Interdisciplinarity’s Shared Governance Problem

When “division” means subtraction.
By Matthew Dean Hindman

In April 2019, the University of Tulsa unveiled an academic strategy proposing a “reimagination of the academic structure” of the university. The plan, known as True Commitment, promoted a STEM-heavy curriculum with “a professional, practical focus.” In adopting the plan, TU—a private university with about four thousand students and an endowment exceeding $1 billion—closed roughly 40 percent of its degree programs, mostly in the arts, humanities, and natural sciences. Widely panned by students, faculty, and alumni, True Commitment led to several votes of “no confidence” in TU’s top administrators, among other forms of protest and expressions of discontent.

True Commitment’s planned reorganization entailed more than a mere reduction in the number of degree programs. The surviving liberal arts programs housed within the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences were slated to be absorbed into four interdisciplinary divisions: fine arts and media; humanities and social justice; human biology and behavior; and ecology, environment, and sustainability. Department chairs would be replaced by division heads, with faculty members to be redistributed into whichever interdisciplinary division best suited them.

While full implementation of True Commitment was expected to take at most two years, the university unceremoniously abandoned it in 2020, after TU’s faculty squelched the push for interdisciplinary divisions. By the summer of 2021, TU had adopted a new strategic plan, a new administration had taken the reins of the university, and few architects of the original plan remained in positions of influence or authority.

True Commitment’s failure to launch offers academic administrators many lessons about the necessity of meaningfully engaging with the faculty when making major curricular changes. Yet this debacle may also serve as a harbinger for broader organizational changes embraced by administrators and board members across higher education. Documents pertaining to planning for True Commitment reveal it to be part of a broader effort to weaken the role of the disciplines within academia. Particularly vulnerable are discipline-based departments at small colleges and universities. Goucher College, for instance, now organizes itself according to multidisciplinary centers. Plymouth State University is likewise organized into academic “clusters.” Larger universities are not immune from this trend, as Arizona State University faculty operate within multidisciplinary schools.

What is driving this push for interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary academic divisions? And what impact does the shift away from discipline-based departments have on the faculty’s decision-making role within the university writ large? Cost-conscious administrators and board members—guided by management consultants, many of them with limited or no academic experience—are prone to embrace an interdisciplinary academic structure as a cost-efficient antidote to the perceived ills of the traditional university, with its allegedly plodding, territorial faculty. Promoting “interdisciplinarity” as a solution to the supposed proliferation of academic “silos”—and as a way of reducing faculty ranks amid a feared enrollment crisis—consultants such as EAB provide universities with the rhetorical framing and public-relations messaging to justify the consolidation or even elimination of discipline-based departments. Disciplines, according to this telling, impede efficient management by fostering competition for resources among self-interested departments; these departments, meanwhile, evaluate faculty members largely according to criteria and standards established by scholars and their disciplines rather than by university officials.

To oppose this management-centered perspective on academic governance, faculty must defend the centrality of discipline-based departments as nexuses of faculty influence. Disciplines help universities maintain a robust curriculum, preserve integrity in processes of hiring and evaluation, and sustain connections between faculty members and the diffuse networks of scholarship to which they belong.

The Push for Efficiency

Witnessing their governance role under fire, faculty members often rightly bemoan the corporatization of higher education as trustees and administrators bypass them when making major curricular decisions. As the AAUP’s founding 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure emphasized, the faculty, viewed in the context of academic governance, are more than mere employees bearing a responsibility to their employers; rather, they are knowledge-seekers and truth-tellers who hold a responsibility to the wider public. As part of this responsibility, they serve as stewards of university affairs and, occasionally, must be willing to veto changes that would undermine institutional integrity.

Trustees and administrators, meanwhile, often perceive shared governance—and governance shared with the faculty, in particular—as archaic and unsuited to the various changes sweeping higher education. Moreover, they are likely to view the faculty’s public responsibility not as an inherent good but as a barrier to sound management. As William Bowen and Eugene Tobin put it in Locus of Authority, their faculty-skeptical book on university governance, trustees and administrators are often frustrated by “faculty members’ loyalties to their disciplines rather than to their institutions.” ASU president Michael M. Crow and his coauthor William B. Dabars, in their Designing the New American University,  likewise suggest that disciplines venerate obsolete traditions, lead to “lockstep thinking,” and frustrate efforts by university leaders to seek “real-world transformational impact.” For these reasons and more, the authors conclude that there is “scant reason” why universities ought to adhere to “a historical model that prioritizes the isolation and analysis of increasingly specialized knowledge.”

