Dr. Lori Varlotta is president of Hiram College, a small liberal arts college with approximately 1,000 students in the traditional college and 200 in the adult program. She is the campus’ 22nd president, the first female to serve in that role.

Hiram recently completed a major organizational redesign that followed closely on the heels of a very inclusive strategic planning process. The strategic plan had two overarching goals – to grow enrollment and to increase the campus’s financial sustainability. However, to achieve those two goals, the plan called for several action items, one of which was an academic prioritization process.

An Inclusive Approach

The strategic planning process was a year-long process that included approximately half of the institution’s 80 faculty and 100 staff.  When it came time to do the academic prioritization process, Varlotta and her team invited all faculty to the table to participate, as well as student government, staff assembly, the Board of Trustees and the administration.

During both the strategic planning and the academic prioritization processes, the institution’s mantra was that the outcomes would be shaped by the hands of many so everyone could see their fingerprints on the end product. This approach helped with getting stakeholder buy-in. Varlotta noted that the means by which these were accomplished, i.e., the transparency and inclusiveness that were front and center, were as important as the ends in moving through these processes.

Action Steps

The steps in the implementation process, which were led by the college’s chief academic dean, Dr. Judy Muyskens, included:

  1. The dean worked with faculty to identify the intellectual framework that would guide the academic reprioritization process. Muyskens worked with faculty to review the types of metrics from the Delaware Study. This benchmarking study provides suggested metrics that help administrators and faculty members do an analysis of departmental costs, instructional costs, scholarly activity, etc.
  2. A timeline for the academic reprioritization process was created. This timeline projected when the administration would seek approval from the Board of Trustees and then worked backwards to set up key deadlines. This helped ensure that stakeholders were not surprised by how the planning process was proceeding.
  3. While there was a data-driven process with benchmarks and milestones, the administration clearly communicated that they would not be beholden to the process. The administrators wanted to make the process iterative and allow for changes and mid-course adjustments. If there needed to be more time for discussions –or an acceleration of the process—administrators wanted to embrace having that latitude.
  4. A Strategic Academic Team was created. This ad-hoc committee of five faculty members, each from separate programs, was appointed jointly by the dean and the chair of the Faculty Senate. This group represented various stakeholders across campus in relation to the academic background, diverse populations and research backgrounds. The individuals also had to agree to put the needs of the campus before any departmental needs. The SAT, which met weekly and also worked with the entire faculty, were charged with working with the academic dean on the self-assessment and developing the criteria that programs would be evaluated by. They then helped prioritize the college’s programs. This ranking included programs that the college needed to add or grow, programs that the college needed to keep in place, and programs that the college needed to reduce or cut.

This was very emotional and difficult work. Later in the process, the administrators were criticized for not having this committee elected by the faculty as a whole; however, the chair and the dean both felt that the need for diversity among committee members was more important when making the selection of who to serve.

  1. Develop criteria for the prioritization. Through a collective and inclusive process, the SAT identified criteria to guide the prioritization process. These criteria, which were endorsed by the faculty as a whole, included:
    • departmental connection to the college’s mission;
    • the level of departmental faculty work and faculty productivity as defined in large part by metrics laid out in the Delaware Study;
    • faculty had to demonstrate that they were helping bring institutional priorities to fruition;
    • the departments had to show a track record of securing external resources through gifts, grants or regional acclaim; and
    • student interest and workforce demand.

These were agreed upon by all before prioritization took place.

  1. Significant research went into identifying institutional priorities and criteria. The administrators and SAT were guided by the research of Dr. Robert Dickenson, who authored a seminal work on academic prioritization. In addition, Varlotta was able to tap into her network of other presidents who are members of the Council of Independent Colleges to identify those who went through processes like the one at Hiram College. She also talked to several consultants that she had worked with in the past to provide a reality check about the criteria being used.
  2. Criteria and related prompts were disseminated to every faculty member. The SAT and administrators sent the criteria out and asked faculty to join with their departmental colleagues to address the prompts and then post the responses on a faculty portal. This offered a significant level of transparency for all faculty members, administrators and student government.
  3. Data analysis took place in Spring 2018. The SAT was charged with reviewing the data while the Academic Program Committee, which was charged with the college’s shared governance, shared the task. These two committees separately downloaded the information from the portal, analyzed the information and prioritized the programs, majors, minors and programs of distinction.
  4. Creating a faculty committee designed to focus on innovation. A third group, brought to Dr. Varlotta by two senior faculty members, was stood up to focus on innovations, i.e., what kinds of priorities needed to be added to keep the college forward-looking. Recommendations included overhauling the first-year experience and reorganizing all of the departments into 4-5 interdisciplinary schools, which created more collegiality among students and faculty.

