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Academic Departments: How They Work, How They Change

By Barbara E. Walvoord, Anna K. Carey, Kristen Pool, Hoke L. Smith, Suzanne Wegener Soled, Philip K. Way, and Debbie Zorn
Jossey-Bass (http://www.josseybass.com)
128 Pages
ISBN: 0-787-95714-3

Reviewed by

Scott G. McNall

California State University, Chico

Academic Departments:
Petty Despotisms, Sources of Democratic Resistance, or Agents of Change?

Should academic departments change? In what ways should they change? If they want to change, what strategies can they use? Our six authors, all veterans of higher-education administration, pose for us and attempt to answer these three compelling questions. The authors were leaders of the University of Cincinnati's Project to Improve and Reward Teaching (PIRT), which involved 58 different departments. Their collective focus in this volume gives us a chance to examine a set of complex issues relating to whether or not departments can serve as agents of change.

The answer to the first question, "Should departments change?" is "yes." The list of pressures for change presented by the authors will be familiar to most: demands that universities do more with less, opportunities and necessities to collaborate with business and industry, the rise of for-profit universities, public concern about access and quality, new educational technologies that promise to alter the way we deliver education, changing student demographics, and new ideas about teaching and learning. Yet not everyone sees these pressures as sufficient reasonto change. Certainly faculty members believe they need to respect diverse learning styles and help students realize their dreams. We know we need to teach and teach well. But many faculty also believe they must resist the commodification of higher education, the formation of corporate-university partnerships, and teaching via the Internet. It is not clear that the authors appreciate the fact that some resistance may be deeply principled and even wise. Nevertheless, there are many good reasons for departments to change. Chief among the reasons offered in this collection is that not all departments are focused on the needs of students. Narrow, disciplinary research sometimes takes precedence over the creation of high-quality learning environments. Some departments miss significant opportunities to use technology to enrich the learning environment, and some bypass opportunities to work with potential corporate partners to obtain new resources.

If we accept the argument that departments have reasons to change, our next question is "In what ways should they change?" What should they become? They should become democratic, learning-centered, collegial units, which are also healthily entrepreneurial in outlook; I think we would all like to work in such units. Yet how to get from here to there is no simple matter. The bulk of this volume is taken up by an outline of the steps that departments need to take in order to change. Step one involves asking each department to determine whether or not it holds one or more of five core academic values: collegiality, autonomy, academic freedom, disciplinary specialization, and support for reason and the scientific method. The second step then entails focusing on the gap between the values that people say they hold and the values that are reflected in their actions. For example, if people say they value collegiality, yet a careful analysis shows that adjuncts, assistant professors, and students have virtually no say in how the department works, then there is a gap between the ideal and the real that suggests that things need to be done differently.

However, formulae for change are not simple or straightforward, because the values that people in a department hold may be contradictory. I may value my narrow disciplinary specialty and seek the acclaim of my peers nationally. You may value interdisciplinary teaching and work with colleagues in other departments. Your desire for academic autonomy and freedom may suggest that your classroom is your castle and that what you do in terms of scholarship and research is purely your choice. Some faculty will see the department as an organization whose purpose it is to defend the right to define and control the nature of the work its members do. Others will see it as an organization whose purpose is to meet student needs. As the authors make clear, it is not easy to find a way to understand and to work with the mix of values represented within a department.

The third step they suggest is to begin by looking for common values in different guises as a way of initiating change. The authors explain that we should analyze how existing values will enhance or impede change and determine how to change or redefine values, how to build on existing values, and how we can strengthen existing subcultures that share the values we wish to support. If all department members argue in one way or another that they support reason and the scientific method, then all departmental discussions can be driven by discussions of data. If an administrator wants a department to focus more of its energies on teaching, then that administrator can find a group of faculty who are eager to see the importance of teaching elevated to that of research. This "subculture" can be supported with grants, money to attend meetings on pedagogy, and recognition through new awards for teaching. Whichever strategy we choose, we are cautioned to exercise great care in challenging and changing existing departmental values (e.g., scholarship, colleagueship, and individual freedom) lest we create a demoralized organization. I personally believe that assessing and building on or changing an organization's value systems is more difficult than the authors suggest. The authors advise us that, whatever we do, we must first understand the culture of the departments in our own universities before we set out to change them, and that is good advice.

