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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2014

Academic prioritization — an attack on tenure

By Nalinaksha Bhattacharyya
The University of Guelph recently went through a “program prioritization pro­cess.” The prioritization exercise was reported in the Oct. 4, 2013 edition of 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.”

I have no connection with the University of Guelph, but the new fad of prioritizing academic programs is spreading across North America. My own school — the University of Alaska Anchorage — is undertaking an effort at academic prioritization. So it’s high time we take a critical look at this process euphemistically called “academic prioritization.”

The Dickeson model

The academic prioritization process is based on a model developed by Robert Dickeson and articulated in his 1999 book (re-releas-ed in 2010) titled Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance. The book is sloppy and Dickeson’s major focus is on faculty and their work.

For example Dickeson defines a program as “any activity or collection of activities of the institution that consumes resources (dollars, people, space, equipment, time).” (p. 56)

So any finance course could be a program. Finance courses are part of the Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) and BBA could be a program. Janitorial services could be a program. The point is there is no definitive way of defining a program. It all depends on one’s perspective.

Dickeson’s book has a set of appendices that he calls “resources,” — resource A, B, C, D and so on. Resource D is labeled “Case Studies: Excerpts from Implementation Plans,” yet not a single case study cites the name of the institution or impact on financial resources from implementation. Resource E is titled “Sources of Hidden Costs,” all of which are attributed to faculty. None of the hidden costs mentioned have to do with the administration.

How the Dickeson model has been used

Readers might be interested in looking at a 2013 report by the American Association of University Professors titled “Academic Freedom and Tenure: National Louis University (Illinois),” and available at file/National_Louis.pdf. The interesting information about Dickeson is contained in footnote 2, where AAUP notes it “has encountered Dr. Dickeson before,” when in his first year as president of the University of Northern Colorado, his administration terminated the appointments of 47 faculty members, including 39 with continuous tenure. The administration asserted its actions were necessitated by “program exigency.” An AAUP investigation resulted in imposition of censure by the 1982 annual meeting, and was kept in place for the duration of Dickeson’s UNC presidency.

In 2012 the National Louis University administration undertook a program review based on Dickeson’s model. As a result of the review the administration terminated the appointments of 63 full-time faculty members, 16 of whom were tenured. The administration claimed there were serious fiscal pressures on the university. Faculty leaders invited Howard Bunsis, the AAUP’s secretary-treasurer from 2008 to 2012 and a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan Univer­sity with considerable experience in institutional budget analysis, to evaluate the university’s financial condition. In a subsequent on-campus forum, Bunsis reported his conclusions that NLU “is not in dire financial condition: there are sufficient reserves and a low level of debt, in addition to solid cash flows in recent years”; that termination of faculty appointments would not save much money; and that administrative costs had not yet been addressed in the efforts to reduce overall expenses.

The model promoted by Dickeson is not aimed at improving our understanding of observed phenomena but a prescribed set of pro­cesses meant to achieve an end — an end result influenced by the philosophy and priorities of the developer of the model. Dickeson has demonstrated he is against ten­ure and as such his model views tenure as a target rather than a protection.

Does the Dickeson model save money?

Western Carolina University conducted a wholesale review of its programs last year. They also relied on Dickeson’s book. But when asked about monetary savings from the exercise, administrators couldn’t de­monstrate the effectiveness of the process.

We don’t find an actual case study where money has been saved by following Dickeson’s model. Even his book isn’t forthcoming.

So why do schools use his process for program review? As historical experience with the model shows, the primary purpose behind the exercise is to attack tenure.

Academics need academic freedom to do their work and the tenure system lies at the heart of pre-
serving academic freedom. After all, if you could be fired for expressing your opinion then you would self-censure. The progress of society will be hampered if the institutional guarantee of tenure is not there.

Given the sloppy nature of Dickeson’s model and the sad history of its implementation, it’s a sow’s ear that can never be made into a silk purse. The sad history is rapidly turning into a farcical history when you consider the University of Guelph’s exercise ranked intercollegiate athletics, food services and undergraduate residences higher than programs from the mathematics and English departments.

So how should we cope with a funds crunch in the university system? Suppose we model the university as a production process, i.e. as a factory producing some form of widgets. A factory has three kinds of costs — direct material, direct labour and overheads.

Direct material is the material that goes into the output, direct labor is the labor of the individuals who transform the material into final products, and overheads are the rest of the costs (your CEO, various vice-presidents, and so on). Using this as analogy, universities are in the business of knowledge production (research), knowledge distribution (teaching), and the attendant activities that enhance research and teaching (service). University outputs are educated minds and an overall increase in the realm of knowledge. Faculty are therefore direct workers. There are no direct material costs.

The costs of a university system are thus two-fold: direct workers (faculty cost) and overheads. Out of these overheads, we can classify library and databases and software programs as essential overheads almost akin to direct materials. Therefore in any budge­tary crunch the first line of attack should be to reduce other overheads, i.e. administrative costs. Instead we see an effort to reduce faculty and nothing happens about administrators beyond some token Kabuki. This is in line with Benjamin Ginsberg’s thesis in his 2011 book The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters.

Indeed one study that explored the criteria used to close programs at four universities (“Decision Rules Used in Academic Program Closure: Where the Rubber Meets the Road” by Peter D. Eckel, The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 73, No. 2, Mar–Apr 2002) found that program discontinuance was based on whether administrators felt they could get away with it, i.e. “programs closed were those that had few supporters and were unable to generate adequate political clout.”

The Dickeson model is a favorite of administrators because it offers a fig leaf of protection to hide the
real cause of increases in university budgets, viz. administrative bloat. As a counter, faculty would be well advised to insist on the implementation of a well-designed costing system and highlight the increase in administrative costs.


Nalinaksha Bhattacharyya teaches finance in the College of Business and Public Policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

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