The Need for Data

Data for the Template

With the release of the first effort at template data this week, there was a lot of concern across the university about the validity and reliability of the data. The Academic Task Force not only shared this concern, but had a quite a lot of say about it at their meeting on Friday, 6th December, 2013. As a result, the AcTF recommended that the data be made unavailable, owing to its serious flaws. These flaws are systemic and comprehensive, so are apparently not amenable to an easy fix.

While this debacle will slow down the Program Prioritization Process, it will not stop it. A significant part of the template does not need these data to be completed, so some work can continue. However, deadlines are on hold pending getting the data right.

The AcTF wants to get the resources to get the template data done correctly, to have it done quickly, and to have oversight of this operation. We were not in control of the previous effort. While it has taken months to get to this point, we are aware of why this has happened, and will not be repeating the same operation. If we have to outsource this operation to get it done in a timely, correct manner, so be it.

Wider Management Issues

Not only is it important to the Program Prioritization Process, it shows gaps in an important aspect of management at UAA. The data we wanted for the template were what we considered to be important to manage programs at UAA. As faculty who manage programs ourselves, it was what we felt was important to make critical decisions about programs. We initially sought rather more, but reduced it to make the templates more manageable, but the obvious conclusion is that this information is unobtainable at UAA under our current arrangements. Clearly, we have not been able to manage UAA at the program level. We have been flying blind with no instruments, making all the decisions at a much higher and aggregated level.

While it is easy to say from the classical Finance viewpoint that we order our costs and look at reducing them from largest to smallest, we have no data at the program level about costs, or much else. Yet this is the level at which faculty manage the critical operations of the university: teaching, research, outreach.

[It should also be pointed out that one of the larger costs at any university is faculty salaries, which is why the classical Finance approach targets it first. That is why that approach leads to ‘tenure busting’ efforts, a la Dickeson. I regret to say it is an uncreative approach of using a methodology for a machine organization in a professional organization, and creates enormous damage. We are trying something different, focusing on the strengths of the professional organization, which is not to focus on costs alone.]

To extend this same point, unless we know how all programs work, comparisons between programs are meaningless. Therefore efforts to manage programs at a higher, more abstract and aggregated, level are equally meaningless. Without information, we cannot deal with budget cuts or budget increases, nor re-organize in a meaningful way.

Managing academic programs is not as simple as managing a unit in a business. There are far more constraints on resources and costs, quite apart from management limitations, but what can still be managed needs information for proper management.

In times of fiscal and financial crisis, we cannot attempt to manage UAA by the seat of our pants any more. Guesswork is no longer a viable option. We need information to make informed and meaningful decisions, which will stand the scrutiny of the university community. We cannot be arbitrary. We can’t allow decision, such as made at MSU-Morehead or UDC to happen here. Granted, they are extreme cases and very much top-down decisions, but they indicate a bad trend in higher education. See the link for an article about these two schools.

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2013/11/minnesota_state_moorhead_could_cut_18_academic_programs_why_do_colleges.html

As Carl von Clausewitz discussed in On War, the fog of war, combined with fear, doubt and excitement, make decision-making extremely tricky. The need for quick decisions amid the changing tides of events, together with questionable and missing information, means that decisions cannot easily be quantified, or reduced to mapwork, geometry and graphs. Unless there is a strong foundation of information, based on a long-term, deep understanding of the larger situation, decisions may well prove disastrous. History is a sharp check on erudite abstractions that do not accord with experience.

So we need solid information to get a sound understanding of what we are doing in order to manage it, especially in times of turmoil. The AcTF is pushing to get the information to allow that level of management to happen, not just for Prioritization, but on a continuing basis. We know all too well that we cannot quantify many aspects of academic programs, but we do want information available for program faculty to manage their programs in a meaningful way.

As we face the prospect of significant cuts in the State budget, we need to manage UAA at as fine-grained a level as we can, in order to survive and, hopefully, thrive under changing circumstances. That means faculty need the tools and information to manage individual programs.

System Optimization

When we attempt to optimize a complex system, we usually find that the best overall optimization sub-optimizes significant parts of the system. In effect, this means that if we optimize one part of the system, the overall system, as well as other parts, commonly cannot operate as efficiently or effectively as it might do. There is no way to optimize all of a complex system.

