If you stay in the trench, you can’t see what’s in front of you, let alone what’s on the horizon. Reflecting upon years of discussion about American higher education, we’ve noticed that the very structures and principles that have made our model great are potentially holding us back. It’s time to ask ourselves: Are those principles and structures ones that we would design were we to start from scratch?
Specifically, does our current system of organizing our institutions as academic schools, colleges and departments still make sense? Have our organizational structures evolved as we have added -- but rarely subtracted -- new departments, programs and centers? Is a proliferation of departments good for students, faculty members, employers or the university?
In the midst of the tremendous uncertainty we are experiencing with COVID-19, and the numerous changes forced upon our most basic activities, administrative restructuring may not be a high priority for many people in academe. But faculty have demonstrated tremendous creativity in responding to the pandemic, and our hope is that this might inspire greater openness and curiosity, as well as a sense of agency regarding embracing what would be a very constructive change.
If recent developments are any indication, at most universities, we start with a collection of disparate scholars and fields, impose a departmental structure and then go to great lengths to create centers and institutes and cross-cutting programs that work around that department structure. But can universities function with so many different subcultures? Are we broadening opportunities for students or confusing them? Are we creating too many choices? Are we inviting too many surfaces for tension between academic units, faculty or disciplines? Are departments organized to engage in meaningful discussions around interdisciplinary education and scholarship? How about for faculty hiring or decisions about promotion and tenure?
Universities typically revere traditions, both their own and those of higher education generally. Traditions create identity. At the same time, we promote our mission, which also shapes our identities, individually and collectively. For many of us, our organizational structure is the product of tradition rather than mission, of what has been instead of what ought to be. If our mission is to put student learning at the center of all we do and be a force for the public good, does our current organization support those goals?
The Best Building Block?
As we consider redesigning the university to better fulfill our missions, we should start with the most fundamental unit: the academic department. Is the department still the best building block for organizing our work? Or do we inhibit our institutions by our tendency to conflate three central organizational models for our work: the department, the discipline and the program? While those three can be identical, confusion emerges when that identity is presumed without question. We must remember that departments serve as administrative structures. Disciplines represent coherent areas of research and scholarship. Programs reflect how disciplines (or combinations of disciplines) form curriculum to teach their disciplines or combinations/intersections of disciplines.
For example, while a philosophy department is composed of faculty members who research philosophical questions and offer students classes that form the major program in philosophy, such a one-to-one correspondence is not always the case. Many faculty members presume that this alignment is the only way to organize regardless of whether the context -- driven by student needs or institutional type -- suggests another reality. Even a department with disciplinary and programmatic homogeneity may have more than one curricular program. For example, in a philosophy department, we might see a specialized pre-law track that lends itself to applied outcomes and moves toward connections with other disciplines.
The opportunities for intentional combinations of disciplines into administrative units has tended to occur in particular fields. For instance, departments of sociology or anthropology may be small and perhaps lacking visibility to potential students. They might join to form a larger department offering two distinct degree programs. Likewise, engineering departments often house multiple degree programs. Many civil engineering departments, for example, offer accredited degrees in both civil engineering and environmental engineering. MANE, a large department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, offers individually accredited degrees in mechanical, aeronautical and nuclear engineering.
Collaborative combinations can bolster disciplines experiencing enrollment declines, such as foreign languages. Combining single stand-alone language departments can create greater intellectual breadth and energy as well and a greater sense of community, which is important to attracting students. While one could argue that merging Spanish, French and Italian signifies a disrespect for the distinct cultures and traditions that those languages represent, faculty members who work together to support each other in their programs and scholarship may have greater success in convincing students of the inherent value of becoming bilingual.
Additionally, despite faculty members’ resistance to combining departments, it is increasingly difficult to claim disciplinary “purity” in teaching and research. English and literary research and pedagogy rely frequently on philosophical or historical approaches. Theology draws from techniques in literary analysis. Would greater opportunities for students and faculty members occur more organically if related fields were brought together administratively? How often are we recruiting faculty members with multiple scholarly interests seeking interactions across multiple departments? Do departmental cultures welcome and support such interactions? What opportunities are we missing in our research (discipline) and teaching (programs) by clinging to administrative structures (departments)? Instead of justifying why not to rethink our administrative structure, we might start by imagining the possibilities for faculty scholarship and for student learning.
Examining Inherited Structures
Faculty members should self-organize and then be supported and provided with resources to be successful. Moreover, they should participate in shaping the university’s priorities, while recognizing that the board and president have authority and ultimate responsibility for decisions beyond those delegated to the faculty through shared governance or other articulated agreements. Our focus here is not on the financial and institutional support for faculty, but on highlighting opportunities for self-organizing, creating appropriate and enabling structures that provide the greatest flexibility and the fewest barriers to faculty and student success. Just as we teach our students to interrogate received paradigms, faculty should examine inherited administrative structures that may no longer support their success or the success of students.
Typically, through board-authorized shared governance, faculty members are responsible for academic matters like curriculum and policies, as well as departmental structure, including faculty hiring, status and leadership. As such, the tendency for faculty to assume the alignment of department to discipline to program is understandable, particularly around the determination of curriculum or faculty status. Expertise in a discipline is certainly essential to offering rigorous programs to students and ensuring the quality of faculty.
