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Mary DeCoste, associate professor of Italian Studies at The University of Guelph, poses in her office in Guelph December 12, 2012.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Midsize Canadian universities are starting a new kind of cost-cutting exercise as they face the prospect of prolonged austerity and sustained pressure to show their graduates are succeeding.

Administrators have tended to slash budgets equally across the board, leaving it up to each dean and department to set targets inside their faculties. Now, Canadian schools are importing a movement from the United States in which economic hardship is viewed as an opportunity to refocus scarce dollars on faculties that deliver.

The process, dubbed program prioritization, invites the entire university community to review which programs merit support according to the same quantitative and qualitative criteria. Advocates for the process argue no department is sacred, but some professors fear the losers will be primarily fine arts, languages and some humanities and that they will have limited recourse to defend these programs against charges of low enrolment and high costs. At the University of Regina, the impetus for a review came in 2009 as immigration, demographic changes and new provincial priorities created high demand for programs like geology, petroleum engineering and public policy. Since then, a bachelor's degree in arts and culture has been cancelled due to a lack of demand.

"The consultants' report that came from the academic program review was received with bafflement by many people," said Nicholas Ruddick, head of URegina's English department. He said he fears budget cuts could leave him with too few faculty to teach popular early year courses. "There seemed to be a big discrepancy between the kinds of data in that report and what people knew regarding their own departments."

The reviews ostensibly aim to take the political sting out of cuts by inviting faculty, staff and sometimes students to join in reviewing the reports and compiling a ranking – an approach that appeals to Canadian administrators who remember the angry backlash the University of Toronto suffered in 2010 when it tried to close the school's storied comparative-literature program without consultation.

"Instead of making decisions based on internal political factors or you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours, or whatever else has gone on in the past, it's time for us to shift to a culture of evidence," said Robert C. Dickeson, the U.S. consultant at the heart of the crusade against across-the-board cuts.

Dr. Dickeson promises a data-driven model that puts heavy emphasis on a program's cost, demand for enrolment and student outcomes – all measures of keen interest to governments. He wrote the book on this style of review, which he has been refining for years as universities across the U.S. tried it. But he readily admits his method hasn't always worked smoothly, and caused "a great deal of angst" at Columbia College Chicago, where debate about the process turned explosive this year.

Still, administrators at Regina adapted Dr. Dickeson's approach, hiring Canadian consultants to help prepare reports, while Wilfrid Laurier University is now doing the same with help from the U.S. The University of Guelph has gone furthest. Facing a $32-million shortfall over the next four years, Guelph's leaders hired Dr. Dickeson for help after an invitation to a workshop he runs landed in provost Maureen Mancuso's inbox. He was on hand at a Guelph University town-hall meeting in late November where president Alastair Summerlee laid out the challenge: rising costs, flat government funding and capped tuition, combined with a shortage of space to keep boosting enrolment.

"People outside of our institutions are full of a rhetoric around 'do we produce quality, a quality product?'" Dr. Summerlee told a crowd of about 300. "These things make a case for actually trying to prioritize what we're doing. … We need to act now."

The plan is Darwinian. Each of the university's nearly 600 programs and services, from undergraduate biology to the parking office, has to complete a "program information report" answering 10 criteria, to be reviewed and ranked by a task force of faculty, staff and students.

Ranking at the bottom doesn't necessarily mean getting cut, and the program reports aren't all about numbers – "One of the highest-weighted criteria is, tell us about your essentiality," Dr. Mancuso said. "It does allow the local units to put forward the best representation of what they do."

This month, Guelph's faculty association pushed back, publishing a bulletin outlining "serious concerns" raised by professors: that Dr. Dickeson's process was imposed from above, that academic and non-academic programs are lumped together, and that poorly ranked programs have little recourse to appeal.

Mary DeCoste, an associate professor of Italian Studies, was one of the more outspoken faculty members at November's town hall. She acknowledges her program may be vulnerable, but says she sees flaws in the broader strategy.

"We haven't been sold on the effectiveness of this process. It doesn't seem transparent, and frankly it doesn't make any sense to us," she said in an interview.

Taking a page from Dr. Dickeson's book, Wilfrid Laurier will soon prepare similar reports from each academic or administrative unit. The program has been divisive, said Judy Bates, president of the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association. Faculty have battled the administration for the right to elect more of their own members to the committees making decisions, and continue to raise concerns about whether Laurier's board of governors will try to decide academic matters outside its powers.

Still, president Max Blouw says the process is an opportunity to look at the big picture.

"We would be doing this irrespective of whether the budget environment was positive or negative," Dr. Blouw said.

Even at schools where the cuts are being applied equally, the prioritization process is being watched closely. The University of Victoria has directed all faculties and departments to cut 4 per cent from their budgets, and started a "smart growth" exercise, hunting for savings by examining classroom scheduling, reviewing reasonable minimum class sizes and sharing IT supports while protecting essentials like student financial aid.

"That's the approach we have taken this year – smart growth and optimization – but it is going to be challenging because we will have to start asking hard questions," provost Reeta Tremblay said.

"Should we continue this across-the-board [cutting], or should we look at what the University of Guelph is doing?" she said. "Everybody's looking at Guelph."