Higher education

University of Iowa faculty fear breakup of largest college

Institution stalls search for new dean pending analysis

(File photo) The dome of the Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(File photo) The dome of the Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Preliminary findings from a monthslong study of a possible University of Iowa campus reorganization — which could involve moving academic departments, nixing programs, and creating new colleges — have some in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences feeling targeted and disrespected.

Although a report from Phase I of the “2020 Academic Organizational Structure” endeavor doesn’t specifically name the university’s largest college, which enrolls 51 percent of the student body, many assume it largely is directed at the UI liberal arts enterprise.

Specifically, some worry the organizational study — which former UI Provost Barry Butler initiated in January — is on course to break up the liberal arts college, which has a storied history dating back to 1900. The college’s mission is enshrined in the university’s establishment and aligned with the UI charge to provide a “full complement of undergraduate liberal arts and sciences courses.”

But the college — like many others across the campus and country — has experienced a tide of change in recent decades. Although its total faculty numbers are up from 1,039 in 1996 to 1,305 in 2016, the balance of tenured or tenure-track faculty compared with non-tenure-track faculty has shifted from 654 — or 63 percent — in 1996 to 587 — or 45 percent — in 2016.

And then there’s the looming leadership questions created by college Dean Chaden Djalali’s announcement in March that he’ll step down in July 2018. In his message to colleagues, Djalali cited “personal matters (involving health issues with my family) and the ongoing academic, administrative, and financial changes faced by the college.”

He said giving more than a year notice would enable him to fully carry out his duties and allow for a smooth leadership transition. But Interim Provost Sue Curry during a Faculty Senate meeting earlier this week — to widespread opposition — said she does not plan to launch a search for Djalali’s replacement until the organizational structure initiative concludes.

“As the largest college on campus, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is critical to the university mission and requires an experienced leader,” according to UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck. “Interim Provost Curry believes the university will attract a stronger group of candidates once the academic review has concluded.”

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Some faculty told The Gazette they’re hopeful Curry will hear their concerns and change her mind. But Christopher Brochu — a UI professor with the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences and director of Undergraduate Studies within his department — said it’s probably too late in the fall to start a search.

“But I think it was a mistake,” Brochu said. “Colleges work best with strong consistent leadership, and at this point we don’t even know when there will be a search for the next dean.”

That decision has fueled “widespread concern about the phase I report,” according to Brochu.

“Some of my colleagues feel disrespected,” he said.

Among wording in the report that has raised red flags is reference to a “common concern” about whether the university’s current collegiate and administrative units optimize future research and teaching potential.

“Especially where colleges were over-large and disparate in the assortment of academic units, several disadvantages were noted,” according to the report produced by a 2020 Academic Organizational Structure Task Force.

For starters, the task force notes, larger colleges do not sufficiently address individual unit needs — especially those of smaller units. It also reported finding that collegiate units work better if they’re united by a common theme; and that unit accountability suffers in large colleges.

“Such colleges are inherently more difficult to lead,” according to the report, which added, “students expressed a lack of perceived community in large, disparate colleges with an overly broad mission.”

John McGlothlen / The Gazette

But some faculty say those findings contrast their experience, and they have a lot of questions about the research and where it’s headed as the university embarks on phase II of the project.

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“Many of the points it makes are inconsistent with what we in CLAS hear every day from fellow faculty members, from students, from staff, and it left us concerned that decisions might not be based on accurate information,” Brochu said. “There’s no information on what the points were based on. We were left with more questions than answers.”

Interim Provost Curry along with Graduate College Dean John Keller discussed the report during the Faculty Senate meeting this week. Curry had been appointed to the organizational structure task force before she was tapped as interim provost upon Butler’s departure in March.

In addition to Keller, also comprising the first-phase task force was Daniel Clay, dean of the College of Education; Sarah Gardial, dean of the Tippie College of Business; and Alec Scranton, dean of the College of Engineering.

It was charged with identifying academic structures supporting the UI strategic plan; identifying opportunities to improve; and evaluating and making recommendations regarding possible changes. In February, the task force began meeting with individuals and groups — including UI President Bruce Harreld, deans like Djalali, and faculty, staff, and student leaders.

In its findings, the report seemed to anticipate faculty pushback, stressing the need for an “honest appraisal of our strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities” as it aspires to maintain its status as a top research university.

“This perspective will challenge the institutional thinking, which is steeped in tradition and mired in territorialism,” according to the report. “In order to accomplish our goals, the faculty and staff need to embrace a collaborative, holistic approach to accomplish the goals of the UI (strategic plan.)

The report suggests consolidation, collaboration, new policies and procedures where applicable, and changes to administrative structures.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” according to the report. “There was a consistent view that future academic structure(s) must have units that are manageable in size, scope and mission.”

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Phase II of the process to build off the first phase analysis will involve a larger committee — including representation from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — and involve town hall discussions open to the public.

Graduate College Dean Keller told The Gazette the hope is to return a final report to the provost’s office by spring. Phase three, he said, will involve decisions and possible implementation. And he confirmed everything is on the table, including a reassessment of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“I’m sure there’s going to be conversations about that both ways,” he said. “Yes, there are advantages to keeping it the way is. There are disadvantages to keeping it the way it is. There’s a lot to be said for both sides of the issue.”

The problem the initiative is trying to fix, according to Keller, is university declines in national rankings and concerns over maintaining its status in the prestigious American Association of Universities.

“We’re concerned that we’re not doing that,” he said. “We uniformly heard from groups that we interviewed — in the phase I part … the status quo is not an acceptable position and we can do better. The question is how do we do that?”

In response to the historic nature of the liberal arts college — dating all the way back to the university’s founding in 1847 — Keller said, “Things have changed.”

“It’s time to revisit that,” he said.

Teresa Mangum, UI professor and director of its Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, said she’s OK with that. She’s hopeful the initiative’s second phase will produce more well-rounded and transparent feedback.

“I would just love to see the case made for keeping the college together or for splitting it up, and I would love to see a budget and how it would work in those situations,” she said. “I make my decisions by looking at evidence and as much hypotheses as possible. I think that’s what we need to see now.”

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