You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Eight people stand on squares resembling an organization chart

alphabetMN/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A Gallup poll recently found that public confidence in higher education has fallen to a historic low of 36 percent. No longer is the bachelor’s degree assumed to be the golden ticket to the good life, and colleges and universities face myriad thorny challenges: student debt has skyrocketed; the transfer process continues to be a confusing and wasteful maze; curricula have failed to keep pace with current demands—a problem that began well before AI emerged and changed everything from admissions essays to graduate theses.

What has been higher education’s response to these disturbing trends? Many, if not most, colleges remain stubbornly resistant to altering their approaches in any fundamental way. As a former chancellor of the University System of Georgia once put it, “You can change the course of history easier than you can change a history course.”

Why? Because the chain of action required to turn institutional policy into real change is broken. The present management system by which colleges operate makes it highly problematic to establish institution-level goals, develop them into plans and then actualize those plans to create needed changes in the curriculum, hiring, personnel reward systems, admissions, transfer policy, instructional methods, faculty research and all the other work colleges and universities do.

In the current system, while top administrators and senior faculty members discuss and negotiate policy and plans for action, department chairs and faculty members are those who are responsible for doing that work. But even though administrators and senior faculty members may pass down policy changes to academic departments, chairs are not prepared, empowered or incentivized to be change agents. The role of a department chair is often mainly viewed by both the person in the job and their colleagues as a placeholder—someone who fills the role temporarily until they return to the safety of their faculty position. And while shiny new presidential hires and “transformational plans” may be good for image management, significant institutional change is unlikely as long as chairs do not have the commitment, preparation, authority, responsibility and incentives to do the job.

Typically, colleges and universities display on their websites organizational charts that draw lines of authority from the Board of Trustees through the president and down to staff and academic department faculty. Such flow charts create an impression of efficient and rational management, but the reality of institutional operations differs markedly due to shared governance and what I call the “1.0 bureaucratic model.”

Created a century ago during the Industrial Age, the 1.0 bureaucratic model is a system in which executives determine organizational goals and, to meet the goals, laborers efficiently produce outputs of acceptable quality as defined by those executives. Similarly, colleges make a clear distinction between top administrators and faculty, and authority for decision-making is greatest at the top of the administrative pyramid and lowest at the bottom ranks of faculty. In the words of Robert Reich, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and former U.S. secretary of labor, “I’m going to make a crass generalization about the current system of higher education in general, but I think it’s accurate. It is still wedded to a 20th-century model of education, which in turn comes to us from the 18th century.”

That bureaucratic model may have worked for Henry Ford’s assembly lines, where management-controlled worker incentives and production diversity was limited to any color Model T so long as it was black, but it certainly does not work for 21st-century colleges and universities. For starters, the power of top administrators to direct change is severely limited these days. Presidents can’t change the work colleges do through executive order. And due to tenure and the shortening terms that top leaders now serve, faculty members often have greater institutional longevity than most administrators. As a result, faculty members may simply ignore or slow-walk changes they do not support until a new administration arrives with its own agenda for changes—which the faculty then mostly ignore or slow-walk, as well.

Faculty members often have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Senior professors leading curriculum, personnel committees, the union and the faculty/academic senate, for instance, powerfully influence the futures of junior faculty who, therefore, may be reluctant to take any positions or make any moves viewed unfavorably by their senior colleagues.

Since institutional policy is developed through negotiation between administrators and faculty leaders in the shared governance system, and since department chairs and the body of rank-and-file faculty are not a significant part of the policy-creation process, the broken chain of action that often emerges separates policymakers from those who will need to do the real work required for institutional change. Clearly if real institutional change is to occur, a new organizational management model is called for.

While chairs theoretically are that link between administration and faculty, their authority and capabilities are severely restricted. Decades of research confirm that chairs are barely trained, if at all, for their new roles. Norms and expectations for the role are such that chairs have little decision-making authority, especially over resources. The chair’s position is not professionalized through adequate training and supported through performance incentives that reward department leadership, so it turns over, usually after no more than two terms, to the next underprepared faculty member becoming a chair for the first time. There is little continuity in building programmatic areas or increasing operational efficiencies as new chairs assume the position and take a year or two to get their feet on the ground.

Further, as management expert and author Jim Collins has said, the key to organizational action is “getting the right people on the bus.” Yet rarely are department chairs and faculty members who don’t sit on shared governance committees directly involved in policy creation. Therefore, the buy-in needed to do the hard work of new policy implementation is unlikely to occur.

Generations of rapid chair turnover have created a culture of low performance expectations. And the separation of resource authority from the department chairs and faculty who do the real work of the institution is counterproductive to rapid adaptation to changes in the environment.

