The Why and Whither of Academic Reorganization at Buena Vista University

The first thing that bears addressing is what Buena Vista University’s academic reorganization is not. It is not, in any way, prioritization. No program will be eliminated, and no reduction in force will occur because of academic reorganization. In fact, I am unaware of any discussion of a looming prioritization taking place anywhere in the university—hard stop.

Academic reorganization is an attempt to rationalize BVU’s school structure to position the university for future success.

So, why do it? Many have asked, not unreasonably, what the matter is with the current system. Answering that question directly is touchy because I do not want to appear to gratuitously criticize the past, nor do I want to imply that present individuals or efforts are somehow deficient. They are not. Furthermore, I much prefer to build for the future than tear down the past. Nonetheless, we must candidly confront the shortcomings inherent in the current structure.

Last spring, I spent the better part of an all-faculty meeting presenting four views of the current school configuration using four models described by Lee Bolman and Joan Gallos in their book Reframing Academic Leadership. I applied the four models to BV’s organization and explained how it was restraining, whether from a structural, political, human resource, or symbolic perspective. I took this somewhat abstract approach because I wanted to avoid inadvertent and inappropriate criticism of the past or of individuals as I mention above. I also thought the faculty would appreciate an analysis of the situation through the lens of highly respected organizational theorists.

Despite that effort, I continue to hear questions about what the problem is as well as some common objections, so I will respond with more specifics, admitting that I have only observed BV culture for a brief year-and-a-half, but understanding that I developed these concerns before arriving here and know that my predecessor shared them.

The structure we are now pursuing is a three-school organization with a school of education, a school of business, and a school of arts and sciences (or some other name). We have settled on this model in response to a request by President Merchant that there be three schools. The School of Education and Exercise Science will likely not change much although where we house exercise science is an open question. Similarly, there are no proposed or likely changes to the Siebens School of Business. All other academic departments, including, perhaps, exercise science, will be part of the new school of arts and sciences although a name for this school has yet to be explored.

While a school of arts and sciences would be a relative behemoth, as we adjust our faculty governance system, we could easily offset undue dominance through intentional design. Most importantly, a school of arts and sciences solves one of the difficulties BV has long endured with ostensibly little cognizance.

The BV vision statement starts, “By 2018, BVU will be recognized as a leader in blending a strong liberal arts education with professionally oriented career and life preparation for an increasingly diverse student population.” Thus, one of the university’s governing statements squarely associates the institution with liberal arts education. Similarly, BV’s general education program, which I have argued has as much or more importance than even major programs, is infused with the liberal arts. Finally and admirably, the faculty and staff of BV have what might be called a liberal arts sensibility. So, why does the current school structure not reflect that same commitment? We have scattered the liberal arts across three schools at BV. Our very structure does not honor and reflect the commitment to the liberal arts we at BV claim.

A school of arts and sciences or of liberal arts would not only make clear the university’s commitment to its liberal arts mission, but it would also give a home to the distributive portion of general education.

But there are other reasons to improve the current structure. These reasons may seem overly administrative to some, but that stance suggests that administrative and faculty concerns never overlap, a false dichotomy.

Several people have suggested that the current dean structure works just fine; “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” is the expression. Putting aside the abhorrent anti-progressive message of that sentiment—a message that flies in the face of the whole educational enterprise—the system is, indeed, “broke.” For instance, consider the way some of our deans are forced to operate as super-department chairs rather than fully functioning deans. Again, this observation is no criticism of the current deans. In fact, we owe them deep respect and gratitude for their excellent performance within the given restrains. Nonetheless, those restraints hold back the whole of Academic Affairs as deans (with the recent exception of the dean of Education and Exercise Science) are forced to perform the duties usually handled by department chairs. Meanwhile, the Deans’ Council suspends operation in the summer because three deans are off contract. As a result, progress is annually arrested.

Consequently, we are, perhaps, far behind many of our peers on curricular infrastructure and assessment. Again, this observation is not a criticism, but it is a fact. We are just now developing program outcomes and embarking on systematic program review at a remarkable pace. But, we still lack university course-level definitions and, subsequently, rational course sequencing as well as course objectives. You will all be further immersed in these important matters as we approach our decennial reaccreditation visit by the Higher Learning Commission in academic year 2020-2021. Suffice it to say that while I believe BV does a superb job preparing students, we have no way to prove it. And, we can always do even better at advancing student learning.

BV is at a critical juncture, and we lack the structure to meet the growing challenge of creating a culture of assessment while developing new programs to grow enrollment. We are lucky that the current deans are so effective and that we have strong leadership in the areas of assessment and general education. I am proud of the progress we have achieved since last year but am chary of relying on outstanding individuals to secure continuing and long-lasting success. The current structure does little to support those extraordinary individuals, be they deans or directors.

I have also heard some of the specific objections to academic reorganization, and they are serious and worth addressing. Some have observed that a School of Arts and Sciences would need a full-time dean as well as division or area chairs, and they have suggested that such an administration would be costly. I am not at liberty to discuss current or future compensation packages for administrators, but I am uniquely positioned to understand the overall situation and charged with overseeing it. Let me assure you that such an administrative framework would increase costs minimally if at all.

Another related concern is with what has been termed “administrative bloat,” which assumes that what exists now (and has for decades!) is well designed and right sized for the present day. Some say that they cannot understand what a dean of A&S would do beyond what a dean does now, and such conjecture has the appearance of validity so long as one imagines that the deans currently are able to do all they could and should if freed from the bounds of the current system. Once again, I am dazzled by all that the deans accomplish despite inherent limitations, but those limitations are artificial vestiges of decisions made decades ago for reasons that no longer exist in reality and, to a large degree, in memory. Having served as a school dean with seven department chairs, I can assure you that deans could operate on a different level than is true now. And, I reassert that the present shortcomings of our curricula—namely the absence of outcomes, objectives, definitions, sequencing, etc.—could more easily be addressed by a more functional and year-round Deans’ Council.

Moreover, lest we be deceived, at the moment we are well behind where we need to be with regard to HLC assessment and accreditation as well as developing our own culture of self-improvement. This state is no one’s fault, or—perhaps more precisely—fault is irrelevant. It is important to acknowledge that we may get very close to reaching our goals by 2020-2021, but we are less likely to fully achieve them. In addition, our progress must be ongoing and sustainable beyond that date. Nonetheless, we must try to reach our goals, of course, and try our very best, which is considerable.

Finally, and not for nothing, academic reorganization is a form of self-assessment and one that HLC will respect. The very fact that we have embarked on this process will stand us in good stead. That is the extrinsic benefit. Intrinsically, for the reasons I have rehearsed here and elsewhere and for several more reason besides, it is simply the right thing to do if we want to be the best for our students and their learning. We all want the same thing, and academic reorganization will help us succeed.

I welcome responses.


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