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A Matter of Priorities

July/August 2017

By Margo Vanover Porter

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A data-driven, comprehensive analysis of your institution’s programs could identify new opportunities, find efficiencies, and marry your institution’s budget and mission.

Higher education institutions proceed with program prioritization for different reasons, according to Robert C. Dickeson, the author of Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance (Jossey-Bass, 1999).“The process is designed to be customized to the unique mission, aspirations, and culture of an institution,” he explains. “For that reason, it can be said that no two institutions undertake it in the same way.”

Typically, he says, leaders perceive a future or near-term budgeting shortfall and can’t figure out how to cut in a way that is academically responsible.

“When faced with that situation, many do across-the-board cuts. If it’s a 5 percent budget shortfall, everybody is told to eat 5 percent. That is politically feasible but absolutely the wrong way to go,” he emphasizes, “because some programs are more important than others. To cut all equally is absurd. What’s required is some kind of a process that is fair and open, and looks at a variety of criteria.”

Dickeson, who is president and principal of Academic Strategy Partners in Golden, Colo., indicates that some campuses use program prioritization as part of their strategic planning process. “They know they can’t afford to be all things to all people,” he says. “They’ve got to focus.”

He knows of several other institutions that have used the process to find efficiencies, particularly on the administrative side. “They discover duplication and overlap, and opportunities for restructuring, reorganization, and streamlining.”

While he believes a comprehensive, data-driven analysis can be beneficial to most institutions, given the right circumstances, he is against any kind of state requirement. “I don’t support a state mandate,” he insists. “Every institution has a very different mission, has a very different niche, and has a very different set of programs. To run the risk of treating all of them alike would be foolish.”

To find out how and why institutions are moving ahead with program prioritization, Business Officer interviewed leaders at four campuses. Not surprisingly, their recommendations and results vary by their institutional motivations and missions.

From a Position of Strength

To free up resources for investment in new priorities and enhance the quality of its programs, Buena Vista University, a private institution in Storm Lake, Iowa, participated in a program prioritization process that began in spring 2014 and concluded a year later.

“We did it from a position of strength,” says Frederick V. Moore, the university’s president who stepped down on July 1, after 22 years. “We’ve had 45 consecutive balanced budgets and received an A rating from Standard and Poor’s. It’s much better if you can do this calmly and rationally, because you have time to make better decisions.”

The first of many steps was to agree on the criteria by which the two designated teams—one academic, one administrative—would examine programs. “We reviewed everything,” Moore explains. “We put the criteria into rubrics that the review teams used to assess the programs.” Based on the information submitted on more than 200 forms, the review teams determined a score for each program and then ranked the programs in order.

“At the outset, not everybody was happy that we were doing this,” he recalls, “but most people realized that we needed to because of the challenges higher education faces. We were helped by the fact that we were open and transparent about the criteria, the rubrics, and the standards by which we would make decisions; and we communicated often about how the process was going.”

The outcome, according to Moore, had both pluses and minuses. For example, Buena Vista discontinued classes in Chinese and Japanese and no longer offers philosophy and religion as a major, although it still teaches courses in that area. On the plus side, the institution within the last year has added nine new academic offerings.

“We had as a target to free up annualized savings of $3 million a year for investment in new programs and initiatives,” he says. “We achieved that. We did have a reduction in force, a situation that is always very painful. We also uncovered operational matters that had been sources of irritation for people in being able to accomplish their work more swiftly and render good service to students.”

Board members, while supportive of the process, expressed a number of concerns and asked questions before approving any task force actions, Moore recalls. Queries included, “What are the savings? What are the new academic ideas for the institution? Would constituents still be proud of the academic programs? What would happen to students enrolled in discontinued programs?”

“They were particularly concerned about the impact on students, faculty, and staff,” Moore says. “They knew that tough decisions had to be made, and they exercised their fiduciary duty, but they are very humane people who wanted to know if we were going to teach the programs out and how we would care for people no longer employed at the institution.”

Although he calls it “a tough process,” Moore believes program prioritization makes sense. “Higher education has tried to be too many things to too many people. A comprehensive assessment that enhances the quality of programs, financial stewardship, and recruitment of students can help an institution return to its core strengths.”

