About the ‘Dickeson Model’ and Prioritization

There has been a lot said and written about the ‘Dickeson Model’ and the UAA Program Prioritization Process. Perhaps we should clear up this particular issue, and the connection to Robert Dickeson.

Concerning the so-called ‘Dickeson Model,’ the Task Forces were given that model as a starting point, for several reasons: it was a model for academia, rather than a business environment; there was supporting material, in the form of a book that discussed both the approach and some examples of its implementation; there was a supporting consulting service; and it had been used at a number of other universities. That was a good start for any process or model.

The Task Forces were never required to use that model. The Academic Task Force looked at the model (which is very open to various interpretations), made some judgments about it, and then proceeded to develop our own approach to what we had been asked to do. This has been discussed at length in a previous post on this blog, so I won’t repeat it here. We have come a long way from the ‘Dickeson Model,’ although there are some similarities. There are also many similarities between a Trabant and an Aston Martin, but no-one would reasonably claim they are identical, even though they are both cars, with wheels, engine (in the front), brakes, etc. (Compare a 1984 Pontiac Fiero and a 1984 Ferrari 308 GTB (both with engines in the middle), if the previous marques are unfamiliar. A couple of real fireballs, although each in different senses.)

If we are required to avoid any possible connection to anything that Robert Dickeson ever touched, spoke about, or wrote, we would be in a similar position to the Alaska Railroad having to apologize for Mussolini every time a train runs on time. Do we avoid freeways because Hitler built autobahns, or violins because Nero supposedly played one while Rome burned? Dickeson is not in the same category as those characters, with the exception that they are all far removed from the current issues we face, but some people seem to be using his connection as a rationale for damning any mention of Program Prioritization in a university environment.

Alternatives to the ‘Dickeson Model’ include such things as Hammer and Champy’s ‘Re-engineering,’ which was applied to many businesses in the 1990s, with highly variable results. “Downsize, rightsize, capsize,” as the progression went. With any model, focusing solely on cutting costs is not a path to success, and to wait until the cuts are essential to survival is a mark of poor strategic thinking. Re-engineering was about moving resources so as to improve the processes in a business, and to build a process-centric approach to managing the organization. Hammer and Champy were very clear that you could do this when things were all rosy to great strategic advantage, not just when you had hit the wall (“Let’s build a wall for the other guys to run into!”). Too many people focused on re-engineering as a means to cut costs, and as Tom Peters has pointed out, no organization ever shrank its way to greatness. Prioritization is about better allocation of resources to improve the processes in the organization.

As a simple example, let us consider a group of 25 senior faculty at UAA, scattered across the university. With benefits and salary, etc., they  cost the university about $3 million for their 9-month contracts. If we can make their work 5% more efficient, we have $150,000 of benefit to the university per year. This could translate to getting rid of $150,000 p.a. worth of people, or, much more usefully, redirecting those faculty into more productive activities with that 5% extra time. Having 5% more time for research, recruitment, special classes, or service would be a small but significant benefit. Greater effectiveness can translate into improving the university’s reputation and attractiveness. Making processes more efficient can achieve those kinds of efficiencies, but we need some information to know how to improve those processes. Note that such efficiencies are hard to see as ‘savings’ because they do not necessarily translate to job cuts. This is why other institutions find it difficult to point to simple line items as ‘savings’ from the Dickeson Model. Efficiencies can be found as improvements to income or reductions in costs other than salary and wages. Making processes more efficient can reduce the need for job cuts in times of declining revenue.

If we look closely at the ‘Dickeson Model,’ we find that in the form that Dickeson presents it, it is really a triage model. It is for a university or college that needs to decide quickly how to cut costs in response to major resource cuts, while looking to be in the best position to recover and survive. In other words, if the lack of money is a stark reality and the remaining resources are less than salaries and basic running expenses (you’ve hit the wall), what do you cut to cause the least long-term damage to the institution? Triage is an emergency process where you decide who lives and who dies so that you try to maximize the number of lives you save with the resources you have. It is for life-and-death situations and is far from perfect, but it seems to work in crisis situations. UAA is not yet in a crisis situation, so the triage-focused ‘Dickeson Model’ is not really applicable. The Academic Task Force decided this long ago, and got on with the job of developing something that was applicable to our current and on-going needs. These needs are much more about improving processes than simply cutting positions.

