McMaster University Academic Plan

In March 1999, the University Planning Committee (UPC) approved an Academic Planning at McMaster: Discussion Paper. That Paper, subsequently endorsed by both the Senate and Board of Governors, charged the Provost "...with the task of coordinating a process leading to the generation of a draft University Plan' for UPC's discussion and consideration". To that end, in June 1999, the Provost assembled an ad hoc group1 to advise UPC about a "University Plan". The UPC reviewed a preliminary draft of a "University Plan" in December 1999 and approved this final version in January 2000. This plan, termed the McMaster University Academic Plan 2000 - 2005, has been approved by Senate and is endorsed by the University Planning Committee.


The first logical task is to explore what was meant by the term University Plan. Although this term is used in UPC's Terms of Reference, it is instructive that no one appears to have attempted or offered a definition. It seems impossible to prepare a University Plan without considering, at the outset, what the nature and scope of such a plan might be. To assist exploration of this issue, other planning documents at McMaster (e.g. Directions and its offspring Directions 2 and Directions 3, the Academic Planning at McMaster Discussion Paper itself) and at other institutions (e.g. University of Toronto, University of British Columbia) were reviewed. These analyses brought us to the following three conclusions that helped define the scope and nature of a University Plan.

  1. It was not the job of UPC to re-create or repeat an institution-wide Strategic Planning exercise. Rather, we felt strongly that the original Directions, a document that resulted from university-wide consultation and that had been approved by Senate and Board, formed the context and foundation for our work.
  2. To be effective, a University Plan has to address two audiences. First, it needs to help the UPC and the Budget Committee judge the relative priority of academic plans, thereby informing their resource allocation decisions. Second, it needs to speak more broadly to the whole University community to assist individual units in their academic planning and to optimize the overall planning process at McMaster.
  3. As suggested by the progenitor Academic Planning at McMaster Discussion Paper, the focus of this report was to be academic planning. Although we recognize the impossibility (and folly) of isolating academic planning from issues such as administration and space management, this report was to consider these issues in the context of academic planning. As such, we began to speak not of a University Plan but of a University Academic Plan. We envisioned the possibility that we might, in other situations, receive and review other plans that focused specifically, for example, on administrative matters, space or asset management.


As noted above, Directions provides the context and framework within which we could recommend a University Academic Plan. Given this conclusion, it is not surprising that a considerable amount of time was spent studying Directions to understand not only how it guided the ideas that might be included in a University Academic Plan but also how a University Academic Plan would be distinctive from, and add value to, it.

In this context, we make several comments about Directions. First, although completed in 1995, many of the ideas and principles enunciated in Directions remain relevant today. That said, the course McMaster has followed in the last 3-4 years, and changes in its social, political and economic environment, indicate some of Directions' ideas and principles as more relevant and germane than others in the year 2000.

Second, Directions was intended to address all the communities, areas and functions of the University. As noted above, however, this report is focused on academic planning per se and, as such, some of the statements within Directions are more relevant than others.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the fifty or so ideas and principles expressed in Directions target different conceptual and operational planning levels that may not have been adequately distinguished within that document. Some of the ideas in Directions might be characterized as statements that describe desired states or endpoints (e.g. "We inspire critical thinking, personal growth and a passion for learning."; "Faculty, staff and students should work together to produce an environment in which the inextricably linked concepts of research and scholarship can flourish"). These statements provide little assistance in making resource allocation or priority setting decisions. In contrast, other statements describe process or best practice by which the university might operate (e.g. "Departments and programs will be expected to establish precise goals which connect their plans to the University mission and to the criteria for resource allocation" ). One may question whether the University has followed these suggestions for good process or, in fact, whether people are aware of these best planning practices. Finally, other statements appear to describe the mechanisms by which the University should allocate its resources - an issue particularly relevant to the mandates of the UPC and Budget Committees (e.g., "Priority will be given to those programs where there is a high level of demand, our performance is particularly strong or promising and we can make distinctive contributions.")

