Periodically, universities announce their intention to consolidate or outright cut academic departments. Such a proposal is currently on the table at the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, the Chancellor there has proposed creating, for example, a “School of Humanities within the proposed College of Liberal and Performing Arts” where “there would still be programs, courses and majors in history, English, philosophy, philosophy and languages, cultures and international studies. But there would no longer be a departmental structure to support them.”
Such plans are typically presented as an opportunity to (1) cut costs and (2) promote interdisciplinary collaboration and “innovative” thinking. Both of these presumed opportunities are built on false narratives about higher education and are dangerous to our common enterprise.
Arguably, consolidating departments into larger units has the potential to save some money in staff and related bureaucratic costs. Academic departments typically have support staff and fewer of those individuals will be needed if restructuring amalgamates and thereby reduces the number of academic units. But such savings are a pittance in the grand scheme of things. Support staff are often poorly paid and the financial savings of eliminating a few secretaries or administrative assistants would hardly solve the budget deficits that many universities face.
Additionally troubling is the administrative assertion that there is a kind of intellectual inefficiency that results from departments being disciplinarily distinct. Breaking down those silo-ed barriers, it’s argued, will foster collaboration and multi/cross/interdisciplinary projects. All well and good. And I fully support this kind of work.
But until all academics attend graduate schools built on this interdisciplinary model and attend conferences and publish in journals that have erased all disciplinary singularity and identity, faculty are not likely to collaborate simply because they now belong to a “School of Humanities” instead of an English department or now have an office next door to someone outside their discipline. This is simply the higher ed version of the “open office” plan–the notion that if you throw people together in a shared space–physical or metaphorical–the innovative ideas will simply jump off the page and be ushered to fruition. And guess what? The effectiveness of the open office plan has been largely disproved by several recent studies. While consolidating departments does not include moving to a different configuration of actual workspaces, it does operate on the (unproven) assertion that the thing holding back interdisciplinary work is the self-containment of academic departments.
In fact, interdisciplinary research is stifled not by departmental singularity, but a host of other structural impediments that are practically written into the DNA of academe. A recent report funded by the NSF and examining the need for but also impediments to interdisciplinary work in the sciences discovered that “‘excellence-based’ journal rankings have a systematic bias against interdisciplinary research. This may create or reinforce disincentives for researchers to engage in interdisciplinary research. When journal rankings are used to help determine the allocation of prestige and resources for faculty, it can hinder interdisciplinary research.” In addition, although women have a demonstrated greater propensity to engage in interdisciplinary research, they also worry about the effects this will have on their career advancement: “compared with men, women expressed more desire to pursue additional opportunities for collaborative and interdisciplinary research. However, women also perceived greater institutional constraints. Women agreed more than men with the statement, ‘I would like to pursue more interdisciplinary research, but only after I am more established in my career.’ Compared with men, women agreed less with the statement, ‘Participation in collaborative research is viewed positively during the tenure/promotion review process.'” With such impediments and disincentives in place it is little wonder that interdisciplinary work doesn’t occur more often.
The insidious effect of these false narratives about financial and intellectual inefficiency is to shift the blame to the academic side of the house. It suggests, incorrectly, that the university is in financial trouble because faculty are not responding nimbly to student interest because they’re sequestered away in their departments instead of developing cool interdisciplinary programs that will draw the students in. I find it hard to believe that the current combined budgetary/enrollment crisis facing some campuses is result of the History department being distinct from the English department. Being flexible and responsive with curriculum might allow us to create opportunities for student-designed majors and other programs that blur disciplinary distinctions, and perhaps would attract students, but such efforts are not going to solve the multi-million dollar budget crises proliferating across college campuses. The best way to retain and graduate students (thereby ensuring the financial health of the university), in fact, is to invest in faculty and student support services.
And despite these narratives shifting budgetary blame to academic departments, such reform programs are typically enacted with little if any consultation with the faculty in those very departments. Some faculty at Southern Illinois are rightly arguing that collapsing departments into larger units has curricular and other implications that fall within the domain of shared governance. While it would undoubtedly take more time, wouldn’t it be more interesting and constructive to ask faculty to be participants in these discussions, encouraging them to identify thematic overlap and potential areas for interdisciplinary collaboration? This, however, will be hard work. Departments can undoubtedly and demonstrably behave in unproductively silo-ed ways and shifting that culture will be no small feat. But forcing such decisions will only destroy faculty morale, which in turn will yield little or none of the results that chancellors and others claim to be so desirable.