Recently, there have been several articles about how university prioritization plans are divisive, or that they are morale-suckers, or that the faculty “don’t support them”. The most recent case comes out of Wilfrid Laurier. But why all the fuss? After all, setting priorities happens all the time; it’s part of the business of running an institution. From one year to the next, investments may be increased in certain areas, there may be cutback in others, or wholly new programs may be introduced. Nothing unusual there.
Perhaps it’s about context. Although program prioritization is essentially about resource allocation and organizational strategy, and not necessarily about short-term cuts, it has certainly been used for this purpose at many institutions in Canada. And to the extent that the perception is “prioritization = cuts”, it’s not exactly an enormous surprise that faculty oppose it. Turkeys, by and large, don’t vote for Thanksgiving.
But the question is not whether prioritization is bad because it sometimes leads to/accompanies cuts. The fact is, in Canada, institutional income (i.e. tuition and government grants) is rising more slowly than faculty salary mass, and so cuts are inevitable. The real question is: are there other methods or processes for dealing with budget compression that faculties would support?
There really aren’t that many ways you can deal with cuts in post-secondary institutions. One route is simply to share the pain, and cut all units by the same amount. This was a widely-used tactic in the 1990s, and many people have very negative views about its effects. There is a perception – at some universities at least – that good units, which should have received investment, were sacrificed to help units that actually weren’t very good. The desire for a more surgical approach is why some – and not just those in administration – have applauded the prioritization process.
Prioritization is challenging because it attempts to quantify both program quality and relevance. Ah, but how do you define quality and relevance, ask the skeptics? Fair point – it’s tricky – but most processes I’ve seen have involved at least some community consultation in developing the relevant indicators with which institutions make decisions. Provided everyone participates in good faith, it’s a respectable way to proceed – and more to the point, it’s a transparent way to proceed because the evidence on which decisions are made is public (or at least public within the university community – the actual data tends to remain behind a firewall). Done well, institutions should find themselves stronger, not weaker, for having some priorities.
Now, it’s possible that other strategies exist: ones that involve neither prioritization nor across-the-board cuts (defenders of responsibility-centred budgeting will usually suggest that their methods are pretty useful in this respect). But what’s notable about the attack on prioritization from groups like the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) is that it is not accompanied by any other suggestions about how to proceed. All of this suggests that the fuss is more about the cuts – which are inevitable – than about the method for dealing with them.
This opposition is leading OCUFA to support some very weird things. Take for instance the excitement with which they point to a piece co-authored by Trent President Leo Groarke, which suggests that prioritization is unnecessary because good administrators don’t need to collect a lot of data to know which parts of the institution aren’t preforming so well. But Groarke’s argument isn’t one against cutting when and where necessary; it’s an argument that competent administrators should have the freedom to cut without going through the time-consuming rigamarole of collecting and presenting data.
But is that really what people want? A process that gives administration more discretion, and where the information on which decisions are based is not transparent?
I’d guess the answer is no. But until someone makes a positive case for a different process by which priorities can be set, it’s hard to be sure.