The "level" at which a University Academic Plan speaks is critical, but difficult. We are not inclined to a document that is a collection of uncontroversial platitudes. But, it seems equally unsatisfying and unacceptable to suggest a highly prescriptive document that is not embedded in a context of guiding principles. Our conclusion is that a University Academic Plan needs to include more than one level of description, but that it must clearly distinguish between the different levels of analysis and recommendations. We also appreciate the importance, in the context of planning, of being sufficiently detailed that good processes can be followed and that directed decisions can be made. But, equally, we have a healthy respect for the diversity of methodologies and metrics that are used by different disciplines and parts of the University. Therefore, the tone and language of a University Academic Plan needs to be instructive to decision-making, especially resource allocation, but also permit different units to exercise their particular modus operandi as they develop, and argue for, their academic plans.


The academic plan of any university, including McMaster, should reflect how the university perceives its role in society. Most generally, this may involve articulation of how the university's academic plans respond to the needs of, or contributes to, its society and various communities. As well, a McMaster academic plan should reveal how this university perceives itself to be distinct from other educational institutions and, for that matter, from other universities.

Our thinking about a University Academic Plan was also influenced by Recommendation Five of the previously-approved Academic Planning at McMaster Discussion Paper that states:

"The UPC should affirm its commitment to high quality undergraduate programs, particularly those that link teaching and research skills, and should be prepared to make budget reallocations to initiatives that promote these goals."

On the basis of our deliberations, we suggest that four guiding principles, consistent with statements found in Directions and the Academic Planning at McMaster Discussion Paper, provide useful direction to academic planning at McMaster. The four guiding principles are:

Principle #1: McMaster should cultivate a culture of planning that includes incentives and rewards for those who help McMaster achieve its academic goals.

We believe that, particularly in the current dynamic environment, a culture of planning must be part of the fabric of the institution. To foster this attitude, incentives for planning must be encouraged, the planning process must be transparent, the results of planning and the decisions that flow from it must be freely communicated, and those units and people that move the university closer to its goals must be rewarded.

Principle #2: McMaster should strive to produce an environment in which the linked concepts of scholarship and teaching can flourish.

A commitment to both teaching and scholarship, and efforts to integrate them, is part of the self-definition of McMaster (some would say of all universities) and distinguishes it from other educational institutions, including other post-secondary institutions in Ontario such as the Colleges of Arts and Applied Technology. In repeated discussions, this principle continues to represent a primary directive of academic planning at McMaster.

Principle #3: The McMaster teaching and research environments should be supported by an appropriate complement of faculty and staff and well-considered space, adequate facilities and technical support systems.

Scholarship and teaching can flourish only when there are enough qualified faculty and staff to teach, do research and support the academic enterprise, and when teaching and research take place in adequate facilities. Some may argue, therefore, that this principle is implicit in Principle #2. However, we are sensitive to the suggestion that human resource and space planning may not have been considered as fully as they might have been in previous academic planning exercises and, therefore, we make this issue an explicit principle.

Principle #4: A McMaster education should enable students to develop a set of life and learning skills that promote a continuing ability and desire to learn, and a set of technical and professional skills that permit a range of career choices.

Curriculum and programs - what they contain and how they are delivered are central to academic plans. Quality academic programs should present the opportunity to master not only the accepted and emerging ideas in specific fields of study but also more generic skills that characterize a university-level education. At McMaster, the "generic skills" we promote might just as easily be referred to as "research skills", e.g., the capacity to formulate important questions, to appraise critically information relevant to that question, and to communicate effectively the results of these analyses. If done well, academic programs leave graduates well prepared for their personal and professional lives and with a continuing ability and desire to learn.

Some readers may suggest that the guiding principles, particularly the last one, are oriented more towards education and teaching, particularly of undergraduates, than scholarship and research. Perhaps. But we stress emphatically that the guiding principles we suggest do not reflect any attitude or inclination to minimize the importance of scholarship and research to McMaster's mission. Quite to the contrary. We take as given a deep and continuing commitment at McMaster to research - we are a research-intensive university. Strong and vibrant graduate programs are one significant manifestation of this commitment to research intensity. But, in developing a University Academic Plan, we perceive that our task is to suggest how this ongoing commitment to scholarship and research should influence and guide our future academic planning, particularly in areas that we believe need attention in the next five years or so. We could not be making some of the recommendations we do unless we sustain the research intensity of McMaster.

