Many colleges and universities are seeking external support for holistic institutional review. Common issues such as budget shortfalls and/or fluctuating or low enrollments are often prompts for the process, which can last as long as a year. These reviews may lead to cuts in faculty, staff, programs, programming, operational budgets, and other areas. As academic deans, we are almost certainly expected to contribute by offering up programs, positions, or budget lines to the cause. These expectations and corresponding actions will almost certainly generate strife and division. However, sometimes taking a strong future-planning and visioning stance can make the difference for your college.
Making strategic cuts is beneficial at times. On the other hand, the tendency toward more sweeping cuts, especially when facing financial issues, may do more harm than good. Cuts are about looking backward. “Review,” after all, implies analysis of the past. Looking forward may prove a better option. Restructure and revision proposals are one tool deans can use to deflect divisive cuts and re-energize programming and faculty morale. Restructuring is a staple of the business world, but it is a word that conjures up predominantly negative connotations in academe. Yet a restructure is about the future. It necessitates knowing where you are taking your college and what your vision is and will be. Presidents and boards may be willing to support such a move in lieu of more drastic measures. After all, few truly want their legacies to be about jettisoning beloved programs and professors if another way to achieve the same goals is available.
In a recent all-university review, my college opted for a post-department structure focused on reinvention of our academic programming. Such a gamble demanded starting with what strategic cuts we were willing to make. For that, we assembled a proposal of all the places where we could streamline our budgets, such as trimming the number of ensembles, combining courses, sacrificing budget items that did not contribute to the student or faculty experience, etc. Asking faculty to make the decisions themselves helped. Faculty often already know where they could tighten things up and simply need the impetus and freedom to do it. We also examined the weakest programs – weakest in enrollment – and did one of four options: 1) pulled the top courses and made a concentration in a different program, then cut the original program; 2) took two weaker programs, created a common core and one new program, then cut the two original ones; 3) reduced a weak program to a minor; or 4) cut a weak program as necessary. In all but two cases, we found ways to retain what was best in the original program and have emerged with more relevant majors that have engaged faculty and student interest. We also shifted from seventeen departments to six divisions. This transformation is in process now. It’s scary and challenging, but also igniting something slow-spreading and positive.
What is truly important about taking this kind of step is having the right leadership in place for transformation. The majority of the former chairs had reached their term limits of eight years, a couple even extended beyond that. Some were not particularly keen on change or were invested in “translating” the chairship to the new model. Translation, however, keeps you on the same thinking pathways. As one of my faculty put it, “Sometimes you have to rearrange the furniture to see things with a fresh perspective.” We chose to rearrange the furniture. Each division now has a director who is predominantly an administrator; the chairs are still predominantly teaching faculty. The division also has an assistant director, who is still mainly teaching faculty. I solicited nominations for these roles and then chose a team comprised of a cross section of our faculty: full professors with wisdom to share, two former chairs with practical experience, midcareer faculty eager for leadership but who had not had the opportunity for it, and even a couple of junior faculty with professional skills. In this manner, the college now has a leadership team representing every voice. They spent the summer together building connections and working through division operations.
I advocate choosing the first round of leaders in this way because they need to work well as a team and with you. A transition is tough enough as it is without someone who engenders conflict. Critical questioning, yes; negativity, no. It’s also important to inform your faculty up front about your purpose and process. Being transparent on the compensation formula and limiting the directors’ first contracts to two years will smooth the path. During that two years, the faculty body will create the procedure for their input in the selection of future directors. Holding open dialog sessions with students and keeping alumni abreast of changes are also imperative as these groups are your most valuable stakeholders. It is also easy to forget that the rest of campus needs to know who their various contacts should be during a time of transition (I forgot a few!), so creating a contact list for campus offices will keep things running.
Although the word “transparency” is a staple of almost every leader’s vocabulary these days, it is a mandatory part of successful participation by the whole college in university review. Getting in the trenches with your report writers is also crucial. Tagging your best faculty writers and your best faculty statisticians to conduct workshops and help their peers with their reports promotes the sense of being in it together and provides an opportunity for the dean’s office to treat workshop attendees to lunch, and, better yet, to have the dean be there as part of, but not running, the workshop. Send regular email updates to faculty, alumni, and students and meet periodically with small groups of faculty to keep information flowing both ways. In addition, “office hours” are also beneficial for report writers who need feedback, have questions, or simply need reassurance.
In our institutional review, each program wrote first-round reports and, after results of the analyses of these reports were released, the bottom quintile programs were required to write a second report. At that point, I went to my provost and president and asked if I could get inventive with the process and submit a restructure/revision proposal in conjunction with those second round reports. Both were wary but intrigued. Most importantly, they were willing to listen.
If your college would benefit from this approach, keep in mind your proposal needs to embrace real change. If it doesn’t, it will not be taken seriously. Many Board of Trustees members come from the business world. They recognize lip service; however, they just as easily recognize transformative thinking and, more often than not, they are willing to invest in that transformation. So, although these review processes are highly stressful and divisive, you can, with courage and open dialog with your faculty, turn them into an opportunity with long term positive impact creating “good divisions.”