Campus Life

Vision 2020: Behind the Scenes

A reflection on the process and the results.
By Caitlin Clark, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications December 31, 2020

More than 250 people — Texas A&M administrators, faculty, staff, former students, current students, community members and leaders from diverse backgrounds — were given a challenge more than two decades ago: Pull together a sense of direction to which the university should aspire by the year 2020; involve important and informed points of view; debate and deliberate; strengthen the institution.

The result not only was bold for the land-grant college, it was visionary for all of higher education.

What follows are stories of a few of the key committee members interviewed recently to discuss the impact of the historical document. A more detailed story can be found here.

Walter Wendler, president of West Texas A&M University

In 1997, Ray Bowen, the president of Texas A&M at the time, approached Walter Wendler with a proposal.

Wendler had been serving as the dean of the College of Architecture since 1992, and held the William M. Peña Professorship of Information Management. Bowen wanted to know if Wendler would help write a bold new plan looking 20 years into the university’s future.

“He said, ‘I don’t know how we can do it, but I want somebody, and I think you’re the kind of person to do it,'” Wendler recalled. “I was somebody willing to try to look ahead as best we could. President Bowen asked me if I would do it, and I did.”

Wendler left the dean’s job and moved to the president’s office as Bowen’s executive assistant. Preparing Vision 2020 became his primary job for the next two years. Watching the plan unfold over the last two decades has been a “distinct pleasure” for Wendler.

aerial campus view

“It’s the same way with any organization that’s pursuing excellence – it never stops.”

He was deeply involved in communicating with individuals across the campus and finding people committed to the university to serve on numerous committees. At one point, Wendler recalls whittling down a list of around 900 names. He still has a digital record of every letter and memo he wrote throughout the process.

“Day to day that was the primary thing for the first year. The second year was writing the plan and putting it out to groups for revision and comments,” Wendler said. “I can’t tell you how many drafts there were – probably 20 to 25 with the same ideas, but different ways of presenting them. ”

Wendler said he went to countless Aggie Club meetings with The Association of Former Students to gather feedback, and also worked on the data collection to find information that would be important for the long-range mission of the institution.

The final product and its Twelve Imperatives ended up being powerfully important to the organization, he said. Wendler was inspired to replicate the process when he later served as chancellor of Southern Illinois University and in his current role as president of West Texas A&M University.

Wendler describes Texas A&M as having “four epochs” in its history: starting as an all-male military school, to its transformation under the leadership of Maj. Gen. James Earl Rudder to an institution that admitted women and students of color, to its vision of increasing private giving and other goals under the Target 2000 Project. The fourth epoch, Wendler said, was Vision 2020 and the goal of becoming a top-tier institution.

“Now we need the next one – the fifth epoch. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but it’s going to be very interesting,” he said. “That’s part of the beauty of A&M – they never feel like they’ve arrived. That shaping process, if you have an idea, it never stops. It’s the same way with any organization that’s pursuing excellence – it never stops.”

Bob Harvey ’77, Greater Houston Partnership president and CEO

Twenty years after graduating from the university, Bob Harvey was contacted by Texas A&M Foundation President Ed Davis, who asked him to drive up to College Station to think about the university’s next strategic planning effort.

Harvey was a consultant at McKinsey & Company, Inc. at the time. Shortly after their first meeting, Harvey and Davis met with President Ray Bowen, who brought his former roommate Jon Hagler on board. Along with Walter Wendler, the former dean of the College of Architecture, the team got to work on what would become Vision 2020.

Harvey is a former student body president and commander of the Corps of Cadets. As a consultant, he recognized the value of making a periodic assessment of where the university stood.

“It’s important for a university to periodically engage in such an effort. There’s real power in it,” he said.

It wouldn’t be a puff piece, or a way to brag about the university. “It was to set aspirational goals,” Harvey said.

campus aerial

“To think back since I left campus, I’m so proud of the university and the progress it’s made over those 40 years. In many ways, the university is unrecognizable from what it was 20 years ago in terms of the physical plan, just the sheer scale and dimension of excellence that exists today.”

Bob Harvey, Greater Houston Partnership president and CEO

Bowen decided that the effort would be defined by making Texas A&M a top 10 public university, Harvey said. The small group that started the process looked hard at what other top universities had in common – if there’s one thing that stood out, he said, it was the quality and reputation of their faculty members.

The Vision 2020 team decided that elevating the faculty would be foundational to Texas A&M, and stood somewhat in contrast to prior visioning efforts that put more emphasis on students.

Harvey and others at McKinsey & Company formed a small “skunk work” team from across campus to develop the structure of the plan before expanding the effort, which ultimately grew to include more than 250 faculty and staff members, former students and external partners.

