The big plan: Prioritization

As Alaskan oil reserves dwindle, belts will require tightening and the state will take a close look at budgets. The University of Alaska is young, and just as a malnourished child may suffer effects into adulthood, the university may suffer in the long-term if it doesn’t find the best use of an inevitable decrease in funding.

UAA is addressing these problems through a massive assessment process called prioritization that seeks to examine every one of its academic programs and administrative functions. How the data will be used is not explicitly stated, but it is intended to serve as a guide for what should be cut, what should be increased and what should be left alone.

Traditionally it is the responsibility of the deans to determine where changes are made within individual departments and programs, but prioritization is utilizing 18-member task forces composed of faculty and staff to rank the many programs and functions — the Academic Task Force (acTF) and the Support Task Force (STF), respectively. Task force members were either self-nominated or nominated by other staff or faculty based on factors like trust and respect of their colleagues and time available to participate.

A template is assigned to each one of the approximately 300 programs and 200 functions at UAA. Each template is a physical packet containing headings for the various criteria including a percentage weight, e.g., “External demand … 13 percent” or “Impact and essentiality … 15 percent.” Below the headings are boxes where the relevant information is provided by whomever is filling out the template.

On the academic side department chairs received templates for each of their programs in late September and distributed them among faculty to be filled out. During the piloting process last summer it was found that individual templates could take between 30-50 hours to complete, but the official revised templates are said to require around half as much time.

Most departments are dealing with four to six templates, but some departments may be overburdened. The Languages Department has 20 different templates, and many of the faculty are adjunct and not part of the process.

Some faculty have voiced concerns in open briefings that workload agreements created last spring don’t allow for the time needed to give templates the attention they deserve.

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Excluding the system of ranking, prioritization is based on a system outlined in the book “Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services” by Robert C. Dickeson. Vice Chancellor of Administrative Services Bill Spindle, Provost Elisha “Bear” Baker and other faculty traveled to San Diego in fall 2012 to see Dickeson speak. After deciding the Dickeson approach was suitable, UAA hired consultant Larry Goldstein to train task force members on the model last summer.

“This model encourages a well thought-out change in management approach that recognizes the important role that faculty, administration and staff have in shaping UAA’s future,” reads UAA’s Office of the Chancellor website.

A few faculty have vocalized concerns that the Dickeson model may be an attack on the tenure system at UAA.

“We’re not going to get rid of tenure here. That’s just a silly idea altogether,” Baker said.

Since the process began in spring 2013, many aspects of prioritization have been in a state of flux. All of the original deadlines for submission and review of templates have been suspended. Data to be provided by an 18-member facilitation team to aid programs in filling out templates has yet to be released. The templates for the 200 or so administrative functions are still being piloted and won’t be available for a few more weeks. Most importantly, though, the system by which programs and functions will be ranked is still subject to change.

The current ranking that was adopted by task force members is a system where each program or function is placed into one of five quintiles that offer vague prescriptions for what action should be taken:

• Programs in quintile 1: Priority for higher investment

• Programs in quintile 2: Consider for higher investment

• Programs in quintile 3: Sustained resources

• Programs in quintile 4: Transform

• Programs in quintile 5: Subject to further review, consider for reduction or phase out

There must be an 80 percent consensus of task force members to place a program or function within a quintile. As it stands, each quintile must account for 20 percent of the total programs or functions, appearing to imply that programs or functions in quintile 4 could be pushed into quintile 5 if quintile 5 contained fewer than 20 percent of programs or functions.

All prioritization task force meetings are open only to task force members, but in response to calls from UAA faculty senate and individual faculty for greater transparency, the minutes for weekly Academic Task Force meetings are being actively emailed over the faculty Listserv.

“The items discussed have always been public,” Academic Task Force Co-Chair Mark Fitch said.

The Academic Task Force announced late last week that it voted to set deadlines for submission of program templates from Jan. 31-March 7. They also reported that acTF members were roughly evenly distributed in voting for alternative ranking systems to the quintiles.

There are still no deadlines for when results will be available, but the acTF has also discussed working in summer 2014 to extend the timeline.

Naturally, many faculty and staff equate the fifth quintile with the termination of programs and jobs. While faculty members are unionized and the process for termination is lengthy, the majority of staff are at-will employees with little to protect their jobs based on the outcomes of prioritization.

In an email to faculty, Academic Task Force member John Mouracade said, “Now when the Provost looks around and needs to cut spending, where can he cut it most quickly? On the admin side. All academic programs are tied to the catalog and take 5-7 years to phase out. In the short term, there really aren’t any savings on the academic side.”

Little is known about the status of the Support Task Force, but STF Co-Chair Sandy Culver has said open briefings will be scheduled sometime in November.

Although the acTF and STF are at very different stages in the prioritization process, neither has reached a consensus on many important details and much work remains to be done.


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