An Alternate Model

Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, and many other business leaders agree that bureaucracy is “a disease.” They understand that it saps initiative, inhibits risk-taking and crushes creativity. Similarly, higher education needs to leave the 1.0 bureaucratic model behind and adopt a new one: the “2.0 management model,” which has spurred the success of other types of knowledge-intensive organizations—notably for-profit companies like Disney and Google—that are competing in complex, rapidly changing environments. What can we at colleges and universities learn from such for-profit companies? We can consider Disney and Google’s success in following three fundamental approaches:

  • In place of top-down bureaucratic controls, these organizations rely on production from small teams of goal-focused “creators.”
  • Administrators and team members share responsibility and decision-making.
  • The layers of bureaucracy that stand between creative teams and the people needing their services and products are minimized.

Disney and Google have discovered that small creative teams are able to innovate with greater agility and timeliness than organizations rigidly controlled from the top down. For example, Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, which Time magazine identified as one of its top “genius companies,” has a simple philosophy: “You’re basically making bets on people and ideas vs. anything else.” Leaders must be able and willing to identify creators, support them with the resources they need and insulate them so that they can bring their products to fruition.

Similarly, Google has built an organizational culture that empowers independent thinking and creativity to develop and implement innovative solutions to problems. Central to the Google way is a “70-20-10” time allocation for employees: 70 percent of the time is devoted to Google’s core business of search and advertising, 20 percent to off-budget projects related to the core business, and 10 percent to pursue ideas based on one’s own interest and competencies. At Google, employees receive generous rewards for coming up with and carrying out innovative ideas that are the seed corn for the company’s future. It is estimated that about 50 percent of Google’s new products are generated using the “free” time that employees are granted. As an illustration, Gmail was created by Paul Buchheit as a project arising from the investment of his free time.

Academic Departments as Microenterprises

Applying what may be learned from case studies of Google and Disney, colleges should examine how to harness the energy of the creators in the faculty and their academic departments as engines of institutional change. And the key to unlocking the power of those departments is held by chairs, who stand at the door between the needs of constituents and the talents of the faculty. It is well accepted that the department chair or head is the legitimate leader and manager of operations, and they typically have the approval of the department’s voting faculty. Promoting the professionalization of chairs through enhanced training, offering chairs greater rewards and status, and paying attention to department leadership continuity can enable chairs to become true change agents.

Academic departments are the faculty’s home on a campus and where the work gets done. They are also the right size for the formation of creative teams to tackle the problems facing their administration, students and constituents. At their best, departments are where new majors are proposed, curricula are written, academic and research programs are developed, faculty members are professionally developed. They are also where job descriptions are written and junior faculty members are hired, professionally nourished, made to feel safe and supported—or, in contrast, where they may feel isolated, unrecognized and professionally lonely. Similarly, in their department home, a faculty member’s intellect can be piqued, their thinking challenged, their assumptions questioned, and their horizons extended—or they may be made to feel like a replaceable cog in the academic machine.

In short, academic departments are where institutional change can begin. They can serve as microenterprises: revitalizing academic programs, smoothing and clarifying the transfer-approval process, increasing the efficiency of course delivery, identifying and supporting the creative faculty who will expand public confidence by helping meet community and societal needs. Rather than top administrators attempting to force change onto all academic units, whether they are supportive or not, the 2.0 management model identifies departments that are well positioned strategically with capable entrepreneurial chairs, talented creators in the faculty and strong resource-generating potential.

In the 2.0 model of decision-making, top administrators and department chairs share authority and responsibility. Administrators empower chairs and faculty members to closely connect their services with the needs of constituents. Departments selected for 2.0 management earn the resources needed to invest in their own growth and development and share in the rewards that result from their successes. Rather than top administrators confronting resistance from unsupportive faculty and staff, institutional change succeeds through the efforts of individual departments eager to create their own future.

Today, top-down institutional change efforts are thwarted by factors including, among others, an outmoded bureaucratic management system, shared governance, tenure, unions and protection of the institutional brand. Instead of those efforts, which all too often consume valuable resources to deal with resistance from many quarters, a more effective approach might be identifying academic units positioned and motivated to change themselves with the support of administration. In other words, the strategy for change might be identifying the right academic departments and then creating and supporting product-focused microenterprises with the right faculty members and chairs to drive the bus of change.

By applying the principles of 2.0 management and utilizing the existing organizational structure of academic departments, American colleges and universities can design a system that will allow them to meet the challenge of change in the 21st century. In place of top-down, institutionwide plans, a focus on chairs and academic departments best positioned for progress promises change from the ground up, one unit at a time.

Over the past 19 years, Don Chu has served as a department chair at Skidmore College and California State University, Chico, as well as held deanships at the University of West Florida, California State University San Marcos and National University. His most recent book is Department Management 2.0: Academic Leadership for the 21st Century (2023).

Next Story

Written By

More from Career Advice