Why Universities Reorganize

Brian Taylor

August 15, 2010

Last month I received an e-mail advertising an online seminar called "Academic Restructuring: Guidelines for Academic Leaders." The blurb promised to help administrators who are leading reorganization campaigns. How? By detailing proven methods to prevent morale problems, and even attrition, among faculty members disenchanted with the change.

The idea that a proprietary concern would market a seminar on how to manage the damage control from a campus reorganization is but one indication of how ubiquitous such efforts have become in higher education.

The current fiscal crisis has been a major impetus for colleges and universities to undertake reorganizations, but, more often than not, institutions report a combination of reasons.

  • In 2009, Arizona State University announced its second major academic reorganization within a six-month period. It involved more than a dozen of its schools, colleges, and institutes. While university officials touted the substantial "intellectual synergies" that would result from the changes, they also hoped to save close to $3-million in the process. University press releases proclaimed that the changes would "not reduce ASU's academic offerings, eliminate any tenured or tenure-track appointments, or diminish access for students."
  • At the same time, Northeastern University undertook its third major restructuring in the past dozen years. The administration divided its College of Arts and Sciences into three smaller colleges and redesignated its College of Criminal Justice as a school within the newly formed College of Social Sciences and Humanities. Northeastern's provost told the Alumni Magazine that the administration made the changes to aid the university's "transformation to a more academically selective institution with a higher research profile."
  • Also in 2009, Florida Atlantic University announced a reorganization that would eliminate 170 faculty and staff positions, 140 of which were already vacant. The 30 layoffs included five tenured professors in the university's College of Engineering and Computer Science. Officials declared that the changes were in response to a nearly $17-million cut in state support.
  • This year the University of Northern Iowa reduced its number of administrative divisions from four to three, thereby eliminating a vice president's position, and it trimmed its number of colleges by merging its College of Natural Sciences and the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. The university's provost was quoted as saying that the restructuring was intended to strengthen academic offerings as well as trim administrative costs to best serve the needs of students.
  • Similarly, Eastern Washington University's response to recent budget cuts was to reorganize its academic units, including reducing the number of colleges from six to four and reconfiguring several academic departments.

At my own campus, Idaho State University, we undertook an extensive process to devise a reorganization plan. Four faculty committees held 57 meetings, eight of them public forums, to investigate proposed changes. We began with three primary goals: to reorganize units in such a way as to increase efficiency and streamline operations; to enable our institution to emerge from a period of fiscal challenge academically stronger, not weaker; and, if possible, to realize a financial savings that could be applied to the state's substantial and continuing budget cuts for higher education.

We accomplished all three of those goals with a reorganization plan that was eventually approved by the State Board of Education. Briefly, we consolidated the College of Pharmacy and the College of Health Professions to create the Division of Health Sciences. We merged science departments from the College of Arts and Sciences with the College of Engineering to create a College of Science and Engineering. And the remaining departments in the College of Arts and Sciences became the new College of Arts and Letters.

One of our main goals, besides creating more academically viable units, was to emerge from stringent state budget cuts without having to lay off faculty and staff members, mandate furloughs, or make across-the-board salary cuts. We managed to accomplish those objectives, in large part because of the savings realized from the reorganization.

Clearly, the two dominant themes in our reorganization, and countless others over the last few years, have been realizing savings that could be applied to a substantial budget cut and creating more efficient and academically sound units.

A reorganization usually doesn't just affect academic departments. Part of the major changes at Northern Iowa involved eliminating the division of marketing and advancement. At Idaho State, not only did we reorganize academic units, but we downsized areas in student affairs and consolidated academic student-support units under a single umbrella, the newly formed Student Success Center, which should allow us to improve student retention. Other universities have reorganized units within finance, administration, and athletics.

The reorganization trend in academe has caused a great deal of apprehension, and even anger, among some faculty members. A colleague who recently attended a two-week training session for new provosts reported to me that fully half of the attendees claimed that their institutions were considering or had already undertaken a reorganization of academic units and, of those institutions, more than three-quarters were facing the threat of no-confidence votes against the provost, the president, or both.

Faculty unrest over restructuring is becoming quite common. When Middle Tennessee State University reorganized its academic units recently, some professors staged protests on the president's lawn. And at Idaho State last spring, the faculty held two votes, first against our reorganization plan and later against me as the chief academic officer—that despite the fact that we had protected every faculty and staff position on the campus.

The obvious question: Why is there so much faculty dissent nationwide about campus reorganization efforts—so much that proprietary organizations are now offering seminars on how to manage the damage control?

One answer is that change is difficult for anyone, but that seems to be especially true for academics whose training and professional lives are guided by decades-old traditions. Many faculty members find it difficult to imagine a way of doing things different from what they are accustomed to, despite the promised benefits of a reorganization.

A fellow provost who had faced considerable opposition to reorganization on her campus said to me, "I don't know why the faculty are so threatened by restructuring. It's like cleaning out and reorganizing your closet at home for a more efficient use of your space. It just makes good sense."

Having experienced major reorganizations on more than one campus in my career, I can report that major change always seems to generate considerable angst. But the corollary to that anxiety is that once the change is in place, many who once opposed it often begin to embrace it. What once seemed so foreign and unimaginable soon becomes a source of optimism as faculty and staff members begin to realize the benefits of the new organization.

Perhaps if, from the outset, more of us avoided a knee-jerk resistance to change and instead attempted to imagine the possibilities, there would be little need for campus unrest, no-confidence votes, or seminars on damage control.

Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and co-editor with John Presley of "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives From America's Academic Leaders" (Paradigm). He can be contacted at