Critical Components of Departmental Success

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