As a simple example, we could make custodial services much more efficient by making faculty clean their classrooms (as faculty are on salary and therefore not subject to overtime) and reducing the number of custodial staff, but that would sub-optimize the teaching function. As the teaching function is a significant revenue source for the university, that would sub-optimize the overall university’s financial performance.

By focusing on allowing individual programs to manage themselves locally, we have a better chance of achieving the overall system optimization we need to survive significant budget cuts. Making the attempt is certainly more palatable than a series of top-down cuts to programs and services. But you need to measure things in order to help you manage them.

 

 

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4 comments on “The Need for Data
  1. N.Bhattacharyya says:

    I missed a point in my previous comment. Faculty should be considered as Direct Labor if we apply the traditional costing paradigm in a University setting.

  2. N.Bhattacharyya says:

    I would like to reposed to the following paragraph from Bill’s Blog.

    “While it is easy to say from the classical Finance viewpoint that we order our costs and look at reducing them from largest to smallest, we have no data at the program level about costs, or much else. Yet this is the level at which faculty manage the critical operations of the university: teaching, research, outreach.

    [It should also be pointed out that one of the larger costs at any university is faculty salaries, which is why the classical Finance approach targets it first. That is why that approach leads to ‘tenure busting’ efforts, a la Dickeson. I regret to say it is an uncreative approach of using a methodology for a machine organization in a professional organization, and creates enormous damage. We are trying something different, focusing on the strengths of the professional organization, which is not to focus on costs alone.]”

    Well as of today I am the only tenured finance faculty in UAA Anchorage campus. So may be I am somewhat qualified to comment on belt tightening measures, costing and so on and so forth.

    Do recall that the original justification for this “Prioritization” exercise was an anticipated shortfall in state funding. What kind of policy recommendations would we get if we were to use principles of finance.?

    Cost in Finance and Cost Accounting are divided into Out of Pocket costs (i.e the costs for which you pay with actual dollars) and Opportunity Costs (i.e the alternative opportunities that you forego because of your decision-e.g you can either have a new school or a new road).

    Let us stick to Out of Pocket Costs for rest of this discussion as this is the cost that is most relevant in the scenario of a budgetary shortfall. Out of Pocket costs are divided into Direct Material, Direct Labor and Overheads. In the present situation, we are an University; we have two products-Research (Production of Knowledge) and Teaching( Distribution of Knowledge). Library and Computer Databases will take the place of Direct Materials. Rest is Overhead.

    Therefore in any budgetary crunch the first line of attack should be in reducing other Overheads i.e administrative costs. But we instead see an effort to reduce Faculty but nothing happens to the administrators beyond some
    token Kabuki. This is in line with Benjamin Ginsberg’s thesis in ”The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters.”

    Given the lack of proper systems to identify costs-the first order of business should be to set up a proper and robust costing system.

  3. Paul Dunscomb says:

    We have not been gathering data relevant to programs because until this process cam along no one on this conceived of their programs in the narrow, not to mention arbitrary, manner proposed here.

    Leaving aside how the physicists might feel should I invoke Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, no matter how apropos, I would point out that historians are rather more careful about drawing “lessons” from history, especially given how documents are subject to multiple interpretations.

    For instance, Clausewitz’s more important lesson is that the inevitability of “friction” means that “no plan will survive contact with the enemy.” And while I would like to think we are not conceived of as the enemy by the creators of this plan, it seems no amount of friction can alter their conviction that it must go forward.

    Yet perhaps it might be better to take this enforced pause in the process to think really hard about whether the fundamental assumptions of the process remain valid and the end result will be anything that addresses, let alone enhances, the mission of the university.

    Having come to this point, everyone must ask, does the program prioritization process now have any fundamental purpose other than the inertia of the bureaucratic imperative?

  4. Liz Dennison says:

    Bill, I must respond to two points from your posting (but could go on at much greater length).

    First: You claim that “In times of fiscal and financial crisis, we cannot attempt to manage UAA by the seat of our pants any more. Guesswork is no longer a viable option.” This gives a false impression–UAA has not been run by “guesswork” and I find this insulting. And as the Supertramp album states, “Crisis? What Crisis?” We are not Morehead.

    Second: Please leave von Clausewitz out of the discussion on academic “prioritization”–this is inappropriate.

    History is based on evidence, and the evidence has shown that this endeavor has been a complete and utter fiasco. I doubt credibility can gain purchase no matter what revised data is released.

    I appreciate your emphasis on local decision-making. Regards, Liz

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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.