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University of Montana to Start Ranking Programs—and Cutting Losses

Five years ago, Robert Dickeson was invited to give a presentation at the University of Montana. Dickeson, a former college president, CEO and consultant, spoke about a concept, which he developed, that has become both influential and controversial in the world of higher education. He calls it program prioritization, and it describes the idea that universities should respond to tightening budgets by shifting money to their top-performing academic departments—and away from weak ones. Under Dickeson’s system, every program on campus is ranked.

UM administrators took notes on Dickeson’s presentation, according to retired Provost Perry Brown, who read Dickeson’s book—Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services—”a couple of times” and talked it over with then-newly minted President Royce Engstrom. Their conclusion: No thanks.

What a difference five years makes. Over the summer, copies of Dickeson’s book were distributed to UM deans by temporary Provost Beverly Edmond. In October, Dickeson was back on campus for another all-day workshop organized by the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. And last month, in his final campus-wide address before being asked on Dec. 1 to resign, Engstrom announced that UM would embark on program prioritization after all, using Dickeson’s blueprint as a starting point.