As universities continue to grapple with ongoing fiscal constraints and demands for public accountability, some of them are undertaking a broad review of their programs and services to determine whether any should be eliminated or revised.
The University of Guelph launched its “program prioritization process” in September, in part to help the university eliminate a projected $34-million budget gap over the next four years . “We need to ensure the long-term financial viability and sustainability of the institution,” said Maureen Mancuso, provost and vice-president, academic, at U of Guelph. “That means having difficult conversations about what we can continue to do and what we have to stop doing.”
Guelph has already trimmed $46 million from its budget over the last four years, mainly through attrition. But the gap continues to widen between revenues and expenses, she said. All academic and non-academic units – from athletics to the president’s office – will be included in the review. “There’s no hit list,” she said “and no sacred cows.”
At a recent campus town hall meeting, Dr. Mancuso and Guelph President Alastair Summerlee faced some blunt questions about possible closures and layoffs. “We have a finite amount of money and increasing costs,” Dr. Summerlee said. “We have to find a way to change what we’re doing … Can I guarantee that at the end of the day this won’t affect people’s jobs? Absolutely not.” The alternative, he said, would be for senior administrators to make the decisions behind closed doors. “We don’t feel that’s appropriate at all.”
Guelph is one of several universities that have embarked on a program review. Others include Wilfrid Laurier University, Vancouver Island University and the University of Regina. For the most part they are relying on a strategy developed by former U.S. college president and consultant Robert Dickeson in his book, Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance (revised and updated in 2010).
Guelph is working directly with Dr. Dickeson to conduct the review. All departments and non-academic units must complete a form detailing the programs and services they provide, enrolment figures and other data. A 21-member Program Prioritization Task Force, comprised of faculty, staff and students, will use the information to produce a ranking of programs and services.
That information will in turn be used by senior administrators to make future budget decisions. “We are not going to apportion the $34 million that we need to find in an across-the-board fashion,” Dr. Mancuso said. The process is expected to take about a year.
Dr. Mancuso said the university intends to make program review a part of its regular planning cycle as it strives to adopt a more evidence-based process for decision making. “We need to change the culture,” she said. The review should be part of “our ongoing efforts to take stock” and should guide the university’s decisions during times of growth as well, she said.
Wilfrid Laurier University launched, earlier this year, a similar process that it calls an Integrated Planning and Resource Management Initiative. “It is important to note that IPRM is not an across-the-board cost-cutting exercise,” said President Max Blouw in a message on the university’s website. “Rather, it is an exercise that will allow us to focus on operationalizing and funding what we are good at and what we need to do to ensure our future success.” Laurier plans to use a template-style method similar to Guelph’s to gather information on academic programs. The results will help determine whether programs should be enhanced, maintained, transformed or phased out.
After completing a similar review, the University of Regina decided to cancel its separate bachelor of fine arts degrees in acting, theatre studies, and design and stage management, and to roll them into a new degree, a bachelor of arts, major: theatre and performance. It also undertook to revise its BA in political science and to introduce a new master’s of health management. Some of the changes are expected to go into effect in 2014.
Vancouver Island University recently completed a review of its 130 academic programs. Most were found to be in good shape and are to be maintained. Four were recommended for cancellation, three were suspended, 20 are to be enhanced, and two expanded. Of the four slated for closure, two weren’t being offered currently and two have very low enrolment. For the suspended programs, the affected units have a year to do an analysis and determine whether they should be redeveloped or cancelled. The proposed changes were expected to go to Senate in November for consideration. Cancelled programs will be phased out gradually and the expansion of others is expected to take three to five years.
“The budget was one factor for sure” in undertaking the review, said Dave Witty, VIU vice-president, academic, and provost, but the main driver was program quality. “To do it right takes a lot of work,” he said. “It’s taxing. It’s disconcerting initially.” But, as the review progressed, people came to realize why the exercise was needed. “I think it’s important for institutions to do that,” he said. “I’d sooner be doing it here than have others doing it.”