Making the Hard Decisions

The SAT worked for 2-3 months prioritizing the programs. The hardest decisions were focused on which programs, majors or minors would be reduced or cut. They also identified which programs should remain at the same level and which programs should grow through the addition of faculty members or resources. These were data-driven decisions which included fact-checking against the CFO’s metrics and doing one-on-one interviews.

These recommendations were forwarded to Dr. Varlotta in May 2018. At the same time, the shared governance committee brought a list, which paralleled the SAT’s recommendations. That confirmed that the work had been thorough, rational and practical.

All of these recommendations were forwarded back to the faculty as a whole to review and make commentary. This commentary was part of the package that Dr. Varlotta brought to the Board of Trustees. She supported both sets of recommendations in entirety. In addition, the Board, which includes 38 trustees, voted on each recommendation separately and gave each their unanimous approval.

The Cuts

As part of this process, the college decided to end its religious studies program, downgrade five majors into minors and eliminate six faculty positions. Dr. Varlotta and the college’s vice president of development worked together to raise funds to give each of the affected faculty members a full-year buy-out and full-year benefits.

Hiccups and Challenges

Dr. Varlotta said it was important to have a sound rationale when forming specific committees prior to doing an academic prioritization process.  Transparency was critically important.  In addition, leaders needed to translate the rhetoric into reality. For example, Dr. Varlotta held 100 different meetings with various stakeholders while the vice presidents held 80 additional meetings during the spring semester.

3 Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

Dr. Varlotta suggested three take-aways for university presidents:

  • If an institution embarks on an academic prioritization process, it can’t just be about cuts and reduction. There also needs to be opportunities for growth and augmentation. Institutions with financial issues must grow while making reductions at the same time. “You cannot cut your way to growth.”
  • There is an enormous amount of training that needs to take place to help faculty members become data-driven in order to translate the rhetoric into reality. Faculty members are extraordinary intelligent and know their disciplines well, but often don’t have the understanding of how to use organizational data to make evidence-based institutional decisions.
  • A public timeline needs to be created to ensure that stakeholders know what’s coming next.

Bullet Points

  • During both the strategic planning process and the academic prioritization process, Varlotta and her team invited stakeholders from across the campus to be involved.
  • Administrators need to identify the intellectual framework that will guide the academic reprioritization process. This should be done in concert with faculty members and should include metrics that will guide decision-making.
  • It’s important to set up and publicize a timeline that allows all stakeholders to understand the decision-making process.
  • An iterative process that allows for changes and mid-course adjustments will help keep stakeholder buy-in strong.
  • A small committee of faculty members who represent the span of the institution and its diverse interests should be involved in the academic prioritization process. This group can serve as an intermediary with other faculty members and also can provide critical leadership in helping make difficult decisions. In addition, this group needs to agree to put the institution’s well-being above departmental needs.
  • Institutional priorities were identified, based on research.
  • Agreed-upon metrics were identified that gauged departmental connection to the college’s mission, faculty work/productivity, faculty’s ability to bring institution priorities to fruition, departmental external fundraising, student interest and workforce demand.
  • All faculty and departments were asked to respond to the criteria through specifically written prompts. These responses were then reviewed and analyzed by the SAT committee.
  • A separate innovation committee was created through faculty suggestion. This committee focused on offering ideas of where the institution should move in the future.
  • The SAT committee took 2-3 months to review faculty and departmental feedback in order to prioritize programs. They also worked with the CFO to look at budgetary issues. Ultimately, the committee made recommendations to the president and dean of which programs, majors and minors to eliminate/downgrade as well as which to remain the same or expand.
  • The shared governance committee also did their own analysis and came up with similar recommendations.
  • These recommendations went to the Board of Trustees, which considered each recommendation separately and gave separate votes.
  • President Varlotta and the college’s development officer worked to secure funds to provide a generous severance package to each faculty member whose position was eliminated in the academic prioritization process.

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