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My Hope for 2024 ...


Joseph Fearn

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Planning is the linchpin to success. You may be successful with planning, but the odds are longer. In grounds management having a good plan will help the manager communicate direction to the team, help build excitement toward an outcome, alleviate problems before they arise, and build the organizational support essential to fulfilling the plan. Last blog I looked backwards in order to understand where our operation is and how we got here. This blog I look forward to 2024 and share some of the bigger visioning we have for KU Grounds and our campus.

Address Comprehensive Sustainability
The entire grounds operation must be viewed through the lens of sustainability. Two areas that need to be viewed sustainably are how we maintain/improve our workforce, and how we finance our operation. To accomplish these objectives our operation will evaluate how we align with all aspects of our organizational expectations. Ultimately, if we don’t achieve our mission, why would the organization sustain us? It is vital that sustainability mean more than just green initiatives and resource conservation. The more conventional concept of sustainability is managing our landscape to decrease resource consumption while improving outputs. In the budget critical atmospheres most of us are in, being environmentally focused doesn’t sufficiently justify our operation. Taking an expansive view of our operations deals with any/all our sustainability needs. Every aspect of our work interrelates to maintaining our team and the landscape. This provides the greatest opportunity for pushing a sustainable future for KU Grounds.

Sheath of Wheat garden.jpg

Sustainability must permeate the entire operation. It isn’t only about native plants and pollinators.

“Grow” our Team
Our staff members are the most important component of our operational success. How we train, manage day-to-day operations, and compensate, all play a role in the stability of our team. Our team works here for a variety of reasons, and it is essential that we respond to these motivations appropriately. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Maintaining our workforce starts with keeping our employees. Salary, benefits, and workplace atmosphere all play a part in retention. All hiring employees know the difficulties in finding and keeping staff. Retention must be more than business as usual. Individualism, variety, humor, compassion, novelty all will create an atmosphere where employees’ minds and personalities are engaged. But if an employee just wants to “do their 8” that is fine as long as standards are maintained. Employee hiring, onboarding, and retention must be focal effort.

KU Grounds team at Graduation 2023.jpg

The Grounds Staff is essential to success. Hiring, training, motivating and retaining our teams must be the highest priority.

Align With Campus Master Plan
The biggest factor that will influence our 2024 is the University of Kansas Master Plan. When completed this document, occurring every 10 years, will be the result of a legal mandate from the Kansas Board of Regents. This plan will be aspirational in nature, dependent on resource availability, and largely strategic in its guidance. The actual hands-on implementation (tactics) will be left to various operational unit administrations and staff (KU Grounds Crew). While some master plans can feel heavy handed, this one (and associated process) has not been. 

The Master plan is crafted with organizational/community input, the full support of KU Administration, and also State of Kansas legislative awareness. The extensive process formulating the plan was robust and far reaching. This plan is rational and based on sound master planning doctrine. Working under the auspices of a clear strategic vision is essential to KU campus landscape Grounds Crew success. 

KU Master Plan Public Realm & Landscape.jpg

The goals of KU Grounds must align with the KU Master Plan. Strategic plan guidance provides direction to operational tactics.

Craft Our Internal Plan
Grounds management is long term in impact so must consider an extended arc of time in vision. But vision without a plan is just a hope. After 2 years of steadfast hard work, our team has accomplished a huge turnaround for the KU campus landscape. During these 2 years much of our work (most?) was driven by addressing crises and simply keeping our heads above water. It was necessary, but our work must be more controlled and deliberate to provide the most benefit. 

We are interviewing our key stakeholders including Operations Administration, Facilities, Custodial, Housing, Admissions, etc. We are getting meaningful feedback at a level high enough to express strategy, but not so high they fail to understand street level tactics.  We will overlay these viewpoints against the Master Plan to determine our vision. Lastly we will integrate these pans with our tactical capacity to craft the regular operational plan needed to fulfill our responsibilities to the campus landscape.

Plant the Campus
Achieving a sustainable operation needs a sustainable plan to guide it. While crafting the plan is critical, the operational piece is of course essential also. Planting the campus is that fundamental that we need to constantly pursue and accomplish. First, we will focus on our trees. The campus forest is the long-term bones of the landscape. Planting the right tree in the right place provides the foundation to all other landscape components. Next, continue installing the fundamental design concept. Kansas is a prairie state, and the landscape should clearly emulate that appearance. Using native grasses and forbs will convey the proud identity of our state. The well-conceived and installed landscape will enhance our overall sustainability and substantially beautify campus. In my experience operations is often easier then planning. As touched on earlier, the scale of the operation here at KU results in frequent priorities that can disrupt our plan. Our plan must have flexibility built in but also must create a baseline for guiding planting that can be easily returned to.

Planting at Strong Hall.jpg

Beautification and maintenance of campus is the main way we demonstrate success. Installing well planned gardens increases support for our teams.

Planning Keeps Us On Track
The landscape at a university (or anywhere) touches their own community in a way nothing else can. This is the critical strategic aspect for our teams. KU Grounds leans into this responsibility in myriad ways. The day to day challenges and priorities we face can easily derail our big picture goals. Once derailed, we may face a tough road getting back on track. Our strategic goals are meant to provide a clear framework for all our work. It provides guidance for the team and, importantly, our administration. The strategic vision channels our work toward a successful outcome. Detours will occur. But, understanding what our annual objectives are will get us back on the right road. 

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