Falling Short on Academic Program Prioritization?

GolfballIn October 2013, I proposed the Faculty Senate engage in an Academic Program Prioritization (APP) process.

A blog post managed by PSU’s Academic Program Prioritization Committee (APPC) states that, “APP uses a scoring process, driven by academic priorities, to review the portfolio of all academic programs at PSU and assign them to one of a small number of categories, with supporting rationale and recommendations.”

You can also refer to a visual representation of APP for more details.

A brief history of APP accomplishments to-date:

  • Fall 2013: I proposed Faculty Senate consider an academic program prioritization (APP) process.
  • Fall 2013 and Winter 2014: Fruitful six-month faculty conversations assessing pros and cons of examining academic programs.
  • Spring 2014: The Senate and I issue a joint charge to create an ad-hoc Academic Program Prioritization Committee (APPC).
  • Fall 2014: The initial ad-hoc APPC makes a proposal to the Senate, endorsed with some modification, to move forward with implementation.
  • Winter 2014: APPC identifies programs to review and develops scoring criteria.
  • Spring 2015: APP forum calls for volunteers to serve on APP scoring teams.
  • Spring 2015: Senate votes to continue APPC with a summer pilot on proposed criteria.
  • Summer 2015: APPC determines it is unable to conduct pilot because most faculty are not available.
  • Fall 2015: APPC proposes to Faculty Senate an Atlas approach instead of prioritizing programs. The Atlas will contain a “digestible summary” of department-level data on student and faculty demographics; sponsored projects expenditures; trends in degrees awarded; etc.
  • Fall 2015: The Senate discusses the merits of an Atlas versus a prioritization process.

More Assessment, Not More Data
A few days ago the APPC reached consensus that they will not proceed with a pilot, but will continue with the “Atlas of Academic Programs” and in generating the final report.

I am a cartographer so I would normally rejoice in an atlas. While the Atlas proposed has utility, I am concerned it provides nothing new, given it will include data we already have access to.

While administration at many universities mandate program prioritization and how it will be conducted, we have intentionally not done this at PSU. I believe that the curriculum and the programs we offer should be shaped by our faculty and I hope that the Faculty Senate will see value in a process that goes beyond data collection to one that provides meaningful assessment and informed recommendations.

Reprioritizing APP – New Outlook?
I understand prioritizing and assessing our array of programs will take significant faculty time. I get it–faculty have limited time for service. The question, though, is how is that time best spent?

I wonder how much time faculty could devote to program prioritization if we were willing to let go of other tasks:

  • What if the approval of courses did not need to go to university-wide committees and instead resided with faculty decisions at the college level?
  • What if decisions on awarding professional development funds took place at the college level and no longer needed an additional committee?

I am not suggesting in the above examples that there is no value added by university committees. Rather, I am asking, given a choice of how we spend our limited time, what are the more important university-wide decisions—the approval of single courses OR assessments of our programs?

I encourage faculty to streamline and let go of some processes to make time for others that may add more value.

I wish to thank the APPC members, Faculty Senate, Senate Leadership and other faculty that have worked on this project over the past two years. A special thank you to Mark Jones, Chair of the APPC, for his leadership, energy, and creativity trying to move APP forward.

For more info, refer to the APPC blog, as well as two blog posts I have written on this topic.

Please share your thoughts about the APP process on this blog space.




8 thoughts on “Falling Short on Academic Program Prioritization?

  1. Bravo for suggesting that as an organization we make incremental transformations in how we do PSU’s academic business. We are so steeped in traditional power structures, committees and silos that we can’t see the forest for the trees anymore. Many well-performing faculty are exhausted–we need to prioritize our collected efforts for the greater good of our colleges, the university, our students and ourselves.


  2. Perhaps it is time for the Faculty as a whole to re-examine how we vet and approve our curriculum. We are following the same processes and reporting structures that were initially introduced back in the 1970s if not earlier. It could be an interesting discussion.


  3. Let’s see. We start with a ‘rank and yank’ approach during a period of political-economic turmoil (remember the budget cuts and almost-strike of April 2014?), wend our way through a proposal for a 30-person committee (yikes!), and received no clear concept at any point of how the rankings would be used (besides the at-that-time obvious inference that they would lead to yankings). Busy people might ask “why bother?” – just to put a number or two next to a program that will live or die according to lots of other criteria besides the ones the Senate would have developed?