Two decades later, Harvey said he’s proud of the plan’s longevity on campus, calling it part of the “institutional glue” that has sustained Texas A&M’s momentum through changes in leadership. All involved are owed a “huge debt” for their work, he said, including Hagler for setting the tone and Wendler for writing a coherent document that included input from nearly 300 people.

“I’m very proud to have been associated with Vision 2020,” said Harvey, who is now the president & CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. “To think back since I left campus, I’m so proud of the university and the progress it’s made over those 40 years. In many ways, the university is unrecognizable from what it was 20 years ago in terms of the physical plan, just the sheer scale and dimension of excellence that exists today.”

What has remained constant, he said, is Texas A&M’s values.

“I’m really pleased there have been equal efforts to retain what’s important,” Harvey said.

Dr. John August, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences

Being a part of the Vision 2020 process was “a wonderful opportunity,” said Dr. John August, dean of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

August had just finished 11 years as head of the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, and was participating in an administrative training program in The Texas A&M University System. It was during this period of transition before heading back to the faculty that he served as campus co-chair for Imperative 12: “Meet Our Commitment To Texas.”

Much of his time was spent coordinating and leading meetings with a diverse group of administrators, faculty, alumni and others. August’s committee focused on Texas A&M’s mission as a land-grant university to serve the diverse population of Texas. Based on data available at the time, they sought to answer how Texas A&M should fit into the state, nation and world.

“It allowed us to look at ‘top 10’ in a broad variety of ways and realize many of those are just as important as the national metric we all think of. That was a very healthy outcome of Vision 2020.”

August also co-chaired the Vision 2020 Executive Committee with Jon Hagler. They were in charge of leading oversight of the plan’s progress.

“I think the topics that needed to be discussed were very pertinent at that time, and in a general way are certainly represented in the university at the current time, whether it’s how the university has to redirect its work and its energies toward the rapidly changing demographics in Texas, or undergraduate student expectations, or the buildings on campus and what is needed,” August said.

Everyone involved had to ask themselves what it means to be a top-tier public land-grant institution in 2020. For August, he noticed these conversations changed when the university joined the Southeastern Conference.

“We didn’t have to look over our shoulders at our neighbors in Austin all the time after that. It allowed the university to become more independent and continue to build on its own aspirations,” he said. “I think from that time onwards I’ve seen a very healthy conversation going on with regard to what we want to be.”

One of the main aspirations of committee members in the 1990s was to be a top 10 public institution by 2020. What August said wasn’t defined at that time was the metric by which this would be measured. Out of the many discussions that were held, members realized that there are many ways of defining “top 10” in serving the state of Texas, whether it be in producing corporate leaders, helping first- generation students, graduation rates, or placing Aggies in “outstanding” positions upon graduation.

As Vision 2020 discussions continued, “we realized that it wasn’t just associated with pure academics,” August said.

“It allowed us to look at ‘top 10’ in a broad variety of ways and realize many of those are just as important as the national metric we all think of,” he said. “That was a very healthy outcome of Vision 2020.”

Michael A. Hitt, university distinguished professor emeritus, Texas A&M Mays Business School

As a former senior professor of management at the Mays Business School, Michael A. Hitt has an appreciation for the benefits of strategic planning.

He remembers this being the focus of several of the questions he was asked when interviewed to be part of the Vision 2020 process. Hitt was selected to co-chair the group tackling Imperative 10: “Demand Enlightened Governance and Leadership,” and later served on the 2004 Advisory Council formed by former university president Robert Gates.

“There was a lot of progress made in the university that was due to that effort. I certainly believe it helped us take a step toward that future and become an even better university.”

Hitt, a fellow of the Academy of Management and the Strategic Management Society, said it’s important for an organization to define its future in order to set the path to achieve it.

“If you don’t do that in some kind of coordinated fashion with different colleges of schools, they can go their own way and may not be as coordinated as you’d like for the university as a whole,” he said. “It was an effort to work toward what I consider a vision of the future, and it helped us to do that. Just that coordination and appreciation helped us better develop goals that were designed to move the university forward, not only specific units.”

He recalls being impressed by the level of involvement of individuals from across the university, alumni and other external members. Hitt’s group focused on leadership, a major issue of importance at Texas A&M throughout its history, both in terms of preparing students for leadership roles and leadership within the university more broadly.

“I would say I think we did quite well. We’ve taken more steps toward emphasizing leadership in all varieties in terms of our students, society and what we do,” Hitt said.

Looking back, Hitt said he sees the importance Vision 2020 played in the institution reaching many of its goals.

“There was a lot of progress made in the university that was due to that effort,” he said. “I certainly believe it helped us take a step toward that future and become an even better university.”

Media contact: Caitlin Clark, caitlinclark@tamu.edu

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