The change agent must then craft a set of strategies for change that are appropriate to the local situation. Six are offered for the reader's consideration, with the understanding that normally an institution will need to use not just one strategy but some combination of them. The options include 1) changing the environment; 2) changing the type of person in the department; 3) confronting the existing values with an eye to change; 4) changing or building upon the existing organizational structure, such as the leader of the department, its reward systems, and so forth; 5) affecting the decision-making process in which the department is engaged, particularly by encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration and by working with systems of co-governance; and 6) creating alternative structures such as programs and offices, such as an office of undergraduate studies, that would take over functions currently performed by a department (p.4). Imagine that a department strongly values traditional research and publication in peer-reviewed journals but recognizes that it had better do something about its undergraduate classes. One department "solved" the problem by hiring a tenure-track faculty member who would specialize in teaching lower-division classes. Does this solution do more than allow people to continue to do what they have always done--publish--without having to feel guilty about undergraduate students? No, probably not, but changing the type of people who are in the department can also lead to eventual, wider change.

To initiate change in a department, administrators can use data. "Control of information gives the central administration the power to create a crisis the department did not even know existed" (p.38). We read about a nameless provost who compiled a list of departments and what they cost the university as a way of galvanizing people's attention. A college dean told faculty in one department that they certainly did not have to do what he wanted but, he pointed out, "I feed the horses that run in my direction" (p.39). The point here is that the administration clearly has a role to play in stimulating change. They are urged to be careful, however, not to challenge the traditional autonomy valued by departments. Preferred are positive approaches in which administrators help departments select chairs carefully, provide mentoring for these chairs, and construct and support forms of university governance that extend beyond the reach of the department.

The question "How can a university become a place where people can practice democracy?" is an underlying theme that never moves to center stage in this book, but answering it is critical to success in the process they are describing. If you want a democratic, student-centered department, you have to practice this not only in the department, but in the entire university. Democratic organizations are created through small daily practices that show respect across all members of the organization--students, faculty, and staff. The authors do not really draw the conclusions that their own data suggest. They provide a powerful and compelling argument that departments should be democratic. However, they also provide evidence that departments are anything but, and they suggest that without outside intervention--sometimes in the form of selecting new chairs to provide new leadership--nothing will change. This seems to ignore the fact that chairs must work in the environments in which they find themselves and are seen as colleagues, not administrators, by their peers.

In an earlier work on departmental politics, Crothers (1991) describes departments as "feudal," "caste-based" systems where egalitarianism is trumpeted, but where the "counter-ideology" draws caste lines between part-timers, full-timers, research faculty, and those who teach undergraduates, to name just a few of the divisions (p. 48). This too is troubling, for our authors, after advocating for departments that practice collegiate entrepreneurialism and that hold themselves collectively responsible for well-defined outcomes, cite literature that claims there are none in the entire nation that function as a team or serve as true learning organizations (p.54)!

The reasons why departments are resistant to change are well known but I will mention them here. When a new faculty member comes to town she wants to know where to shop for groceries, how to get her syllabus ready for class, how to get money for an upcoming convention, and how to get tenured and promoted. The people who answer these questions are her departmental colleagues. They socialize her to the meaning of work, the meaning of democracy, and they are the ones who tell her that the latest memo from the dean or communication from the provost is dangerous and that the suggested change should be resisted. In short, the department is the main agent of socialization and the main source of one's definition of self. In times of change, the dense network of the department becomes a source of meaningful resistance, the interpreter of the texts sent by the administration. At the same time, however, it can be the very organization that limits people's opportunities to participate in democratic governance. Departments can be a powerful source of change or the most conservative entity in a large organization.

Then do we have, in academic departments, the kind of working environments that allow for the change we need? If not, how can we approach this problem? Our authors describe two basic ways: one is to hold the department collectively responsible for very specific outcomes (e.g., to improve the retention rate of students); the other is to create solutions external to the department (e.g., centers for teaching, awards for teaching that extend beyond the borders of the department, remediation centers, centers for advising, etc.).

The authors present, for the reader concerned about how to implement the changes that contemporary universities must make, an exceptional source of information. They give us information about departments, about how they work, and about how they need to change. Though they have clear ideas of what changes are needed within institutions of higher education, they do not see departments as agents of change, and they see despotism existing side by side with democratic resistance, as is the case with any institution. The book makes a powerful case for why departments should change, and the ways they might change, but cannot provide a ready or easily assessable set of strategies or clear guidelines for provosts, deans, or chairs interested in transforming their departments.


Posted November 15, 2001
Modified November 19, 2001

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2001 by Scott G. McNall

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