment. Much of the URC's April meeting at San Francisco State University was devoted to intensive discussion of this draft. The contributions and constructive criticisms by URC members resulted in a much improved draft. More revisions followed after extensive discussions and interactions with the Board of Trustees during and after its May meeting.

An important purpose of our plan is to communicate to our staff—and to the broader UCAR community of universities and other stakeholders—who we are, what we do and why it is important, and who our partners are. To this end, we have distributed the draft plan to all UCAR staff. We are also soliciting comments from university administrators at the highest levels, encouraging them to discuss the plan with the appropriate programs at their universities. In this way we hope to increase the visibility and importance of the atmospheric and related sciences in each university. Raising the awareness of university presidents, deans, and chancellors about the work of the UCAR community is only one of the many benefits from our multiyear process of creating a strategic plan.

Rick Anthes

University-related highlights of the draft plan

Below are the mission, vision, and eight strategies at the heart of UCAR's draft strategic plan, as well as the goals envisioned for supporting and advancing the university consortium. Input on this and other parts of the draft plan is welcome (see "On the Web").


UCAR is a consortium of universities that serves and provides leadership to the atmospheric science and related communities through research, computing, and observational facilities, and education programs that contribute to the betterment of life on Earth.


A sustainable, healthy future for all people and life on Earth depends on establishing and maintaining a balance between human needs and aspirations and nurturing the planet's support systems. UCAR and our community will do our part in realizing this vision.

Strategies for UCAR/NCAR/UOP

  • Support and advance our university consortium
  • Conduct and enable a broad research program in the atmospheric and related sciences
  • Develop and employ increasingly capable observing systems that fuel discovery and understanding
  • Provide innovative and powerful information technologies, services, and tools
  • Create, catalyze, and support world-class science education programs, resources, and communities
  • Cultivate an environment of organizational excellence where science and education programs thrive
  • Engage people with diverse perspectives
  • Transfer scientific knowledge and innovative technologies to the public and private sectors

Goals for supporting and advancing our university consortium

  • Provide an intellectual commons for the national and international university community working on all aspects of Earth system science and its ramifications for society
  • Build and nurture a collaborative consortium of universities and research centers with unrivaled capabilities for research
  • Recruit talented and capable students from diverse backgrounds into the field
  • Help develop leadership among students, faculty, and researchers in the university community and equip them to meet the challenges of the coming century
  • Promote effective collaborative research, education, services, and other community-building activities

On the Web

UCAR Draft Strategic Plan
(includes links to NCAR, UOP, and UCAR F&A plans)

Results from 2005 UCAR Community Survey

Measuring the Productivity, Quality, and Impact of UCAR Programs
(Report of the UCAR Metrics Committee)

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