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Many campuses are on notice that fundamental programmatic changes are needed to close long-term budget gaps. Here’s a framework for identifying the most essential programs, reallocating resources to support them—and handling the fallout.

Edited by Trae Turner

*The economic crunch has hit everyone close to home, and as people have gathered around their kitchen tables to review the family budget, many have been forced to get real about their spending and get back to a more basic way of life. This has inspired a whole new way of thinking about what’s really needed. Some decided to become a one-car family, and others decided to forgo eating out and going to movies for cooking and enjoying family game nights at home.

Institutions have followed suit with kitchen-table budget reviews and discovered that getting back to basics by realigning their thinking and returning to their core missions can have its upside. Robert C. Dickeson, president emeritus, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, and author of the revised and updated Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services (Jossey-Bass, 2010), explains that this type of reallocation always makes sense, no matter the state of the economy. The first edition of Dickeson’s book was published in 1999, so he was already addressing the issue of academic program review well before states started cutting education budgets. “The impetus for the first edition was the strong interest in prioritizing academic programs for reallo-cation purposes; that is to say, shifting resources from programs that weren’t as essential to those that were.”

Mission focus is not a new idea for campus communities, but when funds are tight, it’s especially important for leadership to focus on the core mission—which often means performing academic program reviews and reallocating funds. A holistic academic program review can help a campus learn more about what’s working financially and what’s not by reexamining which programs best serve the mission of the institution and which programs no longer fit that description.

“Campuses have always had their ups and downs fiscally—there’s never enough money—and reallocation makes sense,” says Dickeson. “What’s different now is that campuses are required to prioritize for survival reasons.”

The intense focus on tight budgets has put chief business officers in a new limelight on campus, and people see this role as a resource to provide answers and get the campus through financial difficulties. Dickeson points out that since CBOs are in a unique position to forecast coming financial difficulties, they’re well suited to lead a program review effort. “The CBO is a key player in obtaining verifiable data upon which many of the criteria for analysis depend. Cost, revenue, and productivity criteria, for example, reside in the CBO’s shop.” Finally, the CBO can get the program review process moving by pointing out that there is a solution that works, that has worked on hundreds of other campuses, and that can be accomplished on this campus.

But there is no denying that these are tough measures to take that involve a considerable amount of institutional angst. Dickeson says that effectiveness depends on the degree of honesty that exists on campus. The smart plan, he contends, includes using every available means to communicate the need for the review and the process that will take place, including speeches, e-mails, and publications, so people understand the reality of what’s happening.

Dickeson insists that this type of honest communication and streamlined process takes a strong alliance of leadership and buy-in from the campus community. “As I’ve indicated, the CAO, CBO, and CEO have to be aligned for this process to work—each is a principal stakeholder in both the process and the outcome. … By reallocating resources from weaker to stronger programs, the CAO can see the possibilities for strengthening the overall institution, a concept that should motivate us all.”

Read about three institutions that have undertaken academic program review. These case studies detail how one campus initiated ongoing academic review and has reaped the collaborative benefits for a decade, how another handled inevitable personnel issues, and how a third found that following a community’s vision can serve as a navigation tool through state budget shortfalls.

TRAE TURNER, Harrisonburg, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

RESOURCE LINK Listen to a related webcast from NACUBO on-demand webcasts, select “Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services,” recorded Jan. 19, 2010.