It is tempting, at least to those responsible for the fiscal health of the university, to seek reforms that might bring the faculty to heel and, more generally, align the academic structure of a university with its financial capabilities. At the University of Tulsa, such efforts were initiated by a committee of administratively selected faculty members known as the Provost’s Program Review Committee (PPRC). Against AAUP-recommended policies, university officials required committee members to sign nondisclosure agreements as a precondition of their appointment to the committee. According to the True Commitment report, PPRC members were provided various materials promoting cost-conscious academic reorganizational strategies. Indeed, the committee’s report boasted about several cost-saving features of interdisciplinary divisions, such as the elimination of resources for department chairs and a reduction in curricular redundancies caused by multiple disciplines offering “similar permutations” of courses.

Yet, if cost-savings drove the behind-the-scenes decision-making, the primary justification for True Commitment’s proposed cuts and consolidations centered on the buzzword interdisciplinarity. Although the literature on interdisciplinarity is extensive, little consensus exists over how to promote or implement such a boundary-free structure where faculty members would be able to think, teach, and research unencumbered by academic disciplines. Does interdisciplinarity imply cooperation across disciplines? Is it synonymous with a multidisciplinary approach? Or is it adisciplinary, characterized by nothing more than a rigorous commitment to problems of a faculty member’s (or a research center’s) choosing?

Regardless of these unsettled questions, cost-effectiveness and interdisciplinarity appear as two sides of the same organizational coin: a cost-conscious university will minimize the perverse incentives, tribal loyalties, and trivial academic squabbles that disciplines are said to promote. Interdisciplinary research, meanwhile, will supposedly help cure what ails the bottom line: overly specialized faculty teaching small courses on impractical topics within irrelevant disciplines that serve a declining number of students. Colleges and universities, once freed from a disciplinary approach to research and curricular development, can teach fewer courses to more students (thereby maximizing cost efficiency) and focus on the “real-world” problems that academic disciplines supposedly ignore.

Interdisciplinary Organization

The educational consulting firm EAB, formerly the Education Advisory Board, is a particularly fervent champion of this link between cost efficiency and interdisciplinarity. At TU, the administration provided PPRC members with EAB pamphlets promoting divisions as an alternative to discipline-based departments. Guided by documents with titles such as “How Multidisciplinary Organization Supports Institutional Goals,” “Divisional Reorganization Talking Points,” and “Envisioning a Post-Departmental Structure of the University,” the PPRC engaged in what one critic of True Commitment called a “revolution by template.” These documents—which were not meant to be circulated and may have been subject to confidentiality requirements—expose a great deal about the true motivations for eliminating discipline-based departments. As one might expect, they reveal not a well-developed philosophy extolling the virtues of interdisciplinary research but rather a strategic use of interdisciplinarity as a justification for budget cuts. EAB’s most important role, in this regard, is to provide an academic justification—albeit an intellectually flimsy one—for cost-saving reforms.

EAB’s case for inter- and multidisciplinarity centers on two related and well-worn ideas: that disciplines and departments foster “silos” and that a multidisciplinary divisional structure will enhance collaboration. According to one document, faculty are described as “good people in a bad system,” as their training and incentives have herded them into silos, thereby undermining institutional performance. Another document claims that a multidisciplinary structure can enable faculty members to “collaborate across disciplines on high-profile ‘grand challenge’ research.” While neither silos nor collaboration is meaningfully defined in EAB’s documents—nor do these documents provide evidence of their existence—the terms are noted frequently enough that they are presumed into existence. In departments, according to EAB, faculty and students are siloed. In divisions, they collaborate.

If silos and collaboration provide good talking points aimed at winning over a skeptical faculty—and, for that matter, students and parents who might view “reorganization” as less alarming than “program cuts”—the real justifications for a divisional framework are plainly stated: multidisciplinary organization can “reduce the cost of academic administration” (for example, by eliminating department chairs) and “establish a financially sustainable structure for the university.” This sustainability derives, in large part, from faculty members housed in divisions providing fungible labor; faculty in a divisional structure will teach across disciplines according to perceived institutional need. Stated differently, faculty members can be more readily managed in a discipline-free university, as they can be treated as utility players teaching courses cross-listed across degree programs rather than specialists teaching their own expertise. Indeed, EAB suggests that rather than reward faculty “for teaching specialized courses,” faculty ought to be “rewarded for teaching within and across disciplines and programs.”