In this context, we are mindful that we are often asked by students (and their parents) why they should attend a research-intensive university such as McMaster. Many who pose this question do so in the belief that undergraduate education is a lower priority or of lesser concern at research-intensive universities than at those post-secondary institutions that focus more restrictedly on undergraduate programs. The University Academic Plan we forward is motivated by a very different perspective - one we feel we should disseminate widely and enthusiastically. Specifically, it is precisely those universities that are research-intensive that embody the culture, perspective and means to provide the type of undergraduate education that is being sought by students and employers - a university education that has the capacity not only to present the cutting-edge content in the field but also to allow students to develop the generic, critical thinking, inquiry, research and communication skills that are inherent elements of the scholarly life and that form the foundation of a well-educated student. But, this message has meaning only if the academic programs offered by the university build upon and promote these research skills. Some of the specific objectives put forward in this University Academic Plan are designed to accomplish this goal.

The guiding principles, as stated above, are too general to provide specific direction to academic planning or resource allocation decisions. But, underlying each of these principles is an initial set of specific objectives and actions that do provide this direction.


We propose nine specific objectives, derived from the four general principles presented above, to guide academic planning in the years 2000-2005. We provide the latter qualification because the objectives considered as high priority should be influenced by current issues and realities. We understand, therefore, that the specific list of objectives may be modified as circumstances change and as we make progress in achieving institutional goals. The implication of these observations is that the UPC should regularly revisit and re-evaluate progress of the University Academic Plan, and, if appropriate, make mid-stream amendments to the plan.

Principle #1: McMaster should cultivate a culture of planning that includes incentives and rewards for those who help McMaster achieve its academic goals.

If academic planning is to be successful then a commitment to planning must become an integral part of the way that we conduct our academic activities. One of the main reasons stated for a reluctance to plan is the view that, because what we can accomplish is so influenced by external forces beyond our control (e.g., government policy), it is premature to plan until all significant variables are understood. We reject this line of argument for several reasons. First, it is unclear to us that universities will ever be in a time (or that they ever were in a time) where all of the key variables affecting their capacity are known with certainty prior to planning. Second, if a University does not have some plan, or some sense of where it is going and what it wants to achieve, how will it know which opportunities to seize and which to reject when situations arise? Third, a sense of our intended plan allows us to maximize our gain when opportunities that serve our purposes do arise2. Finally, we believe that the reason for a reluctance to plan identified above mis-represents the purpose of academic planning. An academic plan is not a fixed, unalterable scenario that is followed blindly. Rather, it articulates a sense of intention, direction and purpose that provides a beacon for the continuing academic planning that goes on throughout the institution.

We are more concerned about the possibility that we can undermine academic planning if we have planning processes that are unclear or opaque or incentives that discourage or punish those who demonstrate a commitment to institutional values, plans and mission. Therefore:

Objective 1: The Provost should develop a Primer on Academic Planning at McMaster that describes the roles and responsibilities of the various individuals, processes, and committees at McMaster that engage in academic planning and that also identifies and recommends "best practice" for each of these planning levels.

Planning works best when people understand their role and contribution to the planning process. Right now, we are struck by the uncertainty and confusion felt by many who are unsure about where their planning reports go, who acts on them, and their ultimate fate. A Primer on Academic Planning at McMaster would, first, reveal the multi-layered planning process at McMaster, an action we believe will do much to increase people's comfort level and willingness to engage in planning. Second, the Primer on Academic Planning at McMaster would make clear to all components of the planning process what their responsibilities are to the individuals and bodies that bring plans to it and to the individuals and bodies to which it forwards their plans. For example, too many people are dissatisfied with the feedback (sometimes none) they receive from the UPC and Budget Committees regarding plans or re-allocation requests they submit to these bodies.