An Unintended Consequence

Northern Illinois University in DeKalb initiated program prioritization to better align its mission and budget. “We were looking to become more student-centered in our focus and to build a budget model that aligned resource allocation measures with the university’s overall strategic priorities,” explains Lisa Freeman, executive vice president and provost.

One of the catalysts for the decision to move ahead was an exploratory workshop with Academic Impressions, according to Carolinda Douglass, vice provost for academic planning and development. “In October 2014, we took a wide group of people from various shared governance components of our university to get a sense of ‘Is this something we want to undertake?’”

After getting an affirmative consensus from the group, NIU started the process in earnest in December 2014, providing an 18-month window for producing reports. The task forces put the programs into five “resource” categories: enhance, leave as is, reduce, transform (which could be more or could be less), and review with elimination.

The resulting recommendations were widespread, affecting both academic and administrative areas. For example, the MA in French fell into the bottom category (review with elimination), and is being phased out; while health informatics came out on top and is looking at enhancement. “All of these actions are in process,” Douglass says. “Even though the recommendations were made in early May, there are standard shared governance processes that academic programs have to go through before being eliminated, changed, or started.”

Program prioritization, in this case, also led to a restructuring of sorts. “In recognition of the fact that the university has become more tuition dependent as state appropriations have gone down, the president restructured us,” Freeman explains. “We now have a new division of enrollment management, marketing, and communication for better vertical integration. Previously, enrollment management was in the division of student affairs. It became apparent to us that we needed to behave more like a private institution and have more vertical integration.”

During the process, leaders discovered an unintended consequence: “We saw people making changes even as they were writing their narratives for the task forces,” says Freeman. “Because they had the time to reflect about their programs and look at data, people reacted proactively. They said, ‘This is something I can do right now. This is an opportunity. I don’t have to wait for the task force to tell me to do it.’”

She cites the example of an administrative improvement that couldn’t wait: “Our scholarship office and financial aid office, which were separate entities, combined to seek greater efficiency and synergy. They started to embark on a re-engineering process even before the taskforce issued its recommendations, because they came to that conclusion themselves when writing the individual responses and thinking about how they could work better together.”

From a resource standpoint, the process hasn’t necessarily led to financial savings, reports Alan Phillips, vice president of administration and finance. “What you’re doing is creating capacity you didn’t have before,” he says. “There’s always a long list of things you couldn’t get done because you didn’t have the people, time, or resources. Program prioritization allows us to be more efficient and effective and reallocate resources in a much better way.”

According to Freeman, NIU adjusted the process to fit its campus. “We didn’t stick exclusively with the Dickeson model,” she points out. “We definitely tailored program prioritization to our culture and institution.”

Faculty Members Decide

Program prioritization at the University of Alaska Anchorage was never designed to be a budget-cutting exercise, insists Samuel Gingerich, UAA’s provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. “It started off with the goal of identifying areas where the institution should invest additional resources because of opportunities for growth.”

Then the economy in the state of Alaska went south, and university funding did too. “Because of the financial constraints and budgets cuts the institution suddenly faced, program prioritization became a very fortuitous framework for making decisions about reducing academic programs and finding savings,” he says. “There was relatively quick agreement that programs in the bottom quintile were logical places to find savings.”

As a result, UAA phased out 24 certificate programs, an associate degree in computer information and office systems, a BA in dual languages, an MS in career and technical education, and 17 minors. In addition, three master’s level programs in engineering were incorporated into other programs.

The process, which began in 2013, took almost 24 months, from first announcement to final reports, although the majority of the work was completed in a 12-month period.

Pat Shier, interim vice chancellor for administrative services, points out that the administrative side did not escape scrutiny. “IT was ranked fairly low in terms of its contribution to the mission and ability to add value, which caused some confusion,” he explains, “because everyone on campus knew we needed more IT. The process made us realize that the money we were spending on IT was not effective and led to a reorganization of IT structures to better meet the needs of the administrative and academic sides of the house.”

By reorganizing the IT call center, first-call resolution for IT issues jumped from 34 percent to 90 percent, he points out.

