Prioritization: an AUNBT position paper

Prioritization at UNB

UNB management is considering undertaking a project it calls “Academic and Administrative Prioritization.” “Prioritization” could have serious implications for many departments and for UNB as a whole: for its reputation as a national comprehensive university and its viability as a centre for research and scholarship. AUNBT will be taking an active interest and we encourage all members to inform themselves on the issues and be vigilant. Information from this university and from the broader academic world will be posted here, including discussions of events and trends as they develop.

The intended general outcomes of the management project were announced in an October 2013 Senate document (PDF). It explained what “prioritization mean[s]” by citing passages from UNB’s Strategic Plan. Notably, the following criteria were highlighted: “we will support academic programs that are engaging, challenging and relevant.” All current UNB academic programs and their academic staff are subject to a variety of annual or other periodic reviews and assessments that are closely overseen by senior academic managers. Demonstrably, the programs already satisfy the Plan’s criteria. Therefore, it is reasonable to infer that the project will include an exercise that will rate some programs as more engaging, challenging, or relevant than others and that subsequent support will be allocated, re-allocated, or not allocated accordingly.

 

The Dickeson model

The Senate document summarizes the organizational structure and criteria for the rating exercises at five Canadian Universities, four of them in Ontario (Ryerson, Carleton, Wilfred Laurier, Guelph) and one in Saskatchewan (Regina). Each of these exercises can be seen as a variant of the Dickeson process, so called after American promoter Robert Dickeson, a former academic administrator and now private consultant on prioritization. No example other than these five is summarized in the Senate document although there are other Canadian universities either engaged in or contemplating the process (Algoma, Brock, Nipissing, OCADU, UOIT, Ottawa, Saskatchewan, St. Francis Xavier, Trent, and York) and literally dozens of examples of U.S. institutions that have undergone similar processes. More significantly, no alternatives are considered.

Historian Craig Heron (York University) analyzed the Dickeson process at the request of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA). Heron’s own university implemented this process and his article is concise, illuminating, and well worth reading: “Robert Dickeson: Right for Ontario? An analysis of program prioritization” (PDF).

 

Prioritization in context

Why is this happening? Why now? In fact since the 1960s a variety of prioritization or other restructuring exercises have been undertaken within universities, across provincial systems, or nationally. Sometimes they have been democratic, collegial and for the common good, while in other cases they have been dirigiste in service to private instead of public interests. Examples include the 1965 Duff-Berdahl Commission, a joint enterprise of CAUT and AUCC that resulted in strengthening of collegial governance across Canada. In contrast a commission established by the New Brunswick government recommended in a 2007 report that several university campuses be converted into polytechnics. The commission’s report with its grandiloquent allusions to MIT and Caltech was issued amid considerable government fanfare, but conversion of the campuses was abandoned in the face of widespread opposition from academics, students, and the wider community.

During the decades following World War II universities with their academic freedom and trade unions with their organizational capacity were leaders in promoting effective democracy, the broad public interest, and critical thinking. For this reason both types of organization have been subjected to increasing political and economic pressure that began in the late 1970s and has continued to the present. The latter period coincides with one in which effective democracy has been increasingly weakened and neoliberal political and economic policies increasingly adopted by governments. The first major, comprehensive and lasting neoliberal attack on universities was abolition of tenure – the main protection for academic freedom – by the Thatcher government in 1988.

A general result of this trend has been accelerating conversion of the public interest into private interest. A specific result has been growing commercialization and commodification of higher education, underlying principles of the Dickeson process in particular. Other results have been the growth of managerialism accompanied by an increase in non-academic managerial staff at the expense of the academic complement and academic program resources, along with increasing privatization. A succinct, sardonic and perceptive summary of the impact on public universities can be found in “A Machiavellian Guide to Destroying Public Universities in 12 Easy Steps” by sociologist Steven Ward (Western Connecticut State University). In his blog on developments in the academic world, UBC mathematician and Board of Governors member Nassif Ghoussoub commented on the adverse effects at his own university, the University of Michigan, and British universities and concluded, “Faculty must educate themselves about the basic fiscal operations of their institutions and reassert their leadership.”

Beginning with the Thatcher government and continuing apace with governments of all political stripes, prioritization, privatization, and commodification processes have proceeded much more rapidly in England than in Canada or the United States. This may in part be because the Westminster government is unimpeded by provincial or state jurisdictions. The results have been seriously adverse for academic freedom and academic standards, as Oxford historian Sir Keith Thomas explained in a 2011 article, “Universities under Attack.” In the subsequent two-year period, the cumulative effects of successive revisions in funding, prioritization, and privatization policies by the Westminster government have brought ever more severe consequences for academic staff, programs and students. Cambridge professor of English Stefan Collini discussed recent developments in detail in an October 2013 article, “Sold Out.” Collini’s review suggests that British governments in effect have been conducting a large-scale experiment with post-secondary education. We in North America should expect that politicians and administrators here will be watching its progress with interest. Collini concludes:

In reality, the overriding aim is to bring the universities to heel: to change their character, to make them conform to market ideology. Universities must be made into businesses, selling a product to customers: if they reduce costs and increase sales, they make a profit; if they don’t, they go bust. Profit is the only indefeasible goal, competition the only effective mechanism.

If this is our vision for UNB, we need only to sit back, do nothing, and it will be accomplished.

December 19, 2013

 

References

 

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Further reading

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    […] being produced and people are drawing together to defend universities as public institutions. Read Jon’s overview, follow some of the links, then meet me back here to strategize about what to do. Once this pesky […]

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