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?