Prioritization and other universities

There was considerable interest in program prioritization at a recent interuniversity meeting I attended.  Present were around 80-100 academic and research administrators from universities in Western Canada and beyond.

Everyone present was deeply concerned about budgets in an era universally recognized as one of severe ongoing resource constraints for higher education.  Speaker after speaker addressed the need to make decisions differently, to make choices about academic programming, and to stop doing or scale back some activities selectively while investing in others.  As one speaker from outside Saskatchewan put it, “we have no option but to transform our educational programming in the next two years.”

In fact, pretty much every university but one whose representatives spoke in the meeting indicated they were looking at a Dickeson-like approach to prioritization.

As a reminder, I would characterize a Dickeson approach as one that comprehensively and simultaneously reviews all activities supported by the university budget, through the work of faculty-driven task forces who do their work as openly as possible, and using the best available data and the participation of program/service leaders who submit information for their programs.  In his books and workshops, what Dickeson presents amounts to a flexible framework of principles.  The specific practices and methods (including criteria, quintiles, etc.) vary considerably and are adapted by different universities.  As an example, the 10 criteria he lists in the book are intended by him as a list of every criterion he has ever seen any university use, and not as a list that he thinks every university should adopt.

Several universities indicated that they had searched for alternatives to the Dickeson process as defined above, and had not found credible examples of any alternative.  One university indicated they believed it was better to introduce an activity-based budget system (as U of S is also doing through TABBS) and to make highly selective cuts where opportunities present themselves such as through retirement patterns and declining enrolments; they reported that using this approach they had eliminated a small program.  Two other universities indicated they would follow a prioritization-like process, but would ask deans to lead separate such processes within each faculty.  One teaching-oriented university indicated they had instituted a prioritization process based on regular 3-year reviews that feed into budget adjustments to faculties, and felt this worked quite well as a kind of continuous prioritization.  Many of those planning these processes were intending to downplay the association with Dickeson because of what one participant called the “myths swirling around” and the “straw-man distortions”; this was even true of universities that were working personally with Dickeson as a consultant.

So my prediction would be that fewer universities in Canada will mention Dickeson in future, but most will follow his framework.  Dickeson is the one who has opened up the field of prioritization, and prioritization in one form or another appears to be here to stay.

There was also considerable interest in documenting outcomes from prioritization processes – assessing their impact, and determining what works best in various kinds of local contexts.  Because of the wide variations in institutional cultures and in applications of prioritization ideas, case-studies may be the best approach to assessing impact.  As universities change in the next few years, it would be interesting to see professional case–studies of what they do and how they fare.



8 thoughts on “Prioritization and other universities

  1. I would like to know exactly what universities were consulted at this meeting. Just saying that it was one university or another is not very comforting to students. Is there another framework to restructure the university besides the Dickeson model?
    A First Year Student

    • I would define “the Dickeson model” as meaning exactly the following: the review of all activities supported by the budget, using best available information including opportunity for all programs and services to present their own information, by task forces consisting primarily of faculty members, with the task forces making recommendations about priority. I know of no alternatives that are comprehensive, participatory, and transparent. The main alternative would be a restructuring plan initiated directly by the administration without task forces; you could look at what University of Manitoba is doing with the president having set a goal to reduce from 20 faculties to 13.

      I have spoken personally with colleagues at other universities who are considering or starting prioritization processes. However, it is up to them what they announce and it would be improper for me to name their universities.

  2. Mr. Fairbairn:

    You comment: “So my prediction would be that fewer universities in Canada will mention Dickeson in future, but most will follow his framework.” But you mention that “Two other universities indicated they would follow a prioritization-like process, but would ask deans to lead separate such processes within each faculty”. This is not the Dickeson process, and is a far cry from what is happening at U of S. Deans are much closer to their Departments and disciplines than a PCIP (which isn’t mentioned in the Saskatchewan Act at all, let alone as a governing body). Our Deans and Associate Deans have no idea what the PCIP will pronounce, and the fear of what will happen to our Colleges and disciplines is palpable, and this can be verified by their statements in meetings with faculty. This top-down, market-model priority setting is not what a “university” is about.

    • Thanks for your post. I would offer two comments in response. First, my point is exactly that two universities may follow processes that are a far cry from each other, while both are following Dickeson’s principles. This is because they are principles, not rules. If, for example, the universities do not use faculty task forces, then I would consider that far enough from Dickeson’s principles that I would call it a different approach. Second, PCIP is working closely with deans on our plans, and all this work is based on the work of the task forces, the templates from program leaders, and the wider comments from the whole campus about operating-budget adjustments. All of this is as open and bottom-up as any budget process can be. It is not market-driven and is quite unlike the budget process used in market-oriented organizations. Indeed, much of the anxiety that exists is exactly because we are being so open, which I believe reflects the values of universities.

      As I indicated in council, PCIP is an administrative committee that functions under and with the authority of the president and of the board. The powers of the president and the board are specified in the legislation.

  3. Just a quick question: have current (and projected future) capital building project expenditures also been reviewed in the broader context of the University’s attempts to reduce spending? I’m not suggesting, as some are, that such projects be halted (an impossibility, one presumes). However, it would be interesting to know if those projects have been reviewed to see if there are budget reductions to be found.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful question on capital projects. In the past few years capital projects have been under increasing financial scrutiny and review based on university priorities, particularly those that have any funding gaps. Some projects such as the student amenities building in the College Quarter have been shelved as they have a funding gap. The university has proceeded with the Health Sciences project and the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Centre because these projects are the highest priority for the student experience and academic program.

      In most instances the funding for university capital projects is from specific purpose sources other than the operating budget, so there is no opportunity to use these funds for operating budget purposes. For example, the university has some research capital projects proceeding based on funding from Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) grants, where a research fund will also support the operating costs as well.

  4. Well, if this is directed at me – I suppose I should take it that way, since it was posted on this blog – then let me say I have defined program prioritization identically on every occasion since November 2012 when I first raised it in University Council. A Dickeson-based process is one that: reviews everything supported by the budget; does so simultaneously rather than sequentially; does so through the work of faculty task forces; does so as openly as possible; and does so using the best available information and input from those responsible for programs. I believe I have said what I mean.

    If this is directed at other universities, who may benefit from Dickeson’s work without publicly crediting it, then I am neutral.

    If this is directed at some critics of TransformUS, who decline to make plain what they are talking about (particularly what the alternative is), then I might agree with it.

  5. `Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.
    `I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least – at least I mean what I say-
    that’s the same thing, you know.’
    `Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter.
    `Why, you might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see!” ‘

    Lewis Carol, from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

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