However much we may want infinite resources for the institution, this is not realistic, and even non-profit entities must exist within their means. I have watched poorly planned resource cuts destroy large, effective organizations, and have watched faculty take pay cuts of 10% to 20% to avoid reductions in force at a public university that is in the world’s top 100. The expertise and experience that evaporates from an institution during these events can cripple, if not destroy, programs and departments. But there must be a means of dealing with declining resources in a way that allows the organization to survive, and hopefully adapt to the new environment.

Robert Dickeson has spent some time discussing issues of faculty tenure. His viewpoint is that tenure stands in the way of making rapid changes in higher education institutions that are facing rapid changes in their environment, especially with regard to finances. Universities are conservative (in the traditional sense of the word) bodies, as are most professional organizations, and so are slow to change. Tenure has been used as a means to slow changes in some universities. As has been pointed out, it takes up to seven years to close a working 4-year degree program, which is not fast by the standards of business enterprises. Where would a business be financially if it had to spend seven years slowly winding down a money-losing division, rather than cutting it swiftly to stem the flow of red ink? That is where Robert Dickeson is coming from, and having been in university administration, rather than a member of the faculty, since about 1969, that’s how he views the situation. We don’t have to support or condemn his viewpoint. It simply isn’t relevant to UAA and our Program Prioritization Process.

The UAA Administration have said on several occasions that there is no interest in or intention to address issues of faculty tenure. It is not a problem or obstacle to anything here. Program Prioritization is about gathering information and deciding some guidelines for allocating resources in ways that work for the maximum benefit for the organization. What happens as part of the reallocation is a different process, and open to significant discussion and negotiation.

If the university wants to cut significant areas of its costs quickly, it would be crazy to try cutting programs, simply because the return is so incredibly slow. If UAA decided to close half its programs tomorrow, it would take until at least 2018 to see significant reductions in its costs. But the budget crunch that would lead to such draconian action would need to be solved in 2014, so cutting programs is no solution. In such a crisis, UAA can shut down services: grounds, maintenance, custodial, parking, sports, admin support, etc. Most of these programs were created by the stroke of a pen, and can be closed as easily. The people who work there are usually ‘at will’ employees, so the cuts could be made there by the end of the month. But what would that do to the efficiency and effectiveness of the university? Faculty would have to clean the buildings, shovel the snow, set up and run the computer labs, and undertake the multiplicity of services that must be done to operate UAA. That’s no way to build a great university.

The challenge we face is how we re-configure the university to deal with the realities of a changing environment, without losing the essential purpose of the university in a civilization. We can throw in the towel and focus only on cuts, or we can be creative and solve the problems in better ways. Program Prioritization is a small piece of the solution, an effort to get some information about how programs are doing across the university. We are trying to use some common comparisons, while allowing for the diversity of programs and how they operate, to get some of this information. What we all do with that information afterwards is up to the faculty as a whole. Hopefully, we can use it for some creative problem solving.

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2 comments on “About the ‘Dickeson Model’ and Prioritization
  1. Bhatta makes the point that the Dickeson Model is theoretically weak. That is true, and that’s one (small) reason why we abandoned it six months ago. Once we had abandoned it, why would we need to find evidence to support it?

    The idea of cost savings is not so critical to what the Task Forces are doing, as we are not at the point of needing cuts in budget, so we were not concerned about any model that could show quick savings, real, imagined or otherwise. For the Academic Task Force, savings are even less of an issue, given the enormous fiscal inertia of programs.

    (BTW, the ‘theoretically sound’ models we considered, Saaty’s AHP and ANP, were not really well suited to the information-focused approach that we are trying to use.)

    In an academic environment, costs and revenue are entangled in ways that could only be described as byzantine. Trying to tease ‘savings’ out of that mess is difficult, and most probably highly unreliable. Given that most UAA programs have no real idea about their true costs and revenues, and that the usual details that are required to run any organization (for-profit or non-profit) are not available, trying to ascertain cost saving in any manner other than the most blatant cuts is probably a fool’s errand. This is also why trying to measure efficiency in an academic environment is difficult, as Bhatta suggests.