Objective 2: Units that engage in academic planning in a manner consistent with the expectations of the University Academic Plan should receive priority for university resources, including continuing and one-time re-allocation funds and appointments.

There seems to be little point in a wholesale involvement in planning unless the University is prepared to back promising plans with tangible resources. This pre-supposes, of course, that re-allocation and discretionary funds are available. It is for this reason that the UPC endorsed Recommendation Seven of the Academic Planning at McMaster Discussion Paper3 and that the Budget Committee created the Academic Priority Fund4. The logic of creating these funds, however, is only realized if the resources are allocated preferentially to units that plan in a manner consistent with the expectations of the institution. This objective does not imply that units will receive all the resources they desire or merit simply because they have engaged in sound planning. We are realistic enough to understand that good planning will result in more legitimate claims for funds than we will be able to provide. Or, put another way, we suspect that the UPC and Budget Committees will always have to judge the relative ranking of a set of worthwhile academic plans.

Objective 3: Incentives and rewards should be created to engage individuals in activities that achieve academic objectives consistent with the University Academic Plan, particularly initiatives that move education in directions consistent with Principle #2.

To be successful, a University Academic Plan should engage university members in activities that lead to the successful achievement of institutional goals. We cannot expect to achieve our academic objectives if individuals who mount initiatives consistent with institutional intention are ignored or discouraged. We are particularly concerned about whether we have sufficient incentives and rewards to engage individuals in activities that direct our programs in a direction consistent with Principle #2. This means examination, for example, of the weight that course development, or the development of innovative means of teaching, receive in tenure or promotion decisions. Additionally, we may need to review policies or practices about support for those who concentrate on the scholarship of teaching, including, for example, the impact of these activities on eligibility for research leaves. Any discussion that touches on the terms and conditions of employment of faculty will require the full partnership of the McMaster University Faculty Association.

Principle #2: McMaster should strive to produce an environment in which the linked concepts of scholarship and teaching can flourish.

Central to this principle is the idea that the linkage of teaching and research distinguishes a university education from that provided by other types of institutions, including other post-secondary ones. The issue, though, is what objectives or actions reflect the "linkage of scholarship and teaching". Perhaps the most definitive report on this matter, and one that was targeted specifically to research-intensive universities such as McMaster, is the 1997 Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, entitled: Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities.

The Boyer Report was written specifically to address issues of undergraduate education in the 88 "Research I " and 37 "Research II" universities in the United States (there are a total of about 3500 universities and colleges in the USA). According to this Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching 1994 classification scheme, universities are defined as "research" ones if they "offer a full range of baccalaureate programs, are committed to graduate education through the doctorate, and give high priority to research". The distinction between Research I and II depends upon the number of Ph.D. degrees granted each year and the total annual value of federal grant support. McMaster would meet the Carnegie Foundation criteria for designation as a "research university".

The Boyer Report suggests the need for a re-thinking of undergraduate education in the research university. As the Report suggests:

"...universities need to take advantage of the immense resources of their graduate and research programs to strengthen the quality of undergraduate education...a new kind of undergraduate experience available only at research institutions...research universities are distinctly different from small colleges and they need to offer an experience that is a clear alternative to the college experience" (p. 7-8).

We could not entertain, or propose, recommendations of the Boyer Report were it not for McMaster's unflagging commitment to research and graduate programs. However, given our commitment to research and graduate programs, we are in the position to take guidance from the Boyer Report and to consider its recommendations for making a distinctive and improved undergraduate experience that builds upon the research culture.

The Boyer Report makes ten specific recommendations to research universities that wish to provide an undergraduate education that links teaching and research. These recommendations are:

  • make research-based learning the standard
  • construct an inquiry-based freshman year
  • build on the freshman experience
  • remove barriers to interdisciplinary education
  • link communication skills and course work
  • use information technology creatively
  • culminate with a capstone experience
  • educate graduate students as apprentice teachers
  • change faculty reward systems
  • cultivate a sense of community

We are realistic enough to acknowledge that, at this point, it is unclear exactly how many of these recommendations can be achieved at McMaster in a reasonable time frame. But, Undergraduate Council is studying this matter. It will soon report how McMaster's undergraduate programs fare against this set of recommendations and which we could implement in a reasonable and timely manner in an effort to link teaching and research. Therefore:

Objective 4: The academic administration, UPC and Budget Committee should pursue and support preferentially those academic plans that achieve the recommendations of the Boyer Commission Report.

