Four barriers to improving academic resource allocation

Departmental decisions often lack principled foundation

Most academic administrators run one-off analyses to inform program review processes, course schedules, or budgeting decisions. Few, however, are able to systemically link those analyses to resource allocation. Why? Here are four important roadblocks to using data to make critical decisions about resource allocation:

1. Incomplete, inaccurate data
A lack of department-level data on the cost and quality implications of resource-allocation decisions

Standard university data systems were designed to meet the needs of external stakeholders such as state and federal government agencies, accrediting bodies, or accounting standards. Within these systems it can be very difficult to link costs to the specific outcomes they generate, making it impossible to evaluate which investments create the most benefit for the institution.

2. Ad hoc allocation processes
Resource allocation processes that depend more on historical precedent and institutional politics than anticipated outcomes

Most institutions use a primarily incremental budget model based on the premise that each discipline should receive their “fair share” of resources. Similarly, department-level decisions are often driven more by the need to keep specific individuals happy than by a desire to reward performance or enable growth.

3. Lack of unit-level incentives
Incentive systems that penalize departments for improving efficiency or fail to reward them for improving quality

Departments and individual faculty often fail to see the benefits of improved efficiency. If they use fewer resources, they know that they will receive fewer resources in the future. In many cases, they are rewarded for inefficiency because it provides them with a buffer in case cuts come in the future.

4. Few allocation options
Limits to reallocating highly specialized resources across departments or schools

Academic departments are built around unique resources (faculty experts, specialized facilities, unique technologies) that cannot easily be repurposed if they are no longer in demand. Many inefficiencies simply cannot be resolved in the short term.

Engaging faculty in the conversation

Faculty are typically less concerned with the validity of data-informed decision-making than with how it might be misused on their campus. Validity is a genuine concern, and it is critical to implement new approaches within a strong shared governance process. The data do not dictate the best course of action. They suggest tradeoffs that must be negotiated in an environment of multiple, sometimes conflicting objectives.

Even under ideal circumstances, however, it is important to recognize that no analytical tool or analysis process on its own can resolve the enormous complexity and multiple missions of a university. These are decision-support tools, not decision-making tools—they rely on the judgment of academic decision-makers even as they attempt to enhance that judgment by bringing clarity to the tradeoffs.

Looking for more on realigning resources without sacrificing quality?

The Academic Affairs Forum offers a range of resources—including best-practice research—to help academic leaders control academic costs and support institutional priorities. Speak with an expert to learn more about the support we offer.

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