Firing Squad

UM to start ranking programs—and cutting losses 

Five years ago, Robert Dickeson was invited to give a presentation at the University of Montana. Dickeson, a former college president, CEO and consultant, spoke about a concept, which he developed, that has become both influential and controversial in the world of higher education. He calls it program prioritization, and it describes the idea that universities should respond to tightening budgets by shifting money to their top-performing academic departments—and away from weak ones. Under Dickeson's system, every program on campus is ranked.

UM administrators took notes on Dickeson's presentation, according to retired Provost Perry Brown, who read Dickeson's book—Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services—"a couple of times" and talked it over with then-newly minted President Royce Engstrom. Their conclusion: No thanks.

"At that time in the university's history, that didn't seem like a process that was going to get us where we felt we needed to be," Brown says now.

What a difference five years makes. Over the summer, copies of Dickeson's book were distributed to UM deans by temporary Provost Beverly Edmond. In October, Dickeson was back on campus for another all-day workshop organized by the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. And last month, in his final campus-wide address before being asked on Dec. 1 to resign, Engstrom announced that UM would embark on program prioritization after all, using Dickeson's blueprint as a starting point.

Ranking every academic (and administrative) program on campus is bound to be a tense, even cutthroat endeavor, and Edmond acknowledges that it may lead to the elimination of some degree offerings. But maintaining UM's current portfolio has become less tenable with each passing year as the university's budget decreases. Even programs with increasing enrollment have had to cut back. Regent Bob Nystuen, a Glacier Bank executive, expressed the concern succinctly at last month's state Board of Regents meeting. He worried that by not investing in healthy departments fast enough, UM is "taking some of the air out of the tires, the oxygen out of the lungs, of some of the programs that clearly need to have more put in them."

But it's precisely the trying financial climate that threatens to make the prioritization process so toxic, says communication studies professor Steve Schwarze. With morale already low, and the stakes high, prioritization could set faculty interests at odds, rather than bringing the campus together in a common purpose. What should be an exercise in identifying strengths could turn into a fight for space on the life raft. Or, as Schwarze fears, "a circular firing squad."

click to enlarge Program prioritization could steer more money to UM’s top programs, but it might also put other departments on the chopping block. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Program prioritization could steer more money to UM’s top programs, but it might also put other departments on the chopping block.

Additionally, Schwarze and other faculty members see Dickeson's approach as overly business-minded, focused on efficiency at the expense of comprehensiveness. Then there's the notion that every academic program's value can be measured and compared using a list of data points. "These kinds of models tend to put a veneer of objectivity onto a process that's inevitably subjective and political as well," Schwarze says. He hopes faculty can push administrators toward a more nuanced and less exclusively data-driven approach.

Edmond says she understands the concerns, having already been lectured by UM statisticians about the issues. Before taking her yearlong interim post in Missoula, Edmond worked at Albany State University in Georgia, which underwent a prioritization process. She says that to be effective, the process must include several months of discussion so faculty and staff can provide input. UM isn't locked in to Dickeson's model specifically, but Edmond says some form of program ranking is necessary. And that most likely means some programs will end up on the chopping block.

Brown says cutting programs is what he and Engstrom sought to avoid five years ago. They instead created a study, the Academic Alignment and Innovation Program, to explore ways that struggling programs could adapt to student needs.

Engstrom has previously described program prioritization as the next phase of AAIP, but the fingerprints of the commissioner's office are apparent on this latest turn. Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian says Montana universities are under no mandate to prioritize their programs on Dickeson's model, though three smaller campuses—MSU-Billings, MSU-Northern and Great Falls College—already have. Christian calls ranking a "tool" that could be particularly helpful at UM, where faculty have decried lack of input on earlier budget cuts.

Clearly, the current path wasn't the outgoing president's first choice. Edmond says Engstrom came to endorse the undertaking "in the context" of a long, deliberative process. Under the timeline he announced to campus, programs won't actually be ranked until sometime after the spring semester.

Edmond will be gone by then, as will Engstrom. Beginning in January, interim president Sheila Stearns will oversee the process. She's no stranger to prioritization. In 2010, the then-commissioner of higher education ordered a copy of Dickeson's book for each of the regents. When Stearns and the regents began discussing the prospect of conducting the exercise across the state's university system, Engstrom, then UM's provost, spoke up. He thought, then, that there was a better way.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Firing Squad"

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