Even so, why do faculty often resist creating new scholarly pathways and partnerships, enticing students to explore ideas from multiple perspectives, and creating distinction for themselves and their university? The answers are complex. Maintaining disciplinary standards is often cited, particularly in pre-professional fields where external accrediting bodies can drive decisions about internal curricular or personnel decisions. But the fact is that disciplinary boundaries are more fluid than is commonly appreciated. In our experience, the root may be fear: fear of change, fear of loss of relevance, fear of a loss of student interest and a loss of resources.
Faculty (and we consider ourselves faculty first and foremost) are formed by their graduate training. That formation -- a remembrance of what was -- shapes expectations of what should be. The significant shifts in higher education seem only to be accelerating. But the status quo, or the nostalgic ideal of it, is a known. During times of instability, there is comfort in clinging to the known.
How might we proceed differently? Some universities have experimented with organizing faculty around themes -- whether groupings of scholarly disciplines (e.g., health sciences and humanities) or the so-called grand challenges (e.g., environment and ecology, sustainable development). Some have done this while maintaining traditional academic departments, while others have moved more aggressively to substitute new theme-based organization of faculty and scholarship. Institutions like Arizona State University are hailed positively, but recent efforts at the University of Tulsa have been met with strong opposition. While it may be too early to assess the effectiveness of those efforts, such institutions are in a minority of those that have endeavored to change and can offer a road map to other colleges considering such conversations.
At the University of Vermont, we launched the university’s first pan-university institute, the Gund Institute for Environment, to increase interactions among a large number of individuals and programs across campus. The university had environmental expertise in nearly every college and school. While it prided itself on its environmental scholarship and outreach activities, it lacked a coherent strategy, resulting in far less impact for scholars and programs. The Gund Institute was established as a vehicle for transdisciplinary research, policy work and outreach. Faculty members are invited into the institute but retain their academic (tenure) home. The institute supports scholarship but does not offer degree programs. While it is only two years old, early indicators are positive. We’ve seen increases in the number of faculty collaborations across colleges, transdisciplinary research activity, extramural support, graduate enrollment and postdoctoral engagement, as well as in the number of scholarly visitors, research productivity (output), philanthropic support and external visibility through national media coverage.
Whether the Gund Institute eventually offers programs, maintains its own faculty or expands its current scope of environmental focus areas remains to be seen. Under the institute’s governance plan, this effort will be faculty-driven. And whether the Gund Institute remains the institution’s only pan-university institute also remains to be seen. Its success in engaging faculty members, creating new opportunities and creating measurable impact suggests that, properly envisioned and implemented, it can be a powerful model.
Similarly, at Creighton, we recently inaugurated the Kingfisher Institute for Liberal Arts and the Professions. It aims to eliminate barriers between liberal arts pedagogy and research and the pedagogy and research practiced at Creighton’s professional schools. An incubator for new curriculum and research for faculty across Creighton’s nine schools and colleges, the institute is currently contributing to an innovative curriculum in the School of Medicine. Faculty from English, history and fine arts teach in the medical school, and the experience is inspiring them to create a new health humanities minor for undergraduates, as well as to collaborate with colleagues in medicine to study how the humanities and arts impact the education of new doctors. The institute’s future projects will be faculty-driven, encouraging collaboration beyond the boundaries of a single department or college.
Such innovations depend upon faculty commitment to the institutional mission, and we recognize that not all faculty explicitly align their research and teaching with their university’s mission. That said, regardless of institutional types, university missions always point to a greater good, whether it be civic good or personal transformation, and should not be inherently objectionable. Missions transcend disciplines, departments, colleges/schools and faculty backgrounds and can be an ecumenical rallying call that brings faculty together around transcendent themes and goals. Speaking personally, each of us have felt pride and a strong calling to our respective institution types. Both land-grant and Jesuit missions are compelling, uplifting and purposeful, inspiring us to ask how our structures can and should enact those respective missions.
Mission as the Touchstone
While support for mission may be difficult to argue against, altering traditional academic structures is likely to generate opposition. Mission must be the touchstone for any consideration of change. Many voices may express concern over any plan that outright eliminates departments or replaces the current departmental structure, even if a case can be strongly made. Some people may express concern, others may fear ulterior motives, while still others may dig in and resist altogether. Clear and regular communication coupled with authentic engagement of constituents can minimize both concerns and resistance.
If we rethink our current departmental structures, we could start with a blank canvas no longer constrained by inherited organizational units or confined by campus locations (floors, wings or buildings). We could consider student flow and faculty access, including how best to co-locate academic opportunities and student services -- such as academic advising, tutoring and career counseling -- positioning staff resources to support the largest number of students and faculty.
No longer would we be constrained by expectations that every department have identical administrative support. Requests for resources would be made based on mission and strategic need, not historic practice, with decisions guided by opportunities rather than entitlements. Faculty hiring could be strategic and collaborative.
Shared vision, shared resources, shared support and shared expectations for promotion and tenure would also create new ways to recruit and retain exceptional faculty. Our experience has been that many of our best faculty candidates have research interests crossing disciplinary domains, responding to changes in extramural funding paradigms, new research questions and student and employer interests. Disciplines have expanded, combined, subdivided and given rise to entirely new disciplines. Our work and how we engage with students have changed. Why do we maintain the same system of academic departments we had more than a century ago?
To be clear, we are not advocating for the elimination of academic departments. Rather, by questioning why we do things the same way and why we resist structural change in the academy, we can all assess for ourselves -- within our own campus communities and cultures -- what makes the most sense for our institution, our students, our mission and our future.