Faculty insights drive university realignment

Every hundred years or so, it’s a good idea to evaluate how your organization is structured and whether a bit of tweaking would allow it to run more efficiently, productively or logically. The challenge is, people don’t always welcome change or agree on how it should be designed.

Washington State University faculty currently are evaluating the university’s academic structure (how colleges, schools and departments relate and report to one another) with hopes of doing some realigning in selected areas in the months ahead.

The process kicked off last fall, when the Faculty Senate and Provost Robert Bates jointly appointed Chuck Pezeshki, chair of the Faculty Senate, and Fran McSweeney, vice provost for Faculty Affairs, to co-chair the Committee on Academic Structure.

The need for some realignment has been suggested by various individuals and groups for many years. A recent example came during the formulation of the university’s Strategic Plan, with Design Team 5 recommending that a college of arts and design be split off from the College of Liberal Arts.

Reality is, some realignment has already occurred. In 1999, the School of Biological Sciences and the School of Molecular Biosciences were formed, binding similar departments together. In 2004, the Department of Economics in the College of Business and Economics merged with the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences to form the School of Economic Sciences.

What’s the driving force?
“It’s important to note that this process is not driven by budgetary concerns,” said McSweeney. “We’re not looking at what programs to eliminate. What’s driving this is the question of whether or not our structure is appropriate for our function. Do we have a structure that can help us meet the goals of our strategic plan — providing the best possible undergraduate education, research scholarship, graduate education?”

To guide its efforts, the realignment committee assembled an outline titled “Academic Realignment: Positioning WSU for the Future” (see http://www.wsu.edu/afw/AcadRealgn.rtf). It states that the “optimal structure should improve the visibility and functioning of the university” by:
• creating synergies in teaching and creative activities,
• freeing resources for innovation by eliminating duplication,
• creating more coherent units that could more effectively achieve their goals,
• creating larger units that would be more visible at the national level,
• improving the efficiency and effectiveness of administration, and
• enhancing opportunities for engagement with our publics.

Three phase process
The committee divided the project into three phases: 1) gathering information; 2) synthesizing the information and writing a report about the most viable realignment strategies; 3) presenting the report and proposals to the community for comments.

During the first phase, which was completed Jan. 31, Pezeshki and McSweeney met with academic chairs and deans at every college and branch campus, as well as with student groups, informal faculty groups and the Faculty Senate. Their goal was to gather information and opinions about how units were organized and what kind of restructuring should take place.

The committee also asked anyone who had ideas about realignment to send in a 1- to 2-page white paper. Fourteen were received by the Jan. 31 deadline.

“The process has been guided by the will of the faculty, not by preconceived notions about our ideal structure,” said Bates.

Now, the committee is entering phase two: reviewing information and preparing to write a report. Members hope to complete this step in the next several months and move into the final phase at the beginning of fall semester.

Major realignment
There are three major realignments that are being considered. They include:
1. Reorganizing the College of Liberal Arts
2. Organizing a unit having to do with health or medical sciences
3. Organizing a unit devoted to environment and natural resource sciences.

“We received a wide diversity of opinions in the information gathering process,” said McSweeney. “For example, there are a large number of people who don’t believe the current College of Liberal Art structure is working, that it is too diverse and too large. They say it’s impossible for a dean to understand, let alone represent, all the divergent disciplines.”

Other people say Liberal Arts should stay together because many units span both social sciences and humanities — for example American Studies.

“For people whose research spans and integrates both those fields, dividing the college is a bad idea,” said McSweeney.

Bates, McSweeney, Pezeshki and the committee all recognize that there is no one organizational structure that is going to be optimal for everyone in the university.

“When we say that the process is based on faculty opinion, that does not mean that any one faculty member’s opinion will prevail,” Bates said during a recent universitywide dialogue. “Faculty opinion is as divided about realignment as it is about other topics.”

But, said McSweeney, in the end, the realignment plans “on the average are going to advance the overall faculty position at large.”

Liberal Arts
Regarding the College of Liberal Arts, McSweeney said, “The English department is very much opposed (to a split). The problem is that most of the chairs in the social sciences are in favor of this. Department chairs in fine arts and theatre arts have also expressed support for a separate college of arts and related disciplines.

“When I say support, what I mean is the department chairs are in favor of it in principle. When the details are worked out, they could be opposed to it.”

The committee currently does not know exactly what a reorganization of Liberal Arts would look like, but if it were split in two, said McSweeney, one might include social and behavioral sciences and the other arts and related disciplines.

But differences of opinion are expected. When the School of Molecular Biosciences and the School of Biological Sciences were formed, McSweeney said, “there were folks at the time who were strongly opposed to it. But today, by all reports, that move has been highly successful.”

Fear of change
The biggest hurdle in this process, Pezeshki said, is a “fear of change.”

“People don’t like change and sometimes are afraid of it. But reality is, we have to change and we have to re-evaluate,” he said. “We’re getting the message from the state (Legislature) about the way the world is, so we have to change. No organization in these times is immune.

“Fundamental change is difficult when budgetary times are hard, because people suspect ulterior motives behind what’s actually happening. That’s the whole reason why I’m focusing on transparency. We want people to know the cards are always going to be on the table.

“And it’s working. Every time there is a little pocket of fear the pops up, I call people or people call me and we talk about it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be any reaching for the Maalox in the whole process, but so far the deans and the faculty have been pretty receptive and come up with some very creative ideas that otherwise probably wouldn’t have been put out there.”

In the end, though, he added, everything will have to be negotiated.

One positive impact the realignment can have, Pezeshki said, is making various units of the university more marketable on a regional and national level. In fact, he said that if putting the university in a better marketing position is the “sole benefit” that comes out of the reorganization, he was going to be “way happy.”

“How we market ourselves is vitally important to the quality of students we get, as well as to our success in gaining national recognition and funding for the great work we do.”

Others on the committee include: Cindy Corbett, Intercollegiate College of Nursing; Don Dillman, Departments of Community and Rural Sociology; Linda Fox, University Extension; Jerry Goodstein, College of Business and Economics in Vancouver; Carol Ivory, Department of Fine Arts; Greg Kessler, School of Architecture and Construction Management; Ron Mittelhammer, School of Economic Sciences; and Ray Quock, College of Pharmacy.