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The Department 2.0: Reimagining Academic Departments for the Twenty-First Century

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What is the key to bringing American higher education into the twenty-first century? Harness the faculty’s entrepreneurial spirit, talent, and passion, and couple it with management and authority centered in departments.


The posting below looks at the role departments can play in making significant changes in American higher education. It is by Don Chu* and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Fall, 2016, Vol. 27, No. 2. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone:  (203) 643-8066} []



Rick Reis

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The Department 2.0: Reimagining Academic Departments for the Twenty-First Century

The grocery shelves in Moscow, Stalingrad, and all of the Soviet Union were stocked full with vodka, but there were few potatoes to be found. The centralized planning commission of the Communist Secretariat had decreed that vodka production would be prioritized, even if it meant that potato supplies were to be allocated for alcohol production rather than for basic consumption. Regional grocery store managers had no authority to decide what would be purchased with their meager resources; budgets had stagnated as inflation had eaten away
at the buying power of the ruble. When local managers were able to locate the most needed foodstuffs, they made sure that the central planners knew nothing of what was really happening, and over the postwar decades, the gap between central directives and peoples’ needs continued to grow until it reached intolerable levels. The people were starving.

While at first glance there may appear
to be little resemblance between Soviet-style management and typical American college governance, there are too many parallels to ignore. In both, central managers control most every aspect of budgets and planning, while local managers, those closest to the needs of “the people,” officially have little real authority to use resources where they are most needed. In the age of the Internet, social media, and global competition, ponderous Soviet-style bureaucracy and micromanagement has proven to be a failure in the face of rapid change and global competition. Clearly, the modus operandi at twenty-first-century American colleges and universities must change.

That’s why this article, as well as the follow-up articles that will appear in The Department Chair, was written—to assist academic leaders to reimagine their departments and how they are managed in the twenty-first century.

Where We Are and How We Got Here: Bureaucracy and Siloes

At the turn of the twentieth century, American schools were small in size, with most having fewer than one hundred faculty. In 1911, Frederick Taylor’s principles of scientific management were devised to manage assembly
line labor. Taylor’s principles were applied to American colleges, which were then broken up into specialized silos called departments that were governed through bureaucratic hierarchy. University policies were written that recognized the faculty’s rights of academic freedom and that established faculty as the final arbiters of curriculum, while presidents, vice presidents, and deans monopolized bureaucratic authority over budget and other business matters. Between the administration’s power over bureaucratic management structures on the one hand, and the faculty’s power over the means of production (curriculum, teaching) on the other, an academic détente developed. While both theoretically had the power to make changes in their spheres of influence, neither was willing to do so without the support of the other. As political stability ensued, the result has been a resistance to change.

Critics of twentieth-century university management have pointed to several factors that led to a glacial pace of change in American higher education. These include the siloed nature of departments and faculty; the multiplicity of curricular decision makers, all of whom have a virtual veto; the perceived need of public institutions that depend on taxpayer money and tuition-driven private institutions that depend on positive publicity for enrollments and contributions; severely limited financial authority for middle-and department-level managers that leaves picayune resources available for initiatives at the program level; and the high turnover rate and paucity of chair preparation that makes long-term progress problematic.

In the nineteenth century, top-down management was sufficient in the age of water and steam power but not in the twenty-first-century cloud-based world. Today, creativity, teamwork, and agility win. Organizations that adapt best to accelerated change will be the ones best positioned to survive and perhaps even to thrive. At one level, think BYU-Idaho and Southern New Hampshire University. At another level, think Stanford.

Is Change Coming?

In the last forty years, the world has changed a great deal. In 1978, the Dow peaked at 831. A new three-bedroom home was $54,800. Gas was 63 cents a gallon, and Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the Framework for Peace at Camp David. Slide rules were the engineer’s primary computing tool, and an Introduction to Psychology text cost $20. Within that same time frame, however, the following has not changed in American colleges:

• New academic degree proposals can take three or more years for approval and implementation.