  4. Let’s see. We began APP with advice to read a book on a ‘rank and yank’ technique (already abandoned by corporate America) during a time of upheaval (remember the budget cuts and almost-strike of April 2014?). Then we roll out a plan to form a 30-person committee (yikes!) to score programs – with an implicit message that the rankings would be used for yankings, but no explanation of who would make those decisions, or how they’d go about it. I personally felt that Senate was being asked to provide a veneer of legitimacy for upcoming administrative fiat.


  5. The APPC committee is going to make some recommendations beyond compiling the atlas. Those recommendations will include passing some of the work on to standing Senate committees such as EPC and UCC.


  6. I understand and, to a large extent, share the sense of frustration that we have not (yet) gone further in this process.

    At the same time, I think it is important to acknowledge that we are trying to do something new and different. The typical APP process at other institutions has been an administrative task to address specific, pressing, short-term needs, often centered on financial considerations. Our goal, instead, is a faculty-led process to support broad, long-term institutional planning that is driven by academic priorities. As such, we are in somewhat uncharted territory, and it is going to take time: to get everything mapped out; to build consensus, clarity, confidence, and trust in our choice of destination; and to plan a route that will allow us to complete the journey in an appropriate way. For these reasons, we have proposed the development of an “Atlas of Academic Programs”, not as the final product, but as a useful resource and a concrete step towards the overall goal.

    An atlas is an abstraction of the world that it describes. It does not document the position of every rock, tree, or undulation in the landscape. Instead, it focusses on specific details that, in the view of its authors and editors, will best provide readers with new insights and a deeper understanding of the world around them. The utility of an atlas comes from its effectiveness in filtering a large pool of information—even if it is not technically “new” data—and in presenting a clear and accurate world-view that allows users to answer a wide range of important, high-level questions.

    As a concrete example, the blog post suggests that, perhaps, in the future, new course approvals might be handled completely within individual colleges and not require the involvement of university-wide committees. To evaluate such a proposal fully, however, we need a good understanding of the interconnectedness between colleges and programs. To what extent, for example, can changes in one college be made without compromising programs (or duplicating work that is already done) in other parts of the university? Returning to the atlas metaphor, are we looking at a disparate collection of continents separated by vast oceans, or at a tightly-coupled, interdependent federation of states? An atlas should make it easier for us to recognize and understand relationships like these “at a glance”, and, in doing so, position us for more effective and productive assessment and planning.

    Of course, our first version of the atlas will not be perfect. As a document that is authored and compiled by and on behalf of the faculty, it should at least reflect faculty views and opinions about academic priorities; that is already a useful contribution. But it will likely also include details that we subsequently realize are not so helpful or appropriate for high-level exploration or evaluation of academic programs. And it will almost certainly omit key information too—perhaps corresponding to data that we currently do not even collect—that could be used as valuable indicators of program quality and health. For these reasons, I refer to the APPC atlas as a “first edition”, expecting that it will serve as a conversation starter, and that it will evolve over time with various improvements and refinements as we learn more about how it can be used. In addition, I hope that we will not underestimate the importance of the current committee’s final report, which will provide some specific, concrete recommendations for next steps.

    If anyone asks “are we there yet?”, it’s clear instead that our journey is only just beginning. But I think we have noticed some significant changes in perspective over the past year, with faculty increasingly seeing value in APP as an opportunity to participate more directly in planning activities that are driven by academic priorities. I think there is broad acknowledgement that it is the responsibility of the faculty, particularly through the Senate, to keep the initiative moving forward. But there is also consensus that we should not proceed too quickly. I believe that a careful and thoughtful approach that delivers on our high-level goals, even if it takes a little longer, is preferable to one that takes less time but does not result in a good outcome.

    Meeting our original goals will require significantly more investment, more time, and more resources than might have been desired when these ideas were first raised. There is still a lot of work to be done, but I hope that we can find the collective commitment and energy to keep it moving forward.


    • Thank you for the informative update, Mark. You might consider posting this on the APP site as well. It’s been a couple months since this was posted. I’m curious where things are at now. Is the Atlas complete and available? How will the initiative move forward?


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