Academic Departments: How They Work, How They Change

Academic Departments: How They Work, How They Change

Academic Departments: How They Work, How They Change

Academic Departments: How They Work, How They Change


A practical tool for instigating change, this report, supported by in-depth studies at eight college campuses, reveals how change can be effected at many different levels withing the academic departmental structure. Demonstrates how centralized resources and administrative unites, unions, student and others can impact departmental power, and outlines effective steps to take to initiate reform and new directions.


Higher education is in the throes of unprecedented change—interdisciplinary research and teaching, assessment, tenure, performance indicators, cost control, diversified student body and faculty, internationalization, environmentalism, technology, and the list goes on. Several critics suggest that one of the barriers to these many changes is the departmental structure. Departments grew in significance over the last century as faculty specialized more narrowly in particular areas of research. They reflect specialized research and teaching fields. Can you imagine universities without academic departments? If you are an administrator or faculty member, probably not. But to anyone else, this structure is often elusive and its importance not apparent.

Critics over the last 30 years have called for the radical dismantling of academic departments. in particular, critics in the 1970s cited departmental structures as a barrier to interdisciplinary teaching and research and to the application of research to real-world problems that were not encapsulated in any one discipline. This last decade has seen numerous concerns about the continued viability of the structure of academic departments. Yet Barbara Walvoord and her coauthors recommend a very different direction from that of previous commentators. They suggest that enlisting the academic departmental structure rather than trying to circumvent it can fulfill the changes the public and the politicians desire. the authors' main premise is that the department can be used as a lever to create change if people who instigate change understand the culture of departments. Walvoord and her coauthors spent several years engaged in an intensive study of change in eight departments and in programs that enlisted many other departments in change efforts. Their careful research can be a guide for campuses across the country.

Understanding the departmental culture means examining the academic values that have been associated with this structure, such as collegiality, autonomy, academic freedom, and specialization. By understanding these values, change agents can build on them, redefine them, or work to change them if they appear to conflict with the direction of change. But, the authors argue, the first step is to understand the structure, in order to make the needed and appropriate structural modifications.

Understanding the close connection between the department and the discipline is another important lever. Institutional change can be accomplished through the . . .

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