Critical Components of Departmental Success

Departments are called the cornerstones of the academy. For departments to remain viable in the rapidly changing higher education context, they must balance at least four components of their organization: vision, power, structure, and resources.


To be powerful, visions should pull, not push. A vision should be compelling to department members. Often, however, a vision is hastily conceived and prematurely presented. Not surprising, such visions garner negative responses. One has to ask, “Why would anyone, including faculty, staff, or students, want to go there?” Consider some factors that need to be addressed in developing a positive vision.

Many faculty have known only growth as the norm, so their perception is if the department isn’t expanding, it is withering. Chairs should clarify that stabilizing growth, staying the same, or even having a more focused, smaller program may be appropriate and viable.

The vision should be based upon fundamental values of the unit, which need to be explicit and shared. A process, sometimes facilitated by an outside consultant, will be required to articulate, agree upon, and work toward common values.

Faculty have their own personal visions that need to be incorporated into that of the department. Senge (1991) provides some useful ideas on how to help faculty understand that their vision is a part of the larger departmental vision. Chairs should discuss personal vision with faculty, help them understand that what is in the department’s best interest is also in their own best interest, and work with them to develop a departmental vision that best serves all involved. Though the process may be time-consuming, the time and effort will have a high payoff.

In developing a new vision, department members should develop new ways of thinking and talking about the department in terms that are positive, vivid, strong, and – perhaps most important – cooperative.

Vision is crucial and dynamic, not just a string of words. The words should reflect values, aspirations, and hopes – powerful motivators to everyone, especially to faculty, who often have strong intrinsic motivation. Commitment to a shared vision will get departments through some difficult times and situations by giving voice to consensus priorities.


In addition to a dynamic and shared vision, department members need the power and resources to be successful. Higher education is in crisis today partly because people are so overloaded that they continue to use antiquated, time- and labor-intensive decision-making structures. Some of this tradition is a product of the 1960s when representation on every issue seemed so important. Although institutions should consider some revisions on a campus-wide basis, chairs can address some decision making within the department:

  • Make information and data easily available. Information is power and must be shared. Technology makes its access and distribution easy; there is no reason for not disseminating it.
  • Build consensus. For decisions that are in the interest of the department as a whole, devote the time and process to reach consensus among faculty members. People are more prone to nitpick insignificant decisions or ignore important ones when they believe they have not been consulted or informed.
  • Empower others. For other decisions, set some parameters, with help from others, and then let those given responsibility go ahead.

Decisions have both a what and a how. In important decisions, people should be involved in both. With decisions that have already been made, (e.g., from higher up or externally), people should at least be involved in how the decision is implemented. This helps to ensure that decisions are commitments, not just compliance. With more decisions dealing with accountability and financing originating from outside (e.g., from the regents and the legislature), faculty involvement in the how is essential.

Beyond decision making, faculty and staff should define their roles and be supported in their efforts. Give-and-take between faculty and administrators can encourage flexibility and willingness to take advantage of new opportunities. The department chair can promote change as challenge and exciting new possibilities. In some cases, faculty don’t even see the opportunities until they are already passed; an active chair can develop faculty into professionals who are open to and ready to act upon good opportunities


Structure is an aspect of an organization where administrators often focus because it is concrete and appears easy to arrange. How often do new chairs and other administrators come into a department or unit and reorganize it just to shake things up? Without a thoughtful approach to changes in structure, the new structure may look different but faculty and staff will not change their behavior, which leaves surface-level change in structure with no operational change. Structure should be seen as a means to an end and not an end in itself. The wise adage “Form [structure] needs to follow function” is too often ignored.

In any change, chairs should consider lowering barriers, lessening cumbersome policies and procedures, and promoting more risk-taking. Consider new structures temporary until they have been tested. A new structure that works no better than the old may be prematurely cemented, making another change more difficult by increasing people’s skepticism. Outlining temporary structures with definite time horizons can provide flexibility and move changes forward without their becoming entrenched in more formal structure. Chairs will need to educate faculty and staff to the realization that they can become comfortable with less formal and temporary structures. People will often push for formalization because they feel insecure. They will need new ways to think about security.


