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.