Dealing With Dysfunctional Academic Departments

C. K. Gunsalus, Richard P. Wheeler and Ruth Watkins recommend five linked steps to help academic leaders improve struggling units.

March 22, 2017
 
 
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The faculty in the math department of a major university has a history of expertise in theory, but the faculty of its much smaller empirical group has become completely estranged from it. Each faction has very powerful personalities who dislike and mistrust one another, the head of the department and the dean. Hiring and promotion have become divisive and contentious, and email wars involving colleagues on and off the campus are escalating.

In contrast, the faculty members in the sociology department are quiet. But the dean and provost are worried because a recent external review process highlighted issues that have been a concern for some time but not serious enough to be on the front burner. Scholarly productivity is well beneath campus norms; the quality of hires and promotions put forward barely meets minimum campus expectations; core courses have not kept up with progress in the larger field; undergraduate majors and total enrollments are dwindling, and the qualifications of graduate applicants are decreasing.

Those two scenarios, while hypothetical, reflect real and common trends in academe. Composites of actual cases, they can serve as exemplars of dysfunctional academic units: those where acrimony and internal disputes threaten a constructive future, and those that seem disconnected from their core academic purpose. Across the country, academic leaders are seeking effective, constructive strategies for improving the working and learning environment in departments that are not meeting their institutions’ performance expectations, either in terms of quality or of function and conduct, or both. You will find few deans or provosts who are not familiar with such challenges, and few who are not deeply concerned.

What strategies and tactics can an academic leader -- chair or head, dean or provost -- undertake to foster a more positive trajectory for a department in trouble? Through our work with academic leaders across a wide range of institutions, we have developed resources for assessing and addressing challenged and dysfunctional academic units.

A foundational lesson is that nothing happens in isolation: structural, cultural, financial, interpersonal, scholarly and leadership problems interact with one another in complex ways. One recurring lesson that reverberates throughout our work is that it is essential for institutions to create and maintain infrastructure to support vital functions and capabilities of vibrant academic units. Successful, healthy academic units happen by design -- through leadership and thoughtful nurturing. That can be supported by strong, systematic efforts to orient and develop departmental executive officers.

Vibrant, Not Dysfunctional Academic Units

What are the core characteristics of vibrant academic units? A unit must be able to: 1) foster student learning of an appropriate quality and volume, 2) conduct research and creative work with impact that meets institutional standards, 3) contribute to the institution’s mission through its service and outreach, and 4) sustain ethical, legal and fiscally responsible internal governance.

Functional academic departments tend to share a strong commitment to these values. Their internal cultures have an ethos of trust, respect and excellence. While they may have significant, even vigorous disagreements, they typically display a willingness to compromise that allows them to make functional decisions and assure that workloads are shared equitably across the unit. The healthy academic unit recognizes its role in the larger institution and works effectively in context while keeping its processes free from inappropriate external influences.

The dysfunctional unit stands in stark contrast. Unhappy families may all be unhappy in their own ways, but academic departments are remarkably similar in how they become discordant and ineffectual. Dysfunction can be academic, cultural or interpersonal. It can result directly from poor leadership in the department or the actions of people outside it. Remarkably often, it manifests with a combination of all those elements.

For example, the math department faculty in our examples is factionalized along methodological lines. You also see faculties divided ideologically and generationally, or sometimes just by personality conflicts -- any of which can lead to governance gridlock and inability to manage essential departmental business. That, in turn, undermines people’s ability to agree upon or enact coherent planning for the unit’s future, which can then lead to problems hiring or retaining faculty members, maintaining scholarly standards, or supporting a curriculum responsive to developments in the discipline and the need to attract and support students. Dysfunction that begins in one area or for isolated reasons can create a negative spiral that affects myriad aspects of departmental health.

How Functional Is Your Academic Unit?

To assess the vibrancy of your department, you should evaluate several areas:

  • Academic. Some departments simply lose their academic way. Their scholarly productivity and quality decline, their curriculum stagnates, or their teaching content and caliber do not match institutional expectations. They may have no common purpose or direction, as in the case of the members of the sociology department in our example.

    Perhaps the department has remained fixed in the past while the discipline has advanced. Such units may provide only minimal support for the hiring of new faculty members or professional development of current ones, or for reshaping courses to meet the needs of today’s students. The unit makes little or no contribution to the community of scholars and shows an uneven or absent commitment to excellence. It has weak practices in the most vital areas: (a) recruitment and hiring of new faculty, and (b) promotion, retention and tenure decisions.

  • Cultural. Cultural and interpersonal dysfunction in a department can often be seen in misplaced priorities, personal conflicts, an inability to have any honest discussions or a disproportionate number of complaints and grievances compared to peer units. The math department we described appears to demonstrate such problems.

    We have seen such patterns play out in units that place blame on external forces, as well as those that experience high levels of internal dissension and disputes that, in their worst manifestations, involve students or staff or even alumni, donors, colleagues at other institutions or the legal system. It’s never a good sign when legal actions are pending between departmental colleagues or professional bodies are investigating a unit.

  • Interpersonal. Dysfunction can follow from a big personality who acts out or goes rogue in some fashion, violating the norms of conduct seen in successful departments. If the out-of-line conduct is rewarded or not curbed, a culture of normalized deviance can develop and spread. That, in turn, can lead to a factionalized faculty in gridlock.
  • Leadership. Situated where faculty culture and the administrative structure meet, the role of chairing a department effectively is one of the most difficult, and most important, on a campus. Leadership shortcomings can magnify or catalyze significant problems, as when standard principles and policies are undermined by differential deals and treatment afforded certain people, officially or unofficially (particularly when bad conduct is the basis for such treatment), or when the department lacks sound financial oversight, either through inadequate scrutiny or general mismanagement. Department leadership also falls short when it gives no thought to succession or transition planning for leaders, when new hires are not part of a coherent plan, when the faculty has no sense of a guiding mission, or when daily decisions only have a limited connection to that guiding mission.