Resources are important, but they are not the solution to all problems. Even if they were, no institution will ever have all the resources it would like. Resources are always limited.

As with structure, resources are a means. Departments should consider the following issues as they think about present and future resources:

  • Make sure the resources are tied to crucial departmental functions. Sometimes it appears we get the dollars and then see how they fit in with the mission. Doubtless, institutions will have to continue to seek resources outside their present boundaries. They need to articulate how these opportunities support and enhance the vision and mission of the department and of the institution.
  • Reward those who bring in new resources. If people are expected to seek out resources, they should be rewarded for their success. There must be return to the individuals and their units in terms of overhead. These dollars should help support additional investments in professional development and risk-taking.
  • Recognize that people are the most valuable resource. Too often personnel are simply listed as a cost, and not enough attention is paid to their positive value. We should be investing in people and developing them so that they grow as thriving contributors to the institution.


My experience in consulting with various higher education organizations has convinced me that we often spend much of our time and effort on structure and resources, partly because we want to have tangibles we can easily describe and measure. Yet it is important that we equally emphasize the softer aspects of vision and power, which are powerful complements.

The goal is to achieve balance in all four areas – vision, power, structure, and resources: all are crucial components in organizational success. For those who desire hard data and measurable outcomes, the soft side will be difficult and frustrating. Visioning takes dialogue, and a vision evolves through give-and-take, yet we often lack the patience and commitment to gain a widely held and accepted vision. Those organizations with vision will succeed. Those without will either fail or merely muddle through.

Senge, Peter M. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

[This is a revised version of an essay that first appeared in The Department Chair: A Newsletter for Academic Administrators, Winter 2000, Vol. 10, No. 3. The essay is printed here with the permission of the publisher, Anker Publishing Company.]

–– Daniel W. Wheeler, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Accountability and Academic Innovation

Don’t Forget the Registrar

by Robert M. Diamond and Peter B. DeBlois


Now that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is using the report of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education to stake out accreditation as the de rigueur battlefront/seed ground/hammer/hoe (various sides are choosing their metaphors) for accountability in higher education, we are seeing institutions, accrediting agencies, and agency accreditors alike scrambling to raise their hands high in a show-and-tell fest, unprecedented since another commission’s report card, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, was sent home nearly a quarter of a century ago.

While faculty, deans, and provosts are earnestly trying to address the accountability issue and to apply a wide range of new instructional and enrollment patterns made possible through new uses of technology, they face the challenges of decreasing resources, increasing enrollments, more demands for non-traditional courses, and a growing entry level population who arrive in class without the basic skills needed to succeed. To be successful, major academic redesign efforts often require the involvement of individuals with skills and knowledge not available at the department level where most of the discipline-specific work is done. While experts in technology, in assessment, in teaching methodology, and in course and program design are sometimes made available to faculty and academic offices, the registrar is, unfortunately, rarely involved in these discussions from the earliest stages.

Such an omission can be costly because the registrar can often be a critical component in academic transformation. No matter which of the many possible outcomes of the accountability movement we are talking about whether a national unit record system; new metrics for gauging academic progress and graduation rates; adaptable information systems for new forms of instructional design; discipline-specific measures of learning outcomes; mission-, demographic-, and Carnegie class-specific success standards outcomes, assessment and  grading criteria, in or a more direct match between learning each instance new support systems and policy changes will often be required and in each instance the registrar is a key agent for any changes that may be required. In the role of translator, arbiter, influencer, recorder, encoder, manipulator, and implementer of academic policy, grading protocols and keeper of official transcript records, privacy policies, enterprise information system architecture, real and virtual classroom usage rules, and academic calendar parameters, the registrar in involved in a wide array of campus activities below the radar of most faculty and many administrators. The registrar, however, can play a vital role in academic innovation by providing invaluable policy counsel and advice about the degree to which information systems can be customized, and, ultimately, can grease the tracks of academic innovation.