    One thing that has struck the AcTF has been the dearth of serious management information to manage operations at the program level. That is one reason for the delays in getting the templates out: that information, which we considered important to understand how programs are doing, was simply not available. The raw data was in Banner, but no-one had attempted to extract it and structure it to provide useful information.

    What is important about this prioritization exercise is that we hope to get more information out to individual programs and their faculty, to empower the faculty to focus on how their programs operate. The faculty are then in a far better position to make their programs work better from the inside, rather than having changes forced on them from the outside. As the fiscal and financial environment changes around us, we need to have management happening as close to the sharp end as we can. That is perhaps the only way to overcome the issue of fiscal inertia of programs. This is a critical role for faculty, but they need information to undertake this role.

    Our approach, at base, is nothing like the ‘Dickeson Model.’ Bhatta suggests that the Dickeson Model is, in effect and in my words, about removing academic tenure in order to remove a lot of the fiscal inertia of academic programs. We are suggesting a very different way, much more in line with Douglas McGregor than Robert Dickeson: empower the faculty to overcome that inertia. There is some literature that supports this approach in the private sector; perhaps it’s time to see how it works in the academic sector.

    In summary, we are way beyond the Dickeson Model and pushing out into something radically (i.e., at the roots) different. It’s home-grown and based on UAA’s particular needs and resources, but it is a well-considered choice. If we, as faculty, seize this opportunity, then we are being ‘anti-Dickeson,’ for whatever that’s worth. If we turn our backs on this, and effectively tell the Administration to just chop and change our budgets as they see fit, we are providing plenty of support for Dickeson’s ideas about faculty. The choice is ours.

  2. N.Bhattacharyya says:

    The Dickeson model is theoretically weak, empirically has been used to hammer tenure and at the end neither Dickeson not the task force have provided examples that the Dickeson model has successfully worked to curtail costs.

    Dickeson first applied his approach to the University of Northern Colorado. You can find a report of this in the AAUP publication Academe [Academic Freedom and Tenure: University of Northern Colorado
    John E. Elliott and Norton L. Steuben
    Academe , Vol. 70, No. 2 (May – Jun., 1984), pp. 1a-8a
    Published by: American Association of University Professors
    Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40249103. I quote from this report:
    “It is plain that when the administrationis sued termination
    notices to thirty-nine tenured faculty members
    in August, 1982, the University of Northern Colorado
    was not on the brink of a university-wide financial
    crisis which imperilled the survival of the institution
    as a whole. Nor was the administration claiming that
    the university was in a state of financial exigency.
    Nonetheless, the administration asserts that the particular
    financial problems faced by the university left
    little choice but to terminate tenured appointments” (page 3a)

    Bill gives a hypothetical example of cost saving from a 5% increase in “efficiency”. It is not at all clear what is meant by efficiency in the context of Academia. We are not inanimate motors that you can measure the input and output and calculate efficiency.

    If it is cost cutting that we are looking for then the best approach is to rank order all overheads and start cutting from the biggest amount. That’s not Rocket Science. However, cliches are not going to give any results.

    One cliche that is used is that Dickeson’s model is a triage model. Firstly Dickeson was not a cost accountant and has not cited a single case study in his book to demonstrate that his method works. Secondly, the Academic Task Force also has not cited a single case study where the Dicekson approach have worked.

    Western Carolina University went through a Prioritization exercise. They also relied on Dickeson’s book. Here is an interesting segment from their FAQ:
    “How much money will the university save by taking these steps?

    Program prioritization is a process that helps the university focus on its core mission and use its resources wisely. The amount of savings is unknown at this point. The university does anticipate the academic program prioritization to result in efficiencies in resources that will play out over time as any affected programs go through a phased process of discontinuation. In addition, program prioritization will enable the university to be more strategic if it faces additional cuts in revenue, in its allocation of existing resources and in its use of any new resources.”

    [Source: http://www.wcu.edu/about-wcu/leadership/office-of-the-provost/program-prioritization/faq.asp ]

    So the Dickeson model is not like a triage nurse but more like Snake Oil.

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AcTF Open Dialogue

This is a community forum for people to share their perceptions and experiences with UAA’s process of prioritizing of academic programs. Members of the AcTF will post to share their experiences of task force deliberations and dialogues with the UAA community. We encourage well-informed and open dialogue about this process. Anyone is welcome to comment on posts. Find more information on UAA's Prioritization Process Website.