Sunday, November 16, 2014

Why is APP Restricted to "Academic" Programs?

Why is the focus of APP limited to academic programs? After all, there are many things going on in the university that fall outside the immediate scope of any particular academic program.  Examples range from athletics to administration, dining to housing, parking to facilities, and outreach to research. If we're going to work on prioritization, wouldn't it make sense to pursue a broader review that considers the priorities for all of these activities at the same time?

The words behind the APPC acronym already capture the restricted scope of our work to academic programs, and the specifics of the committee charge further emphasize the point. But in this post, we'll dig a little deeper to explore the motivation for limiting the scope, while also reinforcing the need to keep the bigger picture in mind.
The primary reason for restricting our attention to academic programs, is to make the prioritization task more manageable and tractable. Even with our limited focus, there are still a lot of programs for us to cover, and there is a lot of data to collect and analyze. Academic programs also fall clearly within the expertise of faculty; when it comes to making decisions and judgements, faculty have deep insights and experience that they can draw on to reach sound, well-informed conclusions. The same may not be true if the scope is broadened to include less familiar territory.

Finally, remembering that one of our goals is to evaluate all programs by the same criteria, it makes sense to narrow the scope so that there are more applicable criteria and metrics that can be used to describe and document the work that a program does. By analogy, we expect the food items in a grocery store to be labeled with nutritional information so that we can make informed choices about what we eat on the basis of calories, fat and carbohydrate levels, or sodium content. The same store, however, may also carry many other items, including soap, paper, light bulbs, or batteries, for example. Most of us (I hope!) do not include such things in our diet, and so we do not expect them to carry nutritional labels. To put it another way, we should not confuse soup with soap: the criteria that we use in deciding what to have for dinner are different to the ones that we use when deciding how we will keep our homes clean.

That said, if nobody looks further than the prioritization of academic programs, then it is easy to see how we, as a university, could end up making some poor decisions.  Suppose, for example, that the results of an APP exercise identify a group of strong programs that are candidates for significant new investment (A) and another group of programs that are in poor health (C). Assume, in addition, that all remaining programs and activities are lumped together in a single group (B).  The following diagram shows each of these groups on the left with a "slice of pie" whose size corresponds to the resources that they consume.  As the diagram also suggests, if there are no new resources available, then it might appear that the only way to offer a boost to programs in A is to do so at cost of programs in C, as illustrated by the redrawn pie on the right:

An obvious problem here is that we have failed to account for the possibility that there might be underperforming or unnecessary activities in B that are not part of an academic program.  A review that is not limited to academic programs might be able to identify these items explicitly as a new group (D). And once that has been done, it becomes clear that there is a way to offer a boost to A without any impact on C by choosing instead to cut back on D:

Indeed, a scenario like this also raises the possibility that there might be a way to redirect resources from D in a way that provides not only the investment needed to support growth in A, but also the opportunity to bring C back to good health.

Given the specifics of our charge as well as the reasons listed above, APPC is committed to a focus on academic programs. At the same time, the example above shows why it is important to keep the big picture in mind, even if that specific task falls outside the scope of the APPC.  For these reasons, we strongly support the recommendation made by the previous ad hoc committee that APP "should be pursued as part of a broader evaluation that includes all parts of the University", and we also agree with their insight "that such a broader review would require the development and use of evaluation procedures and criteria that may be different from those used in academic program prioritization."