Prioritization process ranks programs

Concordia recently launched a prioritization process that requires all academic and administrative programs to be thoroughly reviewed and then ranked highest to lowest priority by their respective department or office. The purpose of this process is to determine how to most effectively distribute resources and strengthen Concordia’s appeal to prospective students.

Mark Krejci, provost and dean of the college, said this process to review Concordia’s programs and set priorities based on the results is crucial to move the college forward.

“We have great, creative people here who want resources to expand, generate, and develop programs,” he said. “And, we have more requests than we have resources to hand out.”

President Pamela Jolicoeur said Concordia’s funds are to a much lesser extent coming from the traditional sources: endowment and its growth and financial gifts from loyal alumni and friends of the college. Jolicoeur said the traditional sources have all been affected by the slow economy. The additional needed resources could come from increased tuition, but Jolicoeur said, “of course, that’s not going to happen.” The only option, she said, is to look at the way Concordia is currently spending money and allocating resources through the review process.

“What we could do is say ‘Well, I just guess we can’t afford to do anything else,’ she said. “But that’s not an option for us. We must. We must be able to afford the things we must do.”

The process requires academic and administrative programs to be reviewed by their department or office and ranked. Initially, programs were to be ranked into quintiles: levels 1-5, with level one being the top 20 percent of programs. Krejci received feedback from faculty members that it would be difficult to rank their programs into the five levels because it would cause division and a strain on morale. The prioritization process was revised to place programs into either a “Top Priority” group that will include no more than 10 percent of all programs, and a “Second-Level Priority” group that can include up to another 20 percent. The remaining programs will not be grouped and are the lowest priorities. These programs not labeled as top or second level priorities are less likely to be allocated funds, which has sparked some concern that programs would be cut.

Mary Rice, division chairwoman of language, literature, and culture, said that the revision of the levels helps ease faculty concerns, since no program will be in the bottom fifth. However, Rice said she is concerned that conducting the process during a time when enrollment is unpredictable and finances are down creates the perception that there will be programs cut.

“It may very well be the administration’s true intent that it won’t happen, but some faculty are worried it could be more than that,” she said.

Jolicoeur said the faculty are understandably concerned about the process, but it is extremely unlikely any programs will be cut. However, Jolicoeur did say that the results of the prioritization process might mean that a program may not be asked to do some of the things it could do, or things that it may have been able to do in the past, because of its priority level. Krejci echoed Jolicoeur and said there is no talk of phasing out or cutting any programs in the prioritization process, but it is a way to communicate to the programs that are not grouped into top or second level priority that they must figure out and understand how to work with the resources they have.

Larry Papenfuss, athletics director and chairman of the physical education and health department, oversees both the academic majors in his department as well as the 20 athletic teams at Concordia. He agrees with Rice that the process revision has helped reducing some of the stress. While he isn’t concerned with any programs being cut, he said one of the things that is of concern is what will a department or office do if Concordia doesn’t make its targeted enrollment and budgets must be trimmed by a certain percent. Papenfuss said it’s a matter of determining what is essential and what are things that could be given up if necessary.

“It’s how we can accomplish that: trimming the fat, so to speak, without cutting into the muscle,” he said.

Concordia has gone through a similar process in the form of strategic financial plans every five years, but the prioritization process is different in that it is much larger in scope and is an open conversation across campus. Krejci said there were two options for a prioritization process: everyone could make a pitch to him and he could make the decisions, or the process can be open to the campus community and everyone can discuss what Concordia sees as its future priorities. Krejci said he much prefers the latter. Jolicoeur agreed and said it’s much better than the last time she had to go through this process during the last steep recession in the mid-1980s, when the top-level administrators in higher education were forced to make decisions quickly. The prioritization process allows each program, academic and non-academic, to make its case.

“An important principle of doing this is that everything is on the table,” Jolicoeur said.

Papenfuss said the openness and the opportunity for each department and office to provide their own analysis is a tremendous asset of the process.

“Nobody likes to be told that they have to cut [from the budget],” he said. “But at the same time, if we have to cut then we would rather be the ones to talk about how we do that then to just arbitrarily have things cut.”

Krejci, Jolicoeur and other administrators spent an extensive amount of time researching the process before presenting the memo and review plan to faculty and administrators. Much of the process was inspired by the book “Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance” by Robert C. Dickeson. Internet research and informal consultations with administrators at other institutions was also done.

The process begins in Concordia’s departments and offices, which must answer a set of questions under each of the 10 criteria in a narrative review section. Questions in the narrative review section include how central the program is to Concordia’s mission, external and internal demand for the program, revenue and resources generated by the program, and so on. Academic programs also have six criteria in the quantitative section, which will be populated by both the department and data gathered by the Office of Institutional Research.

There is no expectation on how departments and offices should handle their program review process, and the leadership or management can create a process that best works for them. For example, the Spanish department is dividing up the questions. Department chairman Francisco Cabello asked each Spanish faculty member to volunteer to write a response to a question and the final report will be compiled and edited by Cabello, since the academic year is ending soon and both Cabello and Rice will be in Spain for summer school after commencement. Papenfuss said athletics and the physical education and health department has created its own prioritization review team of five members, who meet regularly to work through the review criteria for each program.

The prioritization has an aggressive timeline as all program review reports must be reviewed April-June, the busiest time of the year for many programs, and submitted for review by Krejci and Linda Brown, vice president for finance, by June 30. Krejci, and Brown will review the reports in July and August, then submit a report to the Prioritization Review Team by Aug. 31. The PRT is chaired by Krejci and Brown and other members include faculty representatives Roy Hammerling and David Sprunger, administrator representative Chelle Lyons Hanson, support staff representative Linda Soderberg, and student representative Erik George. Finally, the report will be reviewed by Krejci and Jolicoeur, and then presented to the Board of Regents on Nov. 15. The timeline was also revised; each step was extended by about one month to better accommodate the campus community and to be certain the Office of Institutional Research had enough time to extract the quantitative data needed from Banner, Concordia’s data system.

Krejci said the turnaround is fairly quick because the budget for the 2011-2012 tuition fees and other budgets have to be set by December 2010. The deadlines must be met, otherwise the college will have to wait another year before it can begin making decisions to move forward.

While Concordia is undergoing this process to best allocate funding, which is more limited in recent years due to the down economy, Jolicoeur and Krejci both said virtually every campus in the country is facing the same market forces, and Concordia is in a much better situation than most. Jolicoeur said many colleges have lost an enormous amount in their endowment, operate on extremely thin margins, and their administrators have been forced to make decisions quickly without an open discussion.

Krejci said he has talked to deans and administrators at other institutions, and most other places that have conducted a process like this had a looming deficit to overcome. Krejci said he talked to one dean at a large private university that had to cut millions of dollars in just five months.

“We’re in the advantage of not being in that position, so we can approach it from a very different perspective,” Krejci said.

Rice said the process might be more stressful than the strategic plans of the past since it coincides with a down economy, but she isn’t worried about Concordia’s future.

“Lutheran colleges in general are very fiscally responsible and good about planning for the future,” she said. “Concordia is one of the stellar ones.”

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