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.