• “Gen Ed” remains primarily “Western Civ.”

• Most campuses are underused for 25–33 percent of the year.

• Despite China’s global influence, and the global preeminence of Mandarin, Chinese language and culture programs are rarer on campuses than Italian.

• Faculty workload is still based on contact hours, and student credits are based on seat time.

• And that Introduction to Psychology textbook now costs about $160.

Management’s modus operandi in American higher education is the same as it has been for more than one hundred years. Fiscal and legal authority is concentrated at the top, while academic freedom, political muscle,
and curricular authority reside with the faculty. American higher education is mired in academic management 1.0, with any Soviet-style bureaucratic directive for change running headlong into the proletariat faculty who can go about their everyday business buffered from change by academic freedom, senates, unions, administration’s aversion to bad press, and the knowledge that tenure means that faculty can outlast almost any administration or politician.

The Key to Change Higher Education

What is the key to bringing American higher education into the twenty-first century? Harness the faculty’s entrepreneurial spirit, talent, and passion, and couple it with management and authority centered in departments. Led by the chair and the faculty-administrative leadership team, departments will be primarily responsible for setting and reaching their goals as well as managing their own resources and professional development. Why at the department level? Because it is there where fiscal authority from above meets with faculty talents, responsibilities, and rights. Because the rubber meets the road in departments—where students are educated, where ideas originate, and where faculty teams can transform the lives of students, the life of the campus, and the life of the academy. It’s where faculty leaders and chairs know what is needed and where investments must be made. They know where money can be saved and where opportunities are in the environment. Reimagining departments so that they become 2.0 academic departments is the key to higher education’s transformation. Success in a rapidly changing higher education environment depends on the talent, training, and experience of faculty in department units, whose size, agility, and commitment to mission allow them to seize opportunities and to position themselves for the future. The dynamic engines of twenty- first-century colleges and universities are 2.0 departments. Good departments enhance faculty achievements, student learning, and professional contributions to the college and university, and position the department for the future. Great departments can elevate an entire institution. Think veterinary science and viticulture at the University of California Davis. Think architecture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. And when faculty in great departments catalyze breakthroughs, they can transform the world. Think electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford.

What Are 2.0 Departments?

The goal is to develop 2.0 departments, but what are they? They are exciting places to learn and work because faculty’s talent, passion,
and energy are felt in the classrooms, labs,
and even the office hallways. The strongest departments are composed of thought leaders, and their faculty are independent productive engines. Because they are responsible for reaching goals and managing their resources, 2.0 departments are highly regarded on their campuses. Their faculty are recognized as responsible citizens and are respected as scholars and professionals as well as for their preparation of students. Because they have money independent of state and campus appropriations and know where they can trim in tough financial times, 2.0 departments can ride out budget swings. They carefully prune their expenditures and course schedules, thereby maximizing the efficiency of production and the drain on personnel budgets. They can adjust to enrollment fluctuations because they have curriculum and courses that are in high demand by their majors, majors from other departments, and undergraduates fulfilling their general education requirements. Faculty of all ranks in 2.0 departments are professionally developed, and their graduates are coveted for jobs and graduate school. Strong departments consistently develop faculty for leadership positions, and their faculty are influential at college, campus, and national levels. Strong departments will thrive in the future due to their political and fiscal positions, curricular agility, and strong values. By matching faculty talent with constituent needs, leaders look for opportunities to build 2.0 departments by developing teams and supporting them with resources, including time, money, and talent, to get the job done. They attract talent who want to work there.

The next question is: How are 2.0 departments developed? ▲

*Don Chu is professor emeritus and former dean of the School of Education at National University and author of The Department Chair Primer (Jossey-Bass 2012). He will be presenting on this topic at the 34th annual Academic Chairpersons Conference in New Orleans, February 8–10, 2017. To learn more, see the conference ad on page 27. Email: