Over the last few months the University of North Dakota’s campus has absorbed the sobering reality that we will need to undergo another round of budget reductions. As with anything like this, there is much flailing, wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth, and slashing away at campus institutions like a drunken pirate in a beer hall brawl. In response, there are anguished letters to the editor, earnest petitions, and all manner of cluck-clucking, eye-rolling, “first world problem”ing, and other forms of cynical, ironic, and condescending rhetoric. Good times!
One of the interesting things that these budget cuts have forced me to consider is the organization of the university because there is some expectations among campus leaders (i.e. the provost and president) that these cuts are structural not simply nibbling around the edges of programs and existing departments and faculties. To stimulate thinking about these kinds of cuts critically, the university has started to make vigorous cuts both to the administration (particularly at the level of Vice President) and to departments and programs. As I’ve noted, my department (History) saw its graduate program defunded and other departments and programs are poised to be trimmed, adjusted, or combined. The deans of the various colleges (Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Mines, Business and Public Administration, Aerospace, Education, and Nursing) are responsible for most of the departmental and program level adjustments. Colleges serve as intermediaries between the upper administration and the department levels.
What is curious is that no one has suggested eliminating the colleges at UND. So that’s what I’m going to propose now.
First, we have to recognize that two colleges – the Medical School and the Law School – need to be left untouched. In part, because the Medical School gets separate appropriations from the legislature and the Law School is largely autonomous owing the requirements of accreditation and the like. I also recognize that some programs require directors or deans with particular kinds of training and this would have to be folded into a new university system. I might be, for example, that certain programs become “schools” within the university with a director who has the kinds of qualifications that accreditors require.
Here are my rational:
1. Duplication of Work. Most universities and colleges are organized around autonomous departments which, in turn, house autonomous faculty who each fulfill a particular, typically discrete function. In other words, there is very little duplication of work or expertise at the level of departments or individual faculty. When you eliminate a department or a faculty line there is usually no-one to pick up the slack. The reasons for this are intellectual (i.e. most departments have a distinct method or epistemology that is related to disciplinary standards), externally maintained (i.e. most departments and disciplines have professional organizations that either offer guidelines or require accreditation on a national or even international level), and historically constituted (i.e. internal and external pressures have consolidated academic disciplines and eliminated duplication across campus).
This same lack of duplication is largely the case at the upper levels of university administration as well. While faculty love to rail against the proliferation of Vice Presidents, Associate Vice Presidents, and other administrative posts, generally speaking each position has a discrete function that is not duplicated by another position in the administration. Many of these positions serve functions that faculty do not want and protect and promote student life, manage the complexities of budgets, ensure compliance with a myriad of state and federal policies and laws, market the university to various groups, and maintain core services (email, websites, classroom spaces, offices, et c.) for everyone on campus. The talk about administrative bloat often fails to acknowledge that administrators do have functions even if these functions are seen as subordinate or ancillary to the “proper business of the university.
Colleges are not like this. Each college has staff and administration that basically do the same (or at least a similar) job to the staff and administration in the other colleges. While I understand that some of these positions are necessary for the functioning of the university, the colleges on campus as not rationally constituted and, to some extent, arbitrary divisions. For example, certain kinds of engineering exist in the College of Engineering and Mines and in Aerospace. Political Science and Economics are in the College of Business whereas the other social sciences are in the College of Arts and Sciences. Chemical Engineering is in Engineering and Chemistry is in Arts and Sciences. Geology, however, is in Engineering with Geological Engineering. There are always local, historical reasons for this arrangement, but these are often quite contingent. In other words, the duplication of functions across colleges is not a reflection of an academic or intellectual division of labor, but of historical contingency. Colleges try to do the same thing despite being different sizes and having different resources with the primary goal of supporting the programs in the college. The limits of this goal is arbitrary and not distinct from that of the university itself.
Of course, I recognize that eliminating the colleges will not eliminate the jobs of most personnel within the colleges. At the same time, it will allow us to organize this in a rational way across campus that reflects the needs of departments and students without concern for arbitrary administrative divisions.
2. Centralization. One of the watch words of the recent set of budget cuts has been centralization of both basic functions and message: “One UND” and all that. Historically (at least since I’ve been on campus) colleges has pushed back against that pleading their uniqueness and chaffing at the idea that they would have to give up autonomy to a distant and perhaps differently motivated center. In my favorite example, one college on campus refused to use the university-wide content management system for their website and built an identical site without the CMS to demonstrate its independence. Bizarre, but true. More recently, the college deans were asked to revise their budget cutting strategies because they didn’t do enough and did not coincide closely enough with the larger strategic plan of the institution. Without impugning the motives of any particular dean, it seems safe to say that the rejection of the budget cuts reflects inherent inefficiencies in the college system as well as a bit of resistance from the college offices who are doing all they can to promote their own programs and existence.