With the PPRC accepting this premise, TU’s sixteen departments in the arts and sciences were slated for consolidation into four multidisciplinary divisions. The remaining degree programs would maintain “faculty leads”—positions with fewer responsibilities and diminished authority relative to department chairs. To EAB’s managerial eye, department chairs are not simply economically inefficient because of their (negligible) stipends; they are also viewed as tribal advocates. While faculty leads might also hold such a territorial mindset, their “first-among-equals faculty leadership role” would carry “reduced responsibilities” and, presumably, few opportunities to undermine curricular decisions made at the divisional level.

Taken together, EAB’s documents reveal a commitment to a hierarchical, tightly managed organizational structure overlaid with a thin veneer of interdisciplinarity—a veneer meant to hide the thick core of corporatization.

Disciplines and Governance

Of course, not every proponent of interdisciplinarity views disciplines as barriers to problem-solving and communication. According to political scientist John Aldrich, author of the book Interdisciplinarity, “interdisciplinarity necessarily takes disciplines as given.” For Aldrich and other scholars promoting interdisciplinarity as an intellectual project rather than a cost-cutting one, specialization is not a problem to overcome but rather a means of fostering new conversations and forming new academic communities at the intersections of existing ones. As sociologist Jerry Jacobs further points out in In Defense of Disciplines, evidence for “silos” is scant while evidence demonstrating communication across disciplinary boundaries is plentiful. (Credulous readers of EAB’s documents might be shocked to learn that, yes, disciplines do confront new and relevant challenges and, yes, scholars from distinct disciplines do engage with one another!)

It would appear, then, that if relevant, problem-driven research is the goal, we do not need to tear down and reassemble academia’s basic organizational building blocks. (EAB’s vision of interdisciplinarity, we might suggest, is itself problem-driven in that it sets out to solve the purported problem of disciplinary influence in our nation’s colleges and universities.) Disciplines, after all, have their own internal demands that command some level of faculty allegiance; they provide standards that guide faculty members who are tasked with carrying out research, evaluating scholarly arguments, and creating and teaching courses consistent with widely recognized best practices. From EAB’s perspective, these standards and best practices unfortunately sometimes stand in the way of the “solution” of a maximally efficient university.

Of course, discipline-based departments are, in some ways, economically inefficient. Given that faculty members within any discipline will likely advocate for a fully staffed department regardless of student interest or program enrollment, cost-conscious board members and administrators might view these faculty efforts as territorial and wasteful. Why, for instance, should a college have multiple faculty lines—and, for that matter, an entire academic department—to teach the full curriculum of a program that demonstrates declining student interest? University leaders should not be faulted for asking such difficult questions; nor, however, should faculty members be faulted—or departments eliminated—for promoting and protecting their discipline’s place within the university (and within academia more broadly). Such advocacy serves as a safeguard against a situation whereby universities offer degree programs in fields in which they maintain neither a robust curriculum nor an adequate number of faculty members qualified to teach this curriculum. Can students rightly earn a philosophy degree, for instance, if their courses are taught principally by political scientists and historians, with few philosophers setting the program’s curriculum, let alone teaching its courses? In a university that has eliminated departments, the answer would likely be yes, much to the detriment of the students enrolled in the program.

To put it another way, universities organized according to multidisciplinary units can effectively (and perhaps deceptively) hide their curricular deficiencies. For instance, a university might choose to maintain only one or two faculty lines in a small program like, say, sociology. Faculty members in such small departments will likely voice their displeasure at having few, if any, departmental colleagues. Prospective students and their parents will notice this weakness when they see a departmental website with few faculty profiles; moreover, it is a heavy burden for only one or two faculty members to teach the coursework of an entire discipline. By contrast, a sociologist hired into a Division of Ecology, Environment, and Sustainability might not see herself in a position to raise such a fuss, and she might not have a receptive audience with her division head if she did. Without many disciplinary peers at her institution, this same sociologist might find herself without a competent committee when it comes time to be evaluated for promotion or tenure. She will likely teach cross-listed courses that satisfy the requirements of several degree programs, and her disciplinary label will likely mean little to anyone at her university. In such a setting, the field of sociology has a significantly looser grip on her identity as a faculty member, and this scholar might eventually not view herself as a sociologist at all (perhaps to the delight of advocates of interdisciplinarity).

Board members and administrators may be inclined to view these circumstances of a reimagined university as fostering a more efficient—and therefore desirable—system of organization. After all, by muting disciplinary loyalties, a university need only look at enrollment numbers to determine the appropriate number of sociologists needed (if any are deemed necessary at all). Yet this scenario undermines shared governance. The interdisciplinary vision for higher education proposed by consulting firms like EAB serves to compromise widely recognized academic standards by which faculty members train, teach, and evaluate their students and colleagues. In removing this perceived barrier to efficiency, a university risks undermining a vital component of its own governing structure and its connections to the broader academy through which it gains its reputation.