The role of the registrar in academic innovation

The registrar has, in fact, a major role to play in four of the most basic academic initiatives found on many campuses:

  1. Redesigning and improving the quality of courses and curricula.
  2. Enhancing the processes of course management and delivery to create more options and increased flexibility.
  3. Translating academic policies into efficient and easily used procedures and refining campus-wide inter-departmental records management procedures accordingly.
  4. Maintain official academic records and related processes in accord with state and federal privacy legislation while providing faculty and students with the information they require for quality advising and decision-making.

At far too many institutions, academic support, management, and information systems have simply been unable to keep up with the demands and requirements of faculty and academic units as they explore new applications of technology and new patterns of teaching and learning to improve the retention of students, to increase the involvement of students in the community, and to improve the quality and effectiveness of their academic programs.

The problem is a basic one. Many of the academic procedures and structures we now use were developed in a time when colleges and universities were far different than they are today. The challenges were fewer, the instructional capabilities of today’s technology not even dreamed of, the students far more homogenous and motivated, and interaction between the disciplines was the exception and not the rule, with most instruction taking place on campus in the classroom, the library, or the laboratory. It was a far less complex world for students, faculty, administrators, and staff.

Who should be involved in major academic innovation?

Typical efforts to redesign courses and curricula involve faculty working alone or on a team with other faculty in the discipline. Experience has shown, however, that the most effective projects include, in addition to the stakeholder faculty members, others who bring to the table expertise in areas not found in most departments. Without this broader participation key questions will go often go unasked and unanswered, and important options will remain unexplored. Serving on the core team should be the key faculty members, and an instructional designer or faculty member from another discipline who understands process of change and brings to the table the knowledge of the research on teaching and learning and the ability and willingness to ask hard questions and to test assumptions. Available to the team should be experts on assessment, on technology, and, while often overlooked, the registrar to anticipate and assist in making the necessary adjustments that will be required in academic regulations and system support.

Some of the common issues

When comprehensive course or curriculum redesign efforts get underway at either the graduate or undergraduate level a number of fundamental questions need to be addressed. Among them:

  • What were the assumptions being made by faculty about the students entering their courses and degree programs, and how accurate were the assumptions?
  • What knowledge and skills did students actually bring to particular classes or programs? (If students entered an introductory course with a wide range of knowledge and competencies, why should they all start at the same place? If students had advanced skills or knowledge, could they be exempted from certain units within a course or curriculum?)
  • Must all students move through a course or program at the same pace? If some students required more time to complete a unit, how could we handle grades at the end of the semester when the work was not yet complete?
  • When students move at different rates, have different requirements based on prior knowledge and experience, and if work might carry over from semester to semester how can we handle credits, grades, student charges and faculty loads not to mention various student-aid issues? ( For a more detailed list of common questions and how one campus, Syracuse University, developed systems to successfully address these issues see  A  Case Study: Flexible Credit and Continuous Registration which follows.)

Three key lessons can be learned from the Syracuse experience.  First, without the registrar as a key player from the start, no easy synergy can be developed between instructional innovation, academic policy, records procedures, and system adaptation. If those directing the project, whether the focus be on on-campus, off-campus or a combination of both settings, are building on the latest research on teaching and learning and are “thinking outside of the box” new administrative systems will be required and these changes will be impossible to implement without the active participation of the registrars office Second, new technology innovations such as e-portfolios and course/learning management systems are often implemented under accelerated pressure jeopardizing compliance with external privacy regulations that the registrar could have anticipated. Third, unless an individual or a design organization, i.e., the registrar or a teaching and learning support unit, becomes a visible proponent of opportunity to adapt technology and policy, new visions will chafe against tradition and sputter at best. The registrar  often brings to the project a knowledge of the institutional change culture, the political and technical history of the institution, and remembers what has worked and why. Without the active involvement of the registrar schools, colleges and academic departments attempting to significantly improve the quality of their academic program can anticipate inefficient or retarded progress.


This article first appeared in Inside Higher Ed, Januray 20, 2007.