Given the current financial state of universities in Ontario, it will be impossible to achieve Objective 4 without preferential allocation and re-distribution of resources to the Boyer Report recommendations. Implicit in Objective 4 is the idea that re-allocation and discretionary funds would be preferentially directed to these objectives. However, to assist and accelerate Objective 4, it is likely necessary to re-direct other monies to the pursuit of an undergraduate curriculum that integrates teaching and research. Therefore:

Objective 5: The evaluation of our academic programs should identify programs at McMaster that are particularly strong, distinctive or consistent with institutional academic directions. We should consider re-direction of resources from programs that fail to meet all of these criteria.

For organizations that wish to progress and sustain, or enhance, quality in a resource-depleted environment, a natural strategy is the movement of institutional resources from lower- to higher-priority initiatives. We perceive that we have no choice at McMaster but to follow this natural development. The proposed Primer on Academic Planning at McMaster (Objective 1) will ensure that units inform the necessary resource re-allocation decisions and that, once such judgements are made, the units understand their role and contribution to these decisions.

Objective 6: All full-time faculty members hired at McMaster should participate in seminars and workshops offered by the Centre for Leadership in Learning in their first-year at McMaster to improve their teaching skills and to become familiar with techniques that promote active learning. To encourage participation, new faculty should be offered three units of teaching release to attend these workshops. These seminars and workshops should also be available to current members of the teaching staff and to graduate students as part of their graduate training.

The faculty members we hire have spent the great majority of their time in graduate school honing their research skills with little, if any, concerted or serious focus on the development of teaching prowess. Yet, it is estimated that full-time faculty members at McMaster spend approximately 40% of their time teaching. If we are to have an environment in which teaching is to flourish, we need to help new faculty develop their skills as instructors. If we desire an environment in which the "linked concepts of scholarship and teaching can flourish", then it behooves the institution to introduce faculty to methods that permit and facilitate this integration. The receptivity of many of our new faculty to the idea of upgrading their teaching skills, and the willingness of faculty to attend workshops prior to their participation in First-Year Inquiry, encourages us that initiatives to assist faculty to develop their teaching skills will be very well-received.

Principle #3: The McMaster teaching and learning environments should be supported by an appropriate complement of faculty and staff and well-considered space, adequate facilities and technical support systems.

It is impossible to imagine an appropriate learning environment that is not supported by the right people and facilities. Yet, our academic planning sometimes restricts itself to identification of the programs we would like without due consideration to the people or facilities that are necessary to mount a quality effort. This principle, then, might be distilled to a plea for coherent and comprehensive planning. When we evaluate academic plans, it is critical that we consider all necessary resources, not just financial but also human, physical and time. Some may regard this as an "of-course" statement. But, in our current environment, we suggest that some objectives and actions that fall under this principle are particularly relevant, important or timely. Therefore, we provide the following two specific objectives that, in our view, are especially crucial.

Objective 7: By no later than September 2000, each Faculty shall develop a human resource plan, identifying needed faculty and staff, to reach the enrolment targets it established in the recently-approved enrolment forecast. These plans should also comment on central administrative staff and systems that will be needed to cope with the higher enrolments.

Objective 8: The University should place high priority on the modernization of classrooms, laboratories and other space consistent with academic plans.

By priority, we mean the necessity of allocating operating funds to permit the much-needed re-vitalization of our physical plant5. If these funds are insufficient (and we suspect they are), we must identify other means, that we have not typically employed before, to support this modernization. In November 1999, the University applied to the provincial SuperBuild program for renovation and construction monies. This application describes an extensive set of renovations, and a smaller number of new construction projects, that reflect several years of space planning to improve our current facilities and prepare the campus for the expected increased enrolment reflecting the "double" and "increased" cohorts. The SuperBuild application, therefore, describes some of the projects that need to be completed to accomplish this objective.

