The Pressure to Prioritize

Small college provosts and business officers are urged to shun across-the-board cuts and instead reallocate money from weaker to stronger programs.
November 11, 2010

WILLIAMSBURG, VA. -- To judge by the screams of bloody murder that arise whenever colleges eliminate academic programs (as in recent examples here and here and here), there are certainly people in the academy who don't believe that most institutions have too many programs and can't afford to sustain them all.

But none of those people were in the hotel meeting room here Monday where dozens of private college provosts and business officers participated in a workshop about how to set priorities among the many majors, minors, institutions, centers and other academic programs on their campuses. The workshop was led by Robert C. Dickeson, the former college president and foundation official who this year released an updated version of his 1999 book, Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance (Jossey-Bass).

The book's re-release is timely, of course, for the same basic reason why so many of the attendees at the Council of Independent Colleges's joint meeting of chief academic and business officers opted to attend the forum on prioritizing academic programs: given the likelihood of long-term economic stress, colleges are deeply worried about money, and feeling pressure to look carefully at what they're already spending.

Colleges are much more inclined to create programs than they are to kill them off, in the pursuit of expanding their reach and attracting new students, and "as we keep adding and adding and adding, without chopping along the way, resources are getting scarcer," Dickeson said. With major infusions of new money unlikely in the foreseeable future -- given constraints on state funds (for public colleges), limits on endowment and fund raising money (for private institutions), and political and parental pressure to slow tuition growth (for all) -- the "most likely source for needed resources" to expand successful programs or introduce new ones "is reallocation," Dickeson said.

"The price of program bloat for all is impoverishment for each," he said.

When colleges look for savings in their current practices, the tendency is either to focus on non-academic operations -- because "there's no physical plant senate" to protect facilities in the way a faculty senate will fight for academic programs -- or to cut everyone equally.

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"If you do across the board cuts, shame on you," Dickeson said, discouraging what he called the "5 percent solution," in which a college needing to cut its budget by 5 percent slices that amount from every department or program. " 'It doesn't matter how good you are, what your program is. We're all in this together,' " he imagined a mock campus administrator saying. " 'So let's join hands now and sing Kumbaya and walk down the road to mediocrity together.' "

Economic pressures are clearly a driving force behind the need to set priorities among academic programs; when Dickeson asked the provosts and CFOs in the audience to explain why their campuses were (or would be) undertaking a process of prioritization, several cited budget cuts, a bottom-line orientation of trustees or a new president, or "a gut feeling that we're wasting money" on unsuccessful programs, as one put it.

But many campus officials offered more positive reasons why they needed to reallocate money. "We want to focus more resources on those programs that have strong regional or national reputations, and other programs of lesser quality are eating up the money," said one. Another described her campus's desire to expand interdisciplinary programs and its inability to accomplish that expansion without redirecting funds away from weaker programs. And a third said that his campus had "made a commitment to increasing faculty salaries, and if we're going to do that, we have to do this [program reallocation]."

Dickeson offered 10 criteria that he encouraged the private college leaders to consider choosing among when setting priorities, including objective measures such as "size, scope and productivity," internal and external demand, and costs, as well as slightly more subjective factors such as "impact, justification and overall essentiality." As groups of the campus officials named the factors they were most inclined to lean on, external demand, revenue and cost appeared on most lists -- as did the programs' relevance to the colleges' mission.

While those gathered in the cocoon of the hotel ballroom were agreed that setting priorities among academic programs was both wise and necessary, they seemed fully cognizant that doing so does not always go over well back on their campuses. "Buy-in for this process is not always easy," one chief academic officer said. "Faculty are not always willing to engage in this eagerly and willingly" -- a comment that drew a few chuckles as an archetype of understatement.

But you might be surprised, Dickeson told the provosts and business officers, how much excitement and interest can be generated by a simple competition in which programs -- in addition to being required to prove their value -- are also asked "if we reallocated some resources to this program, what could you do with it?"

"You may find that people have all kinds of ideas, laying in wait, but nobody ever asked them," he said. "For a few thousand dollars, they could institute new approaches, or increase their undergraduate research. Some of your programs could amaze you."


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