Lessons Learned from Institutions Undertaking Program Prioritization

Stacks in an Academic Library

At Academic Impressions, we recently offered a national snapshot of efforts to prioritize academic programs and administrative services at higher-ed institutions. Our report included commentary from Bob Dickeson (who literally wrote the book on program prioritization) and Larry Goldstein (president of Campus Strategies, LLC), in which these two experts identified the prerequisites for success.

The key takeaway from our report: when program prioritization breaks down, it is usually because of a deeply flawed process (rather than flawed people).

In the past few weeks, we have returned to the institutional leaders we surveyed previously, leaders from both two-year and four-year institutions who have recently undertaken or are in the midst of a program prioritization effort. We asked them to share the most significant obstacles they have faced and any lessons they have learned about managing the prioritization process. We wanted to share their responses and their key takeaways with you.

Lessons from Your Peers

Here’s what the leaders we spoke with had to say:

  • You need the right steering group. “Pick an optimistic group to serve as the steering committee for this process,” one respondent suggested. “Optimism is needed throughout the process.”
  • “The steering committee charged with prioritization needs to understand the context and the rationale for the effort (especially the university’s fiscal situation and the impact of new, disruptive competition).”
  • But you can’t rely on your steering group alone. “There has to be involvement throughout the organization: from academic deans, the Strategic Enrollment Management committee, IR, the business office, etc.” Another added: “The process needs to be planful, and it needs to include faculty from across the university.”
  • “It is essential to spend time building consensus on the need to do this; I spent a year doing this before we announced we were going to do it. Make sure you have a faculty and staff committee doing this with limited administrative membership. We have shared committee leadership with a dean and a member selected by the committee chairing the prioritization committee. Have lots of opportunities for education and for people to ask questions. Provide as much data that is consistent to people charged with filling out reports so that they don’t have to search for it.”
  • Start the conversation right, with full transparency around the strategic direction of the institution and with the data that documents the need for a prioritization process. “Be clear about the risks and the desired outcomes of the process.” Then: “Invite faculty and staff to dream about what they would do if given additional resources.” Because, ultimately, a prioritization process should not be about cutting. It should be about reallocating resources from low-performing and less mission-critical programs toward high-performing and more mission-critical programs that are currently under-resourced. Frame the effort as an opportunity to free up resources to dedicate toward the institution’s greatest strengths and most pressing opportunities.
  • “Change isn’t easy in higher ed, and administrative staff can be as resistant to change as faculty. You need to educate people that (a) not changing isn’t an option, and (b) we have to keep the focus on what is best for our students.”
  • “Communication is important. Stakeholders need to feel their voices were heard.”
  • “Failing to pilot the instrument for collecting the data (a big no no of course) was probably the biggest lesson we learned from. Chairs did not always understand questions as we intended them, some data was collected inconsistently and incorrectly, our rubrics had to be revised, etc. I don’t think I could stress enough the importance of piloting the instrument and rubrics!”
  • “One significant takeaway was that, through this process, many people across the institution achieved a greater understanding of (and appreciation for) the college and for each other’s programs.”


In 2011, Florida A&M University recently conducted a productivity study of academic programs. In their effort to reallocate resources, they terminated 23 academic degree programs and suspended one. Gita Wijesinghe Pitter, the institution’s associate vice president for institutional effectiveness, describes what was learned from the process:

“There were a number of lessons that helped to prioritize and terminate programs with little animosity or adverse reactions from students or faculty as a whole:

  • Select metrics that are clearly relevant and for which accurate data exist
  • Involve representatives of many stakeholder groups, particularly faculty and students, in developing the metrics and methodology
  • Find ways to present the methodology and findings in simple, clear formats
  • Communicate clearly and often
  • Make provisions for students in the terminated programs
  • Monitor the teach-out process to ensure that students are progressing and can graduate from the terminated programs within a specified time period
  • Attempt to redeploy affected tenured faculty in other remaining programs for which they are qualified
  • Decisions regarding prioritizing, maintaining, suspending or terminating programs must be made with thoughtful consideration of multiple factors and a clear vision of the future.”

A Need for Bold Leadership

While we asked about the process, many respondents focused on the need for the top leadership of the institution — the president, the provost, and the chief financial officer — to act decisively and in unison once the necessary data has been collected and recommendations have been heard. “Urgency is critical but not in our DNA,” one leader noted, adding that communicating and acting on a sense of urgency requires strong leadership. It also requires that from the start of the process the president, the CFO, and the board are all on the same page about the desired outcomes of program prioritization, its necessity, and the need to make tough decisions.

“Consensus may never be reached,” a second leader cautioned, “but at some point, the administration has to make a decision.” Another added: “You need to develop a clear and transparent decision making process and then bear the courage to make decisions based upon the process.”

Program prioritization is a high-stakes process; if your institution is undertaking or considering a prioritization effort, read our report, “Meeting the Challenge of Program Prioritization,” which covers:

  • A national snapshot of prioritization efforts, based on a survey of over 100 institutional leaders
  • The prerequisites for a successful prioritization process
  • The importance of clear goals and targeted cuts
  • How best to pursue prioritization in the special cases of intercollegiate athletics, the general education curriculum, and a multi-campus system