“Program prioritization caused us to pause and think more critically about why we do what we do,” Shier says. “We get so busy that we lose sight of purpose and how we contribute. Program prioritization motivated the administrative side of the house to self-examine more closely and listen more intently. In some areas, such as IT and student services, satisfaction with the services increased without spending additional money. In fact, because of budget problems, these services had less money, but they did better with what they had.”

Despite the reduction in academic programs, Gingerich reports that few faculty members challenged the process. “The academic recommendations come from the faculty themselves. This was their work.”

The big takeaway from the entire process is increased support for the use of quantitative data to inform processes, although “we may quibble about some of the markers or data we use,” he says. “We are working on developing processes that identify data that we will be using and how we can start making better use of commonly agreed-upon data to make decisions about where we are and where we should go in an environment where we value shared governance.”

Leap of Faith

When she assumed the presidency at La Salle University, Philadelphia, Colleen M. Hanycz had already completed program prioritization at her former institution in Canada. “When I was visiting campus in the winter, leading up to my arrival at La Salle in July 2015, I spoke about the need to be very focused and data centered on what we achieve in our programs,” she recalls. “After I was appointed, we moved very quickly to looking at program prioritization.”

Having been through the experience twice, Hanycz appreciates the value of the Dickeson model. “It allows an institution, in the midst of everything else that is ongoing, to take a snapshot of all of the programs—both the academic and operations or service programs—and assess how they are doing by holding them up against the metrics of mission alignment and financial sustainability,” she says. “From my perspective, it’s a tremendous institutional opportunity to pause and assess all of your programs at the same time.”

In September 2016, 14 months after her arrival, Hanycz presented to the board of trustees a series of 15 recommendations, some of which related to academic programs, some to operations, and some to both. One key recommendation was moving to a platform of institutional learning outcomes.

“These are outcomes that truly identify ways in which La Salle University graduates are distinct,” she says, “aside from what they learned in their specific and diverse majors. What are those qualities that transcend the disciplines these students have gained mastery in and that we must ensure as an institution are present at the time of graduation?”

Another suggestion was to redo the core of general education. “We agreed that our learning outcomes would dictate the core, whether they’re critical thinking or effective communication,” she says. “The core should actually be structured by the learning outcomes so that students can begin to develop mastery. A group of forward-thinking faculty is now working on this brand new core. Our faculty has stood shoulder to shoulder and seen the opportunity for this university to redefine itself and, with great enthusiasm, is moving forward.”

She admits that one initial area of concern for students and faculty was how students in suspended programs would be treated. The adopted policy relieved both students and faculty: All students, even those who were new freshmen, enrolled in a suspended major, would be able to continue their studies.

An operational change, which she admits wasn’t easy, was to contract out some custodial services. “That work was completed before the prioritization review simply because we knew that it was something we needed to do to achieve better financial stability,” she says. “We didn’t wait until the end of prioritization, but it was captured during that process.”

Hanycz acknowledges that these changes were risky so early in her tenure as president. “I had not been here very long before we got into this process. It was a leap of faith for this community to move to a culture of data-driven decision making. Was it a risk? No question. I partially held my breath that faculty, in particular, would be able to accept this and become partners in the process.”

However, it was a move that she considered essential and one that she encourages other institutions to consider. “Our sector is undergoing significant disruption,” she insists. “Although certain institutions are buffered and protected, the status quo will not work for the vast majority of higher education institutions of this nation. We are being called into account on the value we are bringing to society and the individuals we serve. We need to be more focused on articulating and proving that value. This is a tremendous tool to do that.”

Margo Vanover Porter, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

Related Topics

“A comprehensive assessment that enhances the quality of programs, financial stewardship, and recruitment of students can help an institution return to its core strengths.”

Frederick V. Moore, Buena Vista University

“Program prioritization motivated the administrative side of the house to self-examine more closely and listen more intently.”

Pat Shier, University of Alaska Anchorage

“We are being called into account on the value we are bringing to society and the individuals we serve. We need to be more focused on articulating and proving that value.”

Colleen M. Hanycz, La Salle University