Arizona State University has become known as the most innovative university in the United States and proudly touts its academic reorganization, which it claims has broken down silos, encouraged collaboration, and served as a catalyst for interdisciplinary research.
To better understand this reorganization, six members of Team Six (Kathy Stoner, Tom Dormody, Rebecca Palacios, Chris Erickson, Oscar Perez, and Dan Howard) traveled to Arizona State University where we spent two days interviewing faculty and staff about the administrative structure of the university, its impact on research productivity and academic programs, and the strategies used by the university to obtain faculty buy-in for change.
Administratively, ASU is an amalgamation of colleges, schools, departments, institutes, and centers. Some of these units, such as the School of Business, closely resemble their counterparts at other universities. Other units, including the College of Arts and Sciences, are more unconventional, with a combination of departments and schools, and with faculty within schools organized into “faculties” rather than departments. A common characteristic of all academic administrative units is that they are large, for example despite having more faculty members than all of NMSU, the College of Arts and Sciences at ASU has only 18 administrative units, compared to the 26 that exist in the College of Arts and Sciences at NMSU.
Another distinguishing characteristic is joint appointments. Senior faculty members are expected to have affiliations with more than one department, which breaks down silos, encourages interactions, and leads to novel partnerships and research programs. Strong interdisciplinary education and research efforts are deeply embedded in all aspects of ASU including the interdisciplinary faculties within the schools.
The reorganization of ASU began about 15 years ago, and was driven by the vision of President Michael Crow, who believed that the traditional organization of faculty into units focused on a discipline was stifling creativity and interdisciplinary research. His vision was a faculty organized around a function or problem, which would drive innovation, invention, and new knowledge.
Initially, reorganization was incentivized by reallocating resources to units that were willing to rethink their mission and consolidate. Later, reorganization and consolidation was driven by the economic realities of the Great Recession. A common theme throughout was an entrepreneurial spirit that encouraged risk-taking, a willingness to differentiate workloads, and a focus on student success.
Although not all consolidations have gone smoothly, the consensus among the faculty and staff members with whom we spoke at ASU is that the re-organization of ASU and the willingness to embrace change has been good for the university and has been accompanied by dramatic growth in enrollment and in the research enterprise.
Can a similar transformation occur at NMSU? It is certainly possible, but will occur only if we are willing to have open discussions about the possibility that our current academic administrative structure is not ideal and alternative structures may lead to synergies and efficiencies in teaching and research.
We look forward to these discussions, which will be initiated when alternative models have been fleshed out well enough to merit consideration by the broader NMSU community. In the meantime, we encourage faculty members to share any insights they have about academic reorganization with any of us, or with any other member of Team 6.
With all best wishes,
Dan, Kathy, Tom, Chris, Becky, and Oscar