Start, Stop or Grow? New book helps college leaders manage academic programs

Program evaluation requires commitment and new tools to remain relevant, author Bob Atkins says.
By: | May 12, 2022
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Assessing the strength and relevance of academic programs can be critical to a college or university remaining financially sound. So if leaders need a little guidance, imagination and inspiration, Gray Associates chief executive Bob Atkins has released a new book that might help.

Titled Start, Stop, or Grow? A Data-Informed Approach to Academic Program Evaluation and Management, Atkins discusses how evaluations can ensure that institutions—no matter the size—are making savvy business decisions. The new guide offers a look at how a data-driven approach, with a close look at markets, economics and academics, along with multi-stakeholder involvement, can cement a successful future.

Atkins says a multitude of factors can easily get colleges off track in their embrace of the program. Sometimes influences on and off campus can become too wedded to existing programs or pitch others that are costly or don’t have enough interest. He says it is paramount that institutions regain their footing and more soundly evaluate what they are teaching and who they are teaching for, especially in such a volatile climate.

“The difficulty of higher education administration has increased dramatically in recent decades as shifts in the social, political, and economic landscape have outpaced curricular reform,” Atkins says. “Declining enrollments necessitate budget cuts at the very time that shifting external market priorities require entrepreneurial investment in new programs and educational models. Traditional decision-making tools available to college administrators have not kept pace, and it is not clear which current programs are losing relevance or what new programs can capture student demand.”

In a wide-ranging interview with University Business in February, Atkins discussed how program evaluations and identifying popular fields while eliminating redundancy can be the difference between an institution remaining healthy or losing pace. He noted that “evaluations change the institutions, driving academic costs—who will be hired and let go, what research will be done—and guiding how our science, culture and ethics will be handed down from one generation to the next.”


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Youngstown State University found success in adopting the sound approaches laid out by Atkins by finding which programs it should invest more in and which ones it could put less capital behind or eliminate altogether. Atkins’ book addresses how mission, standards, shared governance and faculty buy-in all play key roles—with analytics as a centerpiece—in ensuring success.

“This book is a must-read for all college and university administrators, but particularly those who face tough budgetary decisions due to falling enrollments and shifts in external markets,” said Brien Smith, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, Youngstown State University.

The magnitude of change stretches beyond the walls of campus and particular programs, Atkins says, into how “science, culture, and ethics will be handed down from one generation to the next.” But it isn’t easy. He notes, “Doing program evaluation well is a challenge, but the rewards are great for institutions, faculty, students and our society.”