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Explaining the Program Prioritization Process

It’s one way for institutions to become sustainable.

By MAUREEN MANCUSO | March 12, 2014

A number of Canadian universities are engaged in a Program Prioritization Process (PPP). Others are contemplating related initiatives.  As with any significant trend that involves change to traditional ways, anticipation leads to legitimate questions but also to sloPPPy thinking. There are a lot of myths about just what PPP is, many of them straw-man distortions of what the process actually involves. My university just completed the first and most attention-getting part of such a process – the ranking of programs – so I feel well- placed to state what PPP is and is not.

PPP is a process, not a project. If you intend to do it once only, don’t bother; pay lip-service to accountability some other way. Like ongoing strategic, operational and integrated planning, it is an iterative process that will not yield optimal value at first try but, like any form of learning, becomes easier and more effective over time.

Robert Dickeson’s often cited book (Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services) does not provide a checklist for performing assessment, and those who compare it to facile and discredited (but easily and disastrously replicable) management schemes like “rank and yank” need to read the book more carefully. Rather, it offers a variety of suggestions to use and principles to keep in mind when devising an institutionally specific way of addressing a common system-wide problem: figuring out how to achieve sustainability in a time of declining resources. The crucial principle is to ensure the process respects the institution’s unique characteristics and values.

PPP is about information, not automation. It doesn’t tell institutions what to do (or where to cut); it is about resource allocation in general and in the long-term, not just about budget cuts. It tells institutions where they need to pay more attention and resolve conflicts between investment and return, cost and benefit, strength and weakness. It is deliberative and analytical – and, when done right, consultative, not executive. PPP helps managers base key decisions on more reliable, more transparent evidence instead of subjective, piecemeal determinations and intra-institutional politics.

Some claim PPP is wasted effort because administrators “ought to know as a matter of course” where the problem programs are and how to fix them. If so, then why hasn’t anything been done? Does anyone think that budget and program cuts will be accepted more readily by the community if these are justified purely by parochial assertions, rather than the institution-wide accumulation of evidence? Yes, administrators should know where to focus attention; PPP is a tool – a recipe, a process – for developing that knowledge base and making a reliable case for action when change will inevitably be disruptive and contentious. The information that PPP extracts and organizes comes from the units and programs themselves, not the perceptions and predilections of administrators.

PPP requires integration, not imposition. It needs to fit within the institution’s established governance processes, not override them. It is an advanced step in evidence-based decision-making. If the campus community has not been prepared to take that step, then fear and balking are natural reactions. At my university we carefully devised our implementation of PPP to build on a decade of consultative, transparent, evidence-based decision-making processes. Even so, I will admit that instituting PPP cost me a significant chunk of the political capital I had built up during those years. Change is as difficult to manage as it is to undergo.

Undertaking PPP is a lot of work that can end up as a source of friction: it is about documenting and disclosing, warts and all, what programs and services are about and how they contribute to the overall strength of the institution. It improves accountability to our stakeholders and reveals details that may not be flattering but which we, as public institutions, have no right to conceal or obscure. It is about measuring program sustainability, not academic quality. This is an important distinction because some of the loudest objections to our process have come from those who mistook PPP rankings as comments on quality. We could have done better to communicate this.

Although I have advised some universities about our experience, I am not trying to proselytize here. There is no false dichotomy of “do PPP or bust.” But institutions need to take whatever steps they can to better understand and inform and justify transparently the hard decisions that will be necessary to survive the next decade while preserving their vital academic missions and identities. “Know thyself,” because the unexamined institution won’t be worth saving.

Maureen Mancuso is provost and vice-president, academic, at the University of Guelph and a 3M National Teaching Fellow.
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  1. Brett Fairbairn / March 12, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Our institution is about 6 months behind Guelph in program prioritization, and based on our experience so far I would strongly second Dr Mancuso’s comments – both about the merits of the process, and about the ways in which it is frequently misunderstood. I would add that Dickeson’s book, though useful, is more limited than the talks I have heard him give in person, which are based on practical experience and recognition of multiple ways of carrying out prioritization. Really PPP is a flexible set of experience-derived principles; it is about making budget choices in the most comprehensive, open, faculty-driven, and evidence-based way possible. We have chosen to follow this approach because, after a wide environmental scan, we did not identify any good alternatives.

  2. Philip Hultin / March 13, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    This is a good description of what PPP SHOULD be. Mancuso also notes the reasons for much of the opposition to PPP. It is truly refreshing to hear someone from the administrative side who actually seems to CARE what the academics think.

    My institution has been talking about setting priorities, and strategic planning etc for a while now. The problem is that our administration can’t tell the difference between Prioritization and Favoritism. It’s all about winners and losers here.

    Perhaps they ought to meet with Mancuso to learn how PPP should be done. Because she is VP Academic at her institution, they might even listen to her. They sure don’t pay much attention to mere professors.

  3. Gavin Moodie / March 15, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Like many of these things, prioritizing programs involves shifting involvement in making decisions about academic matters from departments to faculties to the institution level. Hence the need for measures which can be understood by people outside the discipline and applied to programs in different disciplines. This doesn’t make program prioritizing necessarily bad, but it as well to recognize the various processes at play.