To sweep aside the roles that disciplines play in shaping the criteria by which faculty members are appointed, reappointed, tenured, and promoted is no trivial matter. At most institutions, departments have a crucial role to play in evaluating faculty members’ scholarly contributions, with peer-reviewed publications being a standard marker of such an achievement. By contrast, EAB encourages universities to “set tenure expectations to encourage faculty to pursue a wide range of mission-aligned activities.” In other words, promotion and tenure committees—which would no longer need to consider a departmental evaluation—should assess faculty members according to their value to the university rather than according to their scholarship or professional competence as determined by their peers. Such a shift in philosophy would necessarily ignore or devalue the clear intellectual standards provided by the diffuse communities of inquiry that we call disciplines. Taken to an extreme, such a university becomes insular, focusing only on bringing in students and revenue at the expense of contributing to the broader academic projects through which scholars collaborate. The institution itself becomes a silo.

Ultimately, EAB’s framing of prevailing faculty priorities presents a false dichotomy between the tribal loyalties of a discipline and a university’s own educational mission. We would do well to recognize—and faculty members would do well to emphasize—that  disciplinary priorities, standards, and expectations are part of a university’s governance and central to the faculty’s role in upholding the academic integrity of their institutions. Faculty “loyalties” to external communities of knowledge serve as more than a distraction from university management. Academic freedom, after all, exists precisely to avoid a situation in which faculty inquiry is beholden to, or corrupted by, economizing or other nonacademic motives of institutional leaders.

It might be tempting, particularly at small colleges and universities, for some faculty members to accede to these trends and accept a divisional rather than disciplinary model as a path to self-preservation. After all, if the choice is between faculty layoffs, on the one hand, and maintaining only one or two faculty members in a given discipline within a multidisciplinary unit, on the other, most faculty members and administrators would eagerly choose the latter. (No tenured or tenure-track faculty members were laid off as a result of TU’s program closures, for instance, though long-term contract faculty members were made especially vulnerable.)

Particularly at small, cash-strapped universities, however, disciplines serve as important counterweights to efficiency-seeking administrative thinking. Through departments, faculty will strive to offer students a first-rate education in the face of calls to shrink the number of faculty, alter program requirements, decrease time to degree, or engage in other such bureaucratic (rather than academic) measures. In this respect, disciplines are vital to processes of shared governance and important checks on the creeping corporatization of higher education. Far from being “good people in a bad system,” faculty members who bring their disciplinary perspectives to bear upon university governance do so as part of their professional obligations of teaching, research, and service in a manner that protects the university from inappropriate influences. Honoring those obligations might impede the quest for efficient management, but it upholds academia’s twin imperatives of shared governance and academic freedom.

Can Disciplines Prevail?

While the University of Tulsa ultimately abandoned its plans to reorganize from a departmental to a divisional structure, this decision occurred only after extensive investigative efforts on the part of our faculty. Days after True Commitment’s unveiling, the College of Arts and Sciences convened a Task Force on Academic Structure to examine the proposal. Nine months later, this task force submitted a forty-three-page report that would serve as a death knell for TU’s (and the EAB’s) plans to eliminate departments. This task force found that a divisional structure would harm faculty morale, weaken academic freedom, and lower student retention rates, among other potentially detrimental outcomes. The task force concluded that a “department-based, discipline-oriented administrative structure is the gold standard of the best colleges and universities.”

It wouldn’t be the last task force on campus to weigh in on the issue. Days after the faculty voted no confidence in TU’s president and provost in November 2019the faculty senate convened a Task Force on Shared Governance as part of an effort to heal the bitter divides between faculty, administrators, and board members. Among this task force’s recommendations was that “departments and other academic units should be connected to academic disciplines or other coherent communities of inquiry” and that any decisions to alter or combine departments should be done collaboratively with the affected departments.

These efforts included the participation of many members of a newly established AAUP chapter on our campus, and they have led to brighter days at the University of Tulsa. Without pushback from the faculty, TU risked succumbing to an adisciplinary, and perhaps antidisciplinary, management-centered ethos that would have rendered faculty members ill-equipped to evaluate one another for promotion and tenure, powerless to maintain curricular standards as their capacity to enforce these standards wanes, and unable to preserve connections to the national and international disciplinary communities and professional associations that help academia thrive. While this ethos may have been driven out from the University of Tulsa, it may be coming to your university next.

Matthew Dean Hindman is associate professor of political science at the University of Tulsa and chapter president of TU-AAUP.