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Business Officer Magazine

Mission Control

A campus community’s active involvement in the program review process changes its collective psyche.

By Victoria Felland Payseur

Almost a decade ago, Drake University, Des Moines, conducted a successful compre-hensive program review of both its academic and administrative programs, using as a guide the first edition of Bob Dickeson’s book Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services. (For details of Drake’s administrative program review, see “Keeping Programs and Resources in Sync” in the April 2007 Business Officer.) While the institution’s first program review was conducted approximately 10 years ago, the philosophy and process are relevant and applicable in today’s troubled economy, maybe even more so. In fact, as a result of program review and its enduring impact on the campus’ operational and budgeting procedures, Drake University is fiscally and academically stronger than ever. We have weathered the economic turbulence and managed our future in a way that simply would not have been possible pre–program review.

Tracking Savings With Multiyear Budgets

Tracking and communicating the resultant savings to the campus community was a critical final step in Drake University’s extensive program review. While the campus community was engaged in town meetings to discuss the various proposals submitted by the two program review committees (academic and administrative), the accounting office at Drake was busy calculating the budgetary impact of each proposed action. We developed a large spreadsheet to record the estimated costs and savings on an item-by-item basis.

For example, the spreadsheet identified the program (admissions), the specific recommendation (eliminate the Chicago office lease and utilities), and the projected savings ($35,000 per year). Savings were further identified as either one-time or recurring. Following the proposal vetting process, the final list of program eliminations or reductions and their respective dollar savings was shared with the campus community. Eventually, the spreadsheet was expanded to identify the year of potential implementation and the personnel responsible for ensuring each proposal’s fulfillment.

Because the entire campus community was actively involved in the program review process at Drake, subtle changes occurred in the collective campus psyche.

A multiyear revenue and expenditure budget projection was developed, which incorporated a separate section for program review changes. This section of the budget included a brief description of each program review measure and then factored in the estimated net savings amount on a line-by-line basis under the appropriate budget year’s projection. In cases of personnel elimination, the savings calculation was reduced for estimated severance or transition pay in the year of implementation, with the full savings realized in subsequent years.

Projecting out the longer-term impact of program review decisions was an important step, since we were able to provide the campus community with a clear picture of our financial future. These multiyear projections also clearly illustrated the value of the program review process with future years showing the budget in balance and the potential new funding, which could then be available for reallocation to more strategic purposes.

In the years after completion of the program review process, as each individual year’s budget was developed in more detail, the program review savings section existed as a separate part of the budget until all program recommendations were fully implemented. Progress was reported annually to the campus community via a budget town meeting. Delays or changes to the planned program review recommendations were also noted. The positive financial impact of program review became more obvious with each passing year.

Impact of Transparency and Communication

Because the entire campus community was actively involved in the program review process at Drake, subtle changes occurred in the collective campus psyche. Program lives were no longer assumed to be infinite. The campus eventually began to think and act differently. Questions regarding the possibility of restructuring and the potential for reallocating funds have now become commonplace. New programs are not begun without a careful review of the financial consequences and a scheduled future review date to assess outcomes and success. Before a new position is added at Drake, rethinking is required, guided by a series of probing questions asked by a small vacancy-review committee.

Reallocation of existing dollars is always the preferred and recommended budgetary solution. “What can be eliminated or restructured to free up additional resources? How does each requested program or position link to the university’s strategic plan and priorities?” These are no longer questions asked only by the budget office; vice presidents, deans, librarians, coaches, and facilities directors are all asking these questions of themselves and their staffs. Rethinking has become routine at Drake.

The upheaval and angst created by the program review process at Drake required the community to quickly become more mission-central and strategic. The frequency and openness of the communication surrounding the process and the university’s financial condition allowed the entire community to become fully aware of the larger institution and its needs. The continuing implementation and communication of program review recommendations over several years permitted a gradual and sustained re-education of the entire academic community.

In hindsight, the process and its transparency helped create “a new Drake” in ways that we could not have imagined at the time. This is not to undervalue the pain involved in the process: Tough decisions were proposed and in most cases, made; employees were stressed; departments were retooled; people lost jobs. Some of the program review recommendations created negative press that temporarily drove a few donors and potential students away. It was a gut-wrenching process.

However, it is unmistakable that Drake is stronger and more focused now as a result of the program review process that we undertook 10 years ago. Faculty and staff at Drake think more collaboratively and strategically now. Fiscal responsibility and resource stewardship are now part of the culture, and linking resource use with strategic plans is everyone’s business.

The power of program review has truly been transformative at Drake University, and the positive results are visible throughout the campus community, proving that Dickeson’s repeated themes of education, communication, and vision really work.

VICTORIA FELLAND PAYSEUR is vice president for business and finance and treasurer, Drake University, Des Moines.

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