Prioritization Anxiety

How can a process more and more administrations are embracing be supported by professors? Or are they right that the process is really about eliminating programs that aren't seen as rainmakers?

August 16, 2016

Academic prioritization, on its face, sounds innocuous. Who in academe wouldn’t want to prioritize academics? Yet the term has taken on a negative connotation, with some faculty members who have gone through the process saying it feels more like The Hunger Games than anything aimed at improving educational quality. At the same time, administrative proponents of prioritization say it’s their duty to assess the viability of academic programs to safeguard the future of the institution.

In a number of cases, academic prioritization is happening on campuses that are not in dire financial straits -- but faculty jobs are nevertheless on the line.

The prioritization debate sounds familiar to faculty members at St. Joseph’s College, historically a liberal arts institution but now one with professional programs spanning two campuses, in New York City and Long Island. Like their colleagues at a number of other colleges and universities that have undergone prioritization, St. Joseph’s faculty members last year were asked to prepare detailed reports about the workings of their departments.

The review centered on four areas: academic programs’ “centrality and essentiality,” demand and “opportunity,” quality, and “productivity, revenue, cost and resources.” Department chairs were asked to describe key functions of their programs, whether other academic programs depended on them and how programs advanced the institution’s strategic plan, for example.

Chairs discussed enrollment and the level of competition for their programs in various markets -- as well as any apparent trends and what faculty members were doing to increase demand. They provided employment projection data and assessed programs’ potential for growth or improvement. They also talked about instructional quality control mechanisms, whether staffing was adequate, and how graduates fared postcollege.

Regarding revenue, departments reported their annual intake and student credit hours generated by full-time faculty. They noted cost per full-time student, as well as their itemized annual operating budgets.

It felt, as one St. Joseph’s professor put it, like “justifying our existence.”

While faculty members were at least engaged in that part of the initiative, what’s ahead is unclear: St. Joseph’s administration is reviewing the reports and will soon present faculty members with a proposal for how to proceed. Programs and professors may be cut, or they may not. An opportunity for faculty feedback has been promised, but many professors say it likely won’t amount to true shared governance -- or academic improvement.

“We do get that it’s important for us to take a look at what we’re doing now and doing effectively, and really perfect it -- and the faculty have put an awful lot of work into this in the last year,” said Michael Hanophy, a professor of biology and chair of St. Joseph’s Faculty Interest Council. “But we’re not entirely sure of the outcome of this. … We’re kind of getting mixed messages about it. Some administrators are saying that this is about helping us save money and better organizing things, when other administrators are hinting that heads will roll.”

St. Joseph's has developed a variety of professional master’s degrees. But Hanophy said that it is relatively lean on undergraduate majors and has historically been so conservative about introducing new ones that it only recently opened a philosophy and religion department. It also eliminated the French major in the 1990s. So it’s hard to see where cuts can be made, he said, especially if the college wants a critical mass of majors that will attract indecisive 18-year-olds.

“That’s the part I can’t wrap my head around,” Hanophy said. “I hope this ends up with better organization of the way we do things without significant cuts to programs or faculty.”

Raymond D’Angelo, chair of the department of social sciences, said the “uncertainty is worrisome.” Like Hanophy, he said he and others are “concerned about sustaining the integrity of programs as changes are made” -- as well as the role of the faculty in final decisions about academic programs.

“This college has been in existence for 100 years,” he said. “It has a rich history of academic integrity, which we hope to sustain far into the future.”

Beyond St. Joseph’s

Beyond the many question marks ahead, faculty members are concerned about the results of academic prioritization elsewhere. At New York’s College of Saint Rose, for example, academic prioritization last year resulted in the elimination or curtailing of American studies, art education, economics, geology, philosophy, religious studies, sociology, Spanish, and women’s and gender studies, as well as a number of graduate programs. Twenty-three tenure-line faculty members, about half of them tenured, received notices of termination.

Felician College in New Jersey cut approximately 15 percent of its faculty some time after what the institution called a “reprioritization process.” Felician has said that a study of peer institutions revealed it had an unusually low student-to-full-time-faculty ratio. It also said that it was experiencing financial exigency, but investigations by the American Association of University Professors assert that neither Saint Rose nor Felician were in dire financial straits at the time of the cuts.

Saint Rose told faculty members that prioritization was necessary due to a persistent $9 million deficit due to lowered enrollment, but in the interim announced that it was seeing near record enrollment and had received $2 million in donations. AAUP consequently censured both institutions for violating its policy that professors with tenure or long-term service to the institution only be terminated for faculty-backed academic reasons or true financial exigency.

Just last month, an academic review at Missouri’s Lincoln University resulted in the deactivation of the history major, contrary to any faculty recommendation. The move caused significant alarm, in part because of Lincoln’s own legacy as a historically black institution founded by black Civil War veterans. The university defended the decision, saying history was targeted due to low numbers of graduates over five years and “low regional and national career demand.”

Within the last three years, AAUP also has censured National Louis University and the University of Southern Maine for shedding faculty and cutting programs after some kind of prioritization process, but without demonstrating true financial exigency.

