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Tight Budgets Call for Focus on Academic Program Review

From "Business Briefs" department in March 2010 issue of Business Officer

“When we consider academic reform, there are two realities,” said Robert Dickeson, president emeritus, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, and former senior vice president of the Lumina Foundation. In the January 19 NACUBO webcast “Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services,” Dickeson described those two realities as: (1) the need to rethink our purposes, strategies, and programs, and (2) the recognition that the most likely way that higher education leaders will close budget gaps “is by reallocating the resources they already have.”

Using the new edition of his book Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance (John Wiley & Sons, 2010) as a framework for the webcast, Dickeson facilitated a discussion with presenters Victoria Payseur, vice president for business and finance and treasurer, Drake University, Des Moines; and Richard Staisloff, vice president for finance and administration, College of Notre Dame of Maryland, Baltimore.

Review and Reallocate

Payseur outlined the many pressures on institution budgets, including the ever-expanding range of student services. “We provide everything from psychological counseling to Pilates—along with country club-level services,” she noted.

When considering ways to handle tightening budgets, Payseur said, “We've historically dealt with shortfalls by making across-the-board cuts.” Instead, beginning in 2000, Drake University developed a review process based on the earlier edition of Dickeson's book. While the initial work focused on administrative programs, the reason to focus also on academic programs, explained Payseur, is that “they are the heart of the institution and drive all costs.” In addition, some programs have grown despite questions of their relative worth; campuses are trying to do too much; and “just because a program or project is funded,” said Payseur, “doesn't mean it is part of our mission.”

Recognize Areas of Resistance

Dickeson noted that many barriers clearly exist. Focus is on the nonacademic side, because leaders think that a comprehensive academic review is politically impossible. A related polling question asked of the webcast audience was “What issues do you anticipate if your campus were to try this [academic program review]?” For five challenges they might face to conducting such a review, the following numbers reflect the percentage of the 130 participating sites that indicated they would encounter each particular pushback:

Faculty resistance............... 89.3 percent

Process issues................... 78.6 percent

Data issues........................... 72.0 percent

Leadership issues.............. 58.6 percent

Other issues......................... 33.3 percent

Regardless, Drake has been methodically conducting its program review for the past 10 years. “It's worth it in the long run,” said Payseur, “and deep program review has allowed us to plan for a positive future.”

Richard Staisloff, of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, underscored the fact that “these are difficult conversations and you must base discussions on facts and data so that you don't get into politics.” He also noted that a combination of carrots and sticks can be effective.

Dickeson suggested that the dynamic for initiating the process comes from the president, the board, the provost, or the chief financial officer. “The CFO,” he said, “is perhaps best of all, since he or she can see the total picture and work the numbers.”

RESOURCE LINK This and other NACUBO on-demand webcasts can be found on NACUBO's Web site.