  4. Nalinaksha Bhattacharyya / March 24, 2014 at 9:08 am

    (Part 3 of 3)

    Program prioritization is a process that helps the university focus on its core mission and use its resources wisely. The amount of savings is unknown at this point. The university does anticipate the academic program prioritization to result in efficiencies in resources that will play out over time as any affected programs go through a phased process of discontinuation. In addition, program prioritization will enable the university to be more strategic if it faces additional cuts in revenue, in its allocation of existing resources and in its use of any new resources.”

    [Source: ]

    [Note: The emphasis in the answer above is added by me]

    You might also like to look at an Academic Study of Program Closures.

    Decision Rules Used in Academic Program Closure: Where the Rubber Meets the Road Peter D. Eckel The Journal of Higher Education , Vol. 73, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 2002), pp. 237-262 Published by: Ohio State University Press Article Stable URL:

    Abstract(back to top)

    By what criteria do institutions decide which academic programs to terminate? This study adopts a decision/action rationality framework to explore the criteria used to close programs at four universities. Findings suggest that decisions are based upon criteria other than cost, quality, and centrality and that process leads to criteria generation.

    I quote from this paper:

    “This study suggests that the majority of decision criteria identified are not used to select programs for closure. Rather, institutional decision makers use alternative criteria, ones that lead to action. Simply having stated criteria, and possibly a process to develop those criteria, may be more important to the discontinuance process than serving a utilitarian choice purpose. Stated criteria most likely fulfill a symbolic role needed to generate commitment and action.

    Because decisions are not based on cost, centrality, or quality, decision makers might reconsider readily adopting a strategy of program closure in the first place. By closing the programs “they could get away with,” decision makers neither meet their goals of saving money, improving quality, or streamlining focus, nor do they follow efficient processes. Closure processes might cause pain, disruption, and hard feelings for possibly little actual return. Decision makers thus are caught between reaching their intended goals-which in the case of program discontinuance tend to be reducing costs, enhancing quality, or realigning institutional strategy-and closing politically vulnerable programs that may do little to increase quality, save money, or create new strategy.” (pages 257-258)

    Lastly you can find a review of Dickeson’s book online The Book Review appeared in California Faculty 2010, Issue 1. The URL is

    I am reproducing the last three paragraphs from the Book Review.

    “Dickeson touches very lightly on administrative restructuring, claiming that it has been good. The CSU has selected this book as the tome that will fix things, but ignores where anyone not enamored of corporate solutions based on crony capitalism would start the process: with the out-of-control administrative overhead.

    Overall, Dickeson’s book has a few good points, underplayed by the author, and seemingly with no traction so far on the campuses that have jumped into this abyss with both feet.

    So, perhaps Dorothy Parker’s suggestion on how to treat a book she reviewed and found wanting is appropriate. Parker wrote, “This is not a book that should be set aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

  5. Nalinaksha Bhattacharyya / March 24, 2014 at 9:08 am

    (Part 2 of 3)

    I have been writing Dr. Dickeson’s “model” within quotation marks, because such “models” are not aimed at improving our understanding of observed phenomena but such “models” are prescribed set of processes meant to achieve some ends. The ends that are desired by such “models” are influenced by the philosophy and world view of the developer of the “model”. In this case Dr. Dickeson has demonstrated that he is against tenure and as such his model is designed to achieve that objective.

    I have not been able to find a CV of Dr. Dickeson or Dr. Goldstein. I am interested in understanding what kind of intellectual output they have. If you find their CV (NOT a biographical note), please send it to me.

    I wanted to write a scholarly paper. So I read Dickeson’s book. There is not much scope for a scholarly paper. The book is very sloppy. For example here is how Dickeson defines a “Program” as “An operational definition of a program is any activity or collection of activities of the institution that consumes resources (dollars, people, space, equipment, time).”(Page 56) So finance course could be a program, finance courses are part of the BBA and BBA could be a program, Janitorial services could be a program. The point is that there is no definitive way of defining a program –it all depends on the eyes of the beholder.

    Dickeson’s book has a set of Appendices (He calls them Resources; Resource A, B, C, D and so on and so forth). Resource D is labeled Case Studies. Not a single “Case Study” has the real name of the University or an estimate of the actual costs saved.

    Resource E of Dickeson’s book is titled “Sources of Hidden Costs”. He mentions eight sources of “Hidden Costs”. All eight has to do with faculty. Not a single one of these “Hidden Costs” have to do with the Administration.

    The University of Guelph has recently completed the Prioritization exercise. You will find a report on this in The Guelph Mercury. ( )

    I quote a part of this report:

    “The University of Guelph hired Dickeson and his firm, Academic Strategy Partners, to assist a 21-member task force charged with analyzing the exercise’s results and making recommendations.

    Very few undergraduate-level degree granting programs ranked in the top 20 per cent of the analysis.

    Seven of the university’s school of language and literature major and minor programs ranked in the bottom fifth of the analysis, as well as six programs apiece from mathematics and statistics, sociology and anthropology and the English and theatre departments.

    Intercollegiate athletic teams, the school’s food services division, undergraduate residences and the annual giving and alumni relations unit, all scored in the top fifth of the analysis.”

    Western Carolina University went through a Prioritization exercise. They also relied on Dickeson’s book. Here is an interesting segment from their FAQ: “How much money will the university save by taking these steps?

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