It’s important to note that administrators at both institutions argued at the time that their backs were up against the wall financially, even if the lights weren’t about to be shut off. Some administrators also feel that AAUP’s standard for tenured faculty layoffs is outdated -- yet that standard is still widely followed and written into many institution-specific policies.

Hans-Joerg Tiede, a senior program officer in AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, said he’s heard a fair number of complaints about prioritization in recent years. He traced the trend back to an influential book, Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance, by Robert Dickeson, president emeritus of the University of Northern Colorado. (AAUP’s report on Saint Rose notes that Dickeson was president of Northern Colorado when it was censured in 1984 for terminating 47 tenure-line faculty appointments.)

“We have repeatedly voiced concerns that the program the book advocates is not consistent with sound principles of academic governance, tenure and academic due process,” Tiede said.

Yet the book has many fans, and a number of institutions have taken on prioritization in ways that don’t land them on AAUP’s censure list.

Dickeson said via email that colleges and universities of all sizes do prioritization “despite their financial straits.” A major reason that some 300 institutions, by his count, have gone through the process is balancing the budget, with a yield ranging from about 2 to 10 percent over one or two years. Other reasons include informing future budget decisions, improving overall efficiency and effectiveness, responding to accreditation demands, and aligning with strategic planning efforts, he said.

Some additional motivations are responding to demands from governing boards or public entities, tackling specific shortfalls (such as deferred maintenance), investing in new programs to help ensure the institution’s future, and creating a contingency fund or management database.

Jack Calareso, St. Joseph’s president, said prioritization isn’t necessarily about finances, since the college ended the recent academic year with a “decent surplus” and growing enrollment. An upcoming regional accreditation review is a major factor, he said, as well as a general need to “look at our academic programs and services, institutionwide, and do a comprehensive assessment of how we’re doing and how we can do it better. … Obviously we have a responsibility to be good stewards of our resources.”

Calareso said no outcome is “etched in stone,” but that some programs may receive allocations to grow, while others may not, as a result of prioritization. Thus far, he added, the process has been “collaborative and collegial.”

“If I could give you a headline, it’s really just about good leadership,” Calareso said. Institutions like Dowling, Briarcliffe and Sweet Briar Colleges -- all of which have faced closure in the last year -- have been forced to make decisions in the midst of crises, he added, and that’s something St. Joseph’s would like to avoid. “Those are never good decisions.”

Not all faculty members are opposed to prioritization. Dominique Treboux, chair of psychology at St. Joseph’s, said via email that the process has been “quite transparent.” She said she hasn’t been asked to reduce faculty, and that some departments are currently hiring full-time faculty.

But that doesn’t appear to be the majority opinion. One faculty member who did not want to be identified by name, citing the environment at St. Joseph’s, said the prioritization process felt like “classic antiworker practice.”

“They basically want us to put the nails on our own coffins,” the professor said. “I don’t think anything we write in these reports is going to make for a different outcome. They just want us to go through the motions and stay docile and busy.”

If administrators and even some faculty members see value in prioritization, why is it so loathed by so many? Institutions where prioritization has been most successful seem to be where faculty members feel most involved.

Partnering With Faculty

A 2013 survey of more than 100 academic and administrative leaders suggested that the most anticipated challenge to effective program prioritization is resistance to change and lack of faculty buy-in, according to a 2014 monograph on engaging the faculty in prioritization written by Dickeson and published by Academic Impressions, where he consults.

“Digging deeper, we learned that most institutions are either engaging faculty very late in the prioritization process, or engaging them in only limited ways,” the study reads. “Yet, when faculty are fully engaged and committed to the process, there will be greater ownership (and therefore more successful implementation) of the decisions reached; it is also more likely that the decisions reached will be most supportive of the institution’s academic mission and strategic objectives.”

Boise State University participated in prioritization from 2013-14, based on a similar rubric to St. Joseph’s. Yet it didn’t cause the same level of alarm.

Scott Lowe, a professor of economics and environmental studies and president of Boise State’s Faculty Senate, said prioritization went about “as expected.” Some faculty members were concerned about the metrics used to assess departmental value, in particular how the more subjective ones might be used to compare and contrast programs.

Ultimately, however, Lowe said, “the process enabled the university to appropriate funding to underfunded but needy programs, and to reduce the funding to those programs that had more funding than needed.” Environmental studies, for example, was before prioritization a popular program surviving on no dedicated, full-time faculty and few resources, he said. But it received an additional lecturer line and additional funding following prioritization.

Lowe said prioritization happened as the university was transitioning from an old undergraduate core curriculum to a new Foundational Studies Program, foregrounding the educational aims of the process. That allowed “a great deal of rethinking of where appropriated funding was allocated and enabled the redistribution of funding, given the new academic structure and revealed priorities,” Lowe said.

Perhaps most importantly, “the faculty, many faculty, were involved the process from start to finish,” Lowe added. The university “does a very good job of allowing for shared governance in academic decisions, and the prioritization process is a good example of this.”


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