    Ironically, leaders on either end of the control continuum -- both ambivalent leaders and autocratic ones -- can cause enormous damage. Ambivalent leaders include those who want everyone to love them (or at least leave them alone) and will do almost anything to avoid making hard decisions. Autocratic leaders often hold information tightly or personally manage every decision. Even when they take appropriate actions, it’s not apparent that such actions are in the interest of the collective good and community well-being. Or the department appears to function well while the autocratic leader is in place, particularly while that person actively suppresses any difference of opinion, yet falls apart after a leadership transition. Such leaders can thwart any attempts to identify or develop solutions.

  • External. External constituencies can also undermine a department’s vibrancy. We’ve seen cases when alumni or donor communities, with good intentions, advocate for or even insist on actions that are inconsistent with the department or institution’s priorities.

Solutions and Approaches

Effective tools and approaches exist for these situations, but few are painless, as change is hard and often resisted even when it will yield large benefits for department members. As a general rule, we note that it can be more difficult to achieve effective change in smaller units than in larger ones, primarily because there are fewer “degrees of freedom” to dilute conflict flash points and limited options for activating those seeking change. Hardest of all are those that have stable membership, as they may have become entrenched in old patterns of behavior.

Some units will recognize that they need to change, a recognition that is, unfortunately, often provoked by a crisis or negative event. That can happen in departments where some form of serious misconduct has occurred or that have received a sobering external review. Even units that recognize the need for change may still not have good strategies for moving forward.

At the other extreme are units in denial, who fail to acknowledge their difficulties or who attribute them solely to factors that are out of their control. For units that have not yet recognized or accepted a need to act, some form of review that gathers and presents data and comparisons to aspirational peers can be a constructive catalyst.

We recommend five linked steps to help academic leaders improve struggling units.

  • Build a team. Develop a core group that can outline a path forward. The chair and the dean should typically be members of the team, unless a central feature of the unit’s dysfunction is leadership failure. The assistance and support of the provost is also ideal; at a minimum, the provost needs to be aware of the central issues and apprised as a plan is developed. Often, associate deans and other campus leaders have past experiences that can make them meaningful contributors in supporting roles. And, in some cases, an external consultant can provide effective guidance.

    The key point is that building a plan to improve an academic unit in serious trouble cannot rest with a single individual, regardless of that person’s talent, acumen or experience.

  • Collect information systematically. Be aware that what you think you know might not be so. When preparing to address longstanding challenges of any type, you should seek sound quantitative and qualitative data. You should review clear indicators of performance -- for example, enrollment trends, teaching quality, student completion and attrition, student placement, scholarly output and quality, ability to recruit and promote talent, grievances and complaints, timeliness, involvement in important campus committees -- to determine how the unit functions and compares to peers on and off the campus.

    When available, qualitative data can also play a crucial role in sharpening your understanding of unit dynamics. Meaningful exit interviews with departed faculty members, as well as conversations with students and staff members about their experiences in the unit, can sharpen your focus on issues that other people are unwilling to address directly. An honest profile of the unit, based on evidence rather than reputation and narrative alone, can be invaluable.

  • Activate the people of goodwill. Perhaps the most important step in change is the active engagement of members of the department who are ready for a better future. Whatever the data, the history and the narrative, some people in the unit, typically many of them, will be eager to join with the core team in taking steps to improve the functionality and performance of their unit. Enlist them as genuine partners in addressing the challenges.
  • Develop a plan with specific steps. An external review team may be most effective at this stage -- it can synthesize data, illuminate the distinct features of the discipline and lend credibility to the plan. It can also develop an initial set of recommendations, make periodic reviews and advise on key unit decisions, as needed. Where a unit has failed to keep pace with significant developments in their field, external experts can provide crucial context.

    As the plan develops, it is useful to think forward several steps. How will it be communicated to the unit? After initial success, what is the next goal? What if an unexpected obstacle arises? What incentives should you put in place to encourage continuing progress?

  • Be patient and adaptable -- but not too patient and not too adaptable. Finally, recognize that you will rarely -- possibly never -- get everything right or correctly mapped from the start. Instead, the effort to resolving longstanding issues in a floundering department will be a gradual and continuous improvement exercise, with many opportunities to evaluate progress and reconvene the core team to reconsider next steps. All efforts require monitoring and evaluation; some will require significant revision. The worst error is stopping or giving up. Significant problems in an academic unit usually build slowly, typically under conditions of neglect or reinforced by the halfhearted or all-too-brief efforts of a leader who prematurely leaves for another position. That is an unaffordable mistake, as it will feed the core problems. You should monitor progress and correct course as needed, but stay with the project -- even if that requires additional assistance.

The keys to redressing dysfunction in academic units lie in gathering data, analyzing performance in the areas we have laid out, developing and supporting academic leaders in a purposeful, systematic fashion, and activating the people of goodwill inside the unit to retake control of their collective destiny. Lessons we have learned include:

  1. Triaging challenges is essential and within institutional capacity.
  2. Clear guidelines, policies and procedures must be known and used.
  3. Small problems lead to bigger ones. Avoid inattention and denial early on, as unchecked problems will only fester and grow.
  4. Quality department leaders and leadership development provide the bedrock upon which departments rise and fall.
  5. Leaders at all levels must be able to distinguish between minimal and aspirational standards, and then have the courage and authority to seek to reach the latter.

Bio

C. K. Gunsalus is the director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ruth Watkins is the senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah. Richard P. Wheeler is dean emeritus of the Graduate College of the University of Illinois.

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