University of Iowa kicks off 'academic organization' forums

'We're a blank slate'

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A University of Iowa forum Monday aimed at fielding “bold proposals” for ways it can position itself to achieve strategic goals yielded not only suggestions and discussion about what to do but what not to do.

Dozens gathered in the Iowa Memorial Union for the first of three public forums scheduled as part of a comprehensive assessment of the UI structure and academic organization — including faculty from its College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which some have speculated could be destined for a breakup via the reorganization process.

“What nobody ever wants to talk about — the elephant in the room — is to be successful in some of these grand challenges, we’re going to have to decide what we’re not going to do,” said Chris Cheatum, associate professor of chemistry. “When we talk about what we’re not going to so that we can make these investments, we’re talking about real people’s real departments that may diminish or go away in order to make that possible.”

Tom Rice, UI political science professor and director of UI Des Moines programs, led Monday’s meeting, which comes at the start of the second phase of an “Academic Organizational Structure 2020” initiative that former UI Provost Barry Butler launched in January to help the university become a “more forward-looking, nimble university that focuses our limited resources in support of academic excellence.”

Rice is on a 13-member second-phase committee that will hold two more public forums in December and numerous smaller sit-downs with constituent groups before preparing a report for Interim Provost Sue Curry in the spring.

Cheatum on Monday asked Rice, as a representative of the committee, “Are you as committed to talking about what we’re not going to do and having the courage to make those kinds of recommendations as you are to speaking aspirationally about what we might do?”

Rice said yes but also stressed his group’s aim is to keep an open mind.

“We are a blank slate,” he said. “Our first job is to listen and learn.”

The initiative’s first phase convened a five-person task force charged with gathering information about the university’s current academic structures, collecting feedback, and generating ideas and possibilities. The group produced a report in September identifying themes — including that “over-large and disparate” colleges have disadvantages and “unit size needs to be optimized to promote faculty productivity and student success.”

The report also presented challenges in maintaining the university’s national status as a top research school and cited the need for an honest appraisal of systemic strengths and weaknesses — even if findings buck “institutional thinking, which is steeped in tradition and mired in territorialism.”

“There was a consistent view that future academic structures must have units that are manageable in size, scope, and mission,” according to the first-phase report.

Many faculty in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences viewed the findings as directed toward their collective — possibly posing a threat to the college, which supports the general-education curriculum and has its roots in the university’s establishment 170 years back.

In a direct response to the first-phase report, sent Oct. 31 to interim Provost Sue Curry, a group of the college’s faculty assembly stated their feelings clearly.

“The vast majority of CLAS faculty and staff are strongly in opposition to the idea of breaking up the college,” according to the letter. “Aside from pedagogical and philosophical objections, the clearest rationale for not doing so is that to create new units in the place of one would vastly increase administrative costs, inasmuch as new expansive and expensive decanal structures would have to be put in place — in duplicate and triplicate.”

Right now, the group argued, the college and university’s administrative network is relatively “lean and mean.”

“It would cease to be so,” according to the letter.

University administrators have urged that phase one was simply a fact finding and input gathering mission, and the second phase will function independently — although it aims to “build from the principles, themes, and issues identified in the phase I 2020 committee report and aspirations from the UI strategic plan.”

Rice on Monday reiterated that.

“Our committee has started in an environment of angst among many people here at the university … There is concern about some of the conclusions in the phase one report,” he said. “I want to be very clear, the phase two committee is not starting its work with any ideas in mind.”

Among the ideas raised during Monday’s forum to questions of how UI will become a national leader, distinguish itself, and best serve the state were those urging the university to “go back to basics” with budgeting and a broad-based education that emphasizes the university’s strengths — like writing. Some proposed the university find its own unique course, and not pursue national trends in educational offerings and methodology — thus differentiating itself.

Several argued for better leadership and faculty recruitment. While others debated the balance between faculty research and classroom instruction. Some criticized the process itself as adding to the countless committees and task forces already at work on the campus.

While others urged something has to change.

“If we do nothing differently than we’ve been doing it, we will distinguish ourselves from other top research institutions by no longer being one,” Cheatum said.

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