Principle #4: A McMaster education should enable students to develop a set of life and learning skills that promote a continuing ability and desire to learn, and a set of technical and professional skills that permit a range of career choices.

There is continuing debate, sometimes heated, about what a university education means and what it should entail. We are pleased that these debates take place and that people feel passionately about their views; after all, these discussions cut to the very heart of what universities are about. Generally speaking, this debate tends to reveal two broad classes of argument - a university education that allows students to master the specific material and content that is necessary for their particular career aspirations and a university education that contributes to students' personal growth, intellectual development and maturation as members (and future leaders) of society. It is our sense that both of these elements are necessary in a satisfactory university experience.

But, how will an academic unit be able to convince itself, or its questioners, that it is providing its students with the needed "technical and professional skills"? And, what "life and learning skills" does an academic program wish to instill? We do not feel it either productive or appropriate for a University Academic Plan to dictate the answers to these questions. Rather, this is rightfully the stuff of serious discussion within academic units6. But, if we are to be true to Principle #4, an academic unit must be clear about the objectives of its programs and demonstrate a willingness to evaluate whether these objectives are being met. Therefore:

Objective 9: Academic units should engage in academic planning and provide regular reports that describe:
  • the objectives of their academic programs
  • the methods used to measure whether these objectives are being met
  • the outcome of these evaluations

In short, we do not see how we can assess whether our students, undergraduates and graduates, are receiving the education we would like them to have and we wish to mount unless we identify what the objectives of our programs are and engage in activities to measure whether we are being successful. For completeness, we state clearly that we do not believe that it is appropriate for a University Academic Plan to dictate what the objectives of academic programs or measures of success should be. As discussed earlier, different disciplines affiliate with different methodologies of evaluation and analysis. However, Objective 9 signals clearly that all academic units must be articulate about the objectives of their programs and engage in the exercise of evaluating whether those objectives are being met - it is left to the different disciplines to use whatever specific methodology they deem most useful to perform this evaluation given the culture, traditions and nature of the discipline and programs.


The plan we propose is consistent with planning documents that the University has already endorsed and approved, including Directions and the Academic Planning Discussion Paper. If accepted, the McMaster University Academic Plan has the capacity to advance and focus academic planning and resource allocation at McMaster. If approved, the task of academic planning is hardly complete. Rather, this Plan is just the beginning. Its acceptance will stimulate the need to develop concrete plans and initiate specific actions to implement specific objectives. We look forward to that task.

1Members of the ad hoc group were: Virginia Askan (Member UPC), Basil Alexander (Member UPC and Vice-President Education, McMaster Students Union), Fred L. Hall (Member UPC and Dean of Graduate Studies), Alan Harrison (Dean of Social Sciences), Marvin Ryder (Assistant Vice-President, IST), Harvey Weingarten (Chair UPC and Provost) and Anne Snider (Department Manager, Clinical Epidemiology & Biostatistics).

2We identify our ATOP and SuperBuild plans as examples of where prior planning facilitated and accelerated our capacity to respond to opportunities that were consistent with our stated academic mission.

3Recommendation Seven states that: "The UPC and Budget Committee should continue to regard the availability of re-allocation funds as a primary consideration in the construction of the university budget."

4Over the three fiscal years of 1999-2000 through 2001-02, the Budget Committee will provide $1.75 million base dollars to an Academic Priority Fund to be allocated to priority academic activities via a process under the direction of the Provost.

5We cannot optimize the use of our physical plant unless we are sure how we currently use our space. A comprehensive space audit is being planned by the Provost and Interim V.P. (Administration) to assess space use throughout campus.

6A useful guide to how an academic unit might begin to plan around these issues is found in the sections of the Senate-approved 1992 Senate Task Force on Education Quality Assurance (the "Coleman Report") that discuss formative evaluation.