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.
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.
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.