The structural arrangement of the college system both inserts a degree of largely irrational, inefficiency in the administration of the university and draw upon the same pool of resources as the central administration to sometimes resist its interests. If this resistance was connected to issues of disciplinary integrity or even functional imperatives, then I’d accept or even embrace the fight, but in most cases the resistance, jockeying, and horse trading is the product of historically contingent institutional divisions.
3. Competition. It has been popular in recent years on college and university campuses to celebrate the “marketplace of ideas” and to promote competition for both intellectual ascendency, resources, and recognition across campus. While I don’t love this particularly neoliberal approach to knowledge production, I think that many on campus have accepted it. If you’re not growing, improving, innovating, embettering, engoodening, or whatever, you’re falling behind, failing, and irrelevant.
Hierarchy tends to stifle competition and innovation by limiting the ability of individuals to operate freely (as well as inefficiency). Colleges limit competition in very practical ways at UND. First and foremost, the current funding model provides resources to colleges based on their enrollment (among other things) and this serves as a disincentive to collaborate across college boundaries. It remains challenging to collaborate – in even very basic ways – with colleagues across campuses. Certain kind of internal grant money is awarded according to college programs. Curriculum is decided on the college level (before going to another committee at the campus wide level).
It is a fair critique to note that these institutional barriers are not too significant and easy work arounds exist, but I am not entirely clear how these institutional barriers benefit competition, collaboration, and innovation across campus. This is all the more significant when we consider that the growing interest in collaboration between STEM field and the humanities and social sciences. At present, engineering and technology is institutionally separated from the humanities (as well as certain kinds of science and math)! The existing organization of the university reflects older views of disciplinary organization (at best) and arbitrary divisions (at worst) that reduce the opportunities for strategies that will accelerate innovation and competition across campus.
On a more cynical level, I have often wondered how oversight and strategic planning by deans has tempered innovation at the department level. If we eliminated the colleges and deans, I suspect this would free departments to negotiate their place within the marketplace of departments and ideas on campus and move more strategically and fluidly to develop partnerships and alliances.
To be clear, I recognize that eliminating colleges will not solve all of the university’s budget problems, but the calls for the upper administration for serious, structural changes would seem to point in the direction of improving efficiency across campus. The low-hanging fruit for this kind of change is the outdated college system. Many of the basic functions immediately relevant to students and faculty could be consolidated and centralized with some benefits in efficiency.
I suspect it is inevitable that departments and programs form alliances to promote their interests on campus. There would also have to be a form of representation to ensure that the basic functioning of various programs. Here are my thoughts in that direction:
1. Organize by Degree. It would make sense to establish for some overarching committees perhaps organized around degrees with all the programs that offer B.A., B.S., B.F.A. degrees, for example, to vet curriculum and ensure that the degree requirements and courses existed.
2. Re-establish an Autonomous Graduate School. For the last 5 years or so, the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at UND has lost most of its autonomy. It is now largely a service division with a dean that does not have tenure in a department. This ensures that the individual colleges have a significant amount of control over graduate programs served by their departments. This is irrational for all the reasons that colleges are irrational, but made sense inasmuch as the individual colleges were responsible for the faculty who taught graduate classes and advised graduate students. A more rational plan would be for the Graduate School to gain significant autonomy and work closely with departments and programs to ensure that resources exist to support various degrees at the graduate level. In other words, organization follows the degrees rather than the arbitrary and historically contingent colleges.
3. Faculty Leadership and Governance. There would be risk, of course, that a more dynamic and competitive university structure would be more prone to administrative interference. Deans do serve as checks on the power of the president and the provost and their various minions. They are conservative institutions that make change more difficult and reinforce entrenched views of the university. To my mind, this inefficiency has hurt our ability to deliver education and support research, collaboration, and cooperation across campus more than it has helped, but there are those who will point out that the departure of deans will leave a leadership vacuum on campus that faculty will have to step into.
While faculty love to complain about the burdens of service and the incompetence of administrators, a university without deans and college organization will require faculty to step into this gap and to balance their own and their program’s ambition against the greater good of the university. Committees will have the responsibility of working with various administrators who do much of the work to ensure that a university can function.
Decisions on the distribution of tenure track lines, program changes, funding for adjuncts and temporary faculty, and other responsibilities could involve the entire faculty rather than existing as deals negotiated between departments and the deans. This could, of course, get messy and quickly, but maybe that kind of messiness isn’t a bad thing when it reflects the dynamism of faculty governance rather than the arbitrary accretions of administrative structures.