Prioritizing Academic Programs

“Most institutions can no longer afford to be what they have become.”

So is the blunt, and I would say accurate, assessment of Robert Dickeson in the widely admired Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance.

Prioritizing Academic Programs

Today, as part of a University of Guelph Board of Governors planning meeting, I was privileged to participate in a session with Dickeson as the University embarks on a prioritization process based on his model. The immediate goal for Guelph is to find $32M is base budget savings. The more substantive goal is fundamental organizational change.

Dickeson’s approach academic prioritizing is based on seven main observations:

“1. Academic programs are not only the heart of the collegiate institution; they constitute the real drivers of cost for the entire enterprise, academic and nonacademic

2. Academic programs have been permitted to grow, and in some cases calcify, on the institutional body without critical regard to their relative worth.

3. Most institutions are unrealistically striving to be all things to all people in their quest for students, reputation, and support rather than focusing their resources on the mission and programs that they can accomplish with distinction.

4. There is a growing incongruence between the academic programs offered and the resources required to mount them with quality, and most institutions are thus overprogrammed for their available resources.

5. Traditional approaches, like across-the-board cuts, tend toward mediocrity for all programs.

6. The most likely source for needed resources is reallocation of existing, resources, from the weakest to strongest program.

7. Reallocation cannot be appropriately accomplished without rigorous, effective, and academically responsible prioritization.

The last two are highlighted by me because they are keys to success in this model. Financial relief will not come from substantial new investments from government, higher tuition for students, windfalls from donors, or any other additional funding. Relief will come from reallocating existing funds based on a data-driven analysis of strengths and weaknesses.

There has been a lot of discussion in the higher education literature about differentiation. Much of that has been around teaching institutions vs research institutions. What I like about this initiative is that it will create differentiation around quality.

The review the University of Guelph is undertaking will not be easy. It is a bold and pragmatic process that will likely achieve the fiscal target but more importantly establish a foundation for sustaining and growing quality into the future. It will also demonstrate to the legions of naysayers (some of whom write columns for national newspapers) that universities are fiscally responsible, they can address the hard questions, and they can lead organizational change.

The University of Guelph that emerges from this will be different. It will be financially sustainable but it will also be academically progressive. We can only hope that governments assist the evolution of Guelph with supportive policies as it explores new dimensions of what it means to be a university in the 21st century.


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