What’s in a Plan?

On January 9, 2017, Osgoode Hall Law School’s Faculty Council unanimously approved in principle the Law School’s next Strategic Plan – “Access Osgoode, 2017-2020.” This new Strategic Plan aims at progressive, future-oriented goals and aspirations, as well as a commitment to Osgoode’s rich history and tradition. The “Access Osgoode” Plan commits the Law School to advancing five specific themes and goals:

1) Accessibility;
2) Community Engagement;
3) Experiential Education;
4) Reconciliation with Indigenous communities; and
5) Research Intensification.

Planning can be a long and winding road – at Osgoode, we began the process for the “Access Osgoode” Strategic Plan over 18 months ago, by assessing the outcomes of Osgoode’s previous Plan, “Experience Osgoode” and included a range of retreats, town halls, roundtables, research and multiple drafts. Students, staff and faculty collaborated on the development of Osgoode’s Plan, which in turn builds on other University Plans (including York’s University’s Academic Plan and other strategic initiatives). So, now what? Where does a Plan take us? How can this amount to more than words on a page? That is the question to which I devote some reflections in this post.

In my view, there are three reasons why a Plan is well worth the time and effort involved (and indeed why moving forward without a Plan may be perilous).
First, as with many trips, the journey may be as or more important than the destination. Osgoode’s planning process involved invaluable opportunities for faculty, staff, students, alumni and partners to hear from one another around the successes, challenges and future of the Law School. Our retreat on Indigenization, involving external leaders like MP Romeo Saganash and Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Harry LaForme, marked a watershed in the Law School’s engagement in rethinking legal education with reconciliation aspirations in mind. The strategic planning process, like any exercise in design, facilitated broader discussions on our goals, purposes and priorities, across the Law School’s various offices and divisions. For example, looking at our policies around inclusion for students living with disabilities involved discussions around how we disseminate research, the physical layout of the building, our curriculum, student services, universal design in law school evaluation, among others.

Second, the goals which ultimately are set out in the Plan matter. The Plan provides an invaluable framework for prioritizing scarce resources and collective efforts. Being a Dean is a fun and easy job when you are saying yes to promising projects and proposals and a difficult job when you are saying no to them. Osgoode’s Plan creates an expectation that resources will be allocated to support the shared goals set out, and a recognition that this may mean fewer resources may be allocated for other initiatives, or that we will need to work together as a community to generate new sources of revenue to support the reach of our aspirations. For example, Osgoode is creating a new Reconciliation Fund to ensure the necessary resources to support outreach and collaborations with Indigenous communities, and to develop additional programs for Osgoode’s Indigenous students.

The third reason why Plans are worth it is that they present important opportunities to build community through an expression of shared values. At Osgoode, for example, accessibility emerged not only as a shared goal in terms of specific policy initiatives (from our open access, digital commons for Osgoode’s journals and scholars, to a new, digital NCA prep course, to our income contingent loan pilot program) but also as an affirmation of what Osgoode as a community stands for. For every dollar of surplus funds Osgoode is able to generate (most of this comes from the vibrant lifelong legal education hub at Osgoode Professional Development), we agreed the largest single area of expenditures should be student financial aid (Osgoode currently distributes over $4 million in bursaries, awards and scholarships but with rising tuition, student debt remains an urgent issue).

At the end of the day, the main reason to have a Plan is that trying to move forward without one has real risk – of having your head turned by each new and shiny object or idea that comes along, of drift, or of reacting to the initiatives and innovations of others in scattershot ways rather than developing a sense of your own community, what makes it tick, and how to ensure it thrives. The existence of a Plan does not guarantee our ambitious goals will all be achieved – but it can (and, I hope, will) serve as a beacon for where and who we want to be.