Even if It’s Not Broken, It Can Still Be Improved: Reorganizing for Effective Alignment
When systems and processes are misaligned and do not function effectively or efficiently for students, faculty, or staff, the need for reorganization of academic affairs is obvious. But it’s a daunting task. Broach the topic in a meeting, and you’ll immediately detect a rise in the level of stress in the room. And when word spreads, even people in units not directly affected by the proposed reorganization often will become apprehensive as well. This reaction poses a dilemma: how can institutions handle alignment and unit reorganization without inducing unnecessary stress or anxiety?
Shying away from the task is not a viable option. It would mean missing an opportunity for transformational change in operations. Consider the following issues that can drive the need for reorganization within academic affairs, and the possible consequences if these go unaddressed:
- Ineffective and inefficient coordination between offices
- Lack of alignment of functions and offices
- Too many direct reports to be organizationally effective
- The need for change to focus on service
- Necessary refocusing on student outcomes
- Demand to enhance assessment and data analytics
All these issues were in play at our institution, but the first four were the primary motivators for our recent reorganization.
Rather than employing a broad-based discussion among individuals in academic affairs who in many cases were longtime associates in the unit, we had two individuals not directly affected by reorganization evaluate our current alignment of functions and organizational structure.
One of the two individuals was external to the university and was contracted to provide evaluation and input on reorganization, while the other individual was associated with the university. They did not report their findings to the provost until they had created a draft of the recommended reorganizational structure.
We chose this approach because some members of the organization wanted change but were not necessarily receptive to change that would involve their own activities or responsibilities. Had we sought broader input, there would have been so many different opinions that we would not have come to a realistic consensus that would have allowed us to move forward.
Also, because the reorganization focused solely on administrative structures, we did not seek involvement of the faculty senate.
The initial stage of the process included a review of academic affairs’ organizational structures at other universities and a thorough examination of basic organizational structure to ensure effective and efficient function. This information set the groundwork for the analysis of our organizational structure. At this point the two people who led the process listed all the functions of academic affairs and color coded each according to function.
When this color coding was applied to our then-current organizational chart, it was clear that we were not organized for optimal functional alignment. The reorganization leaders recommended that we change the organizational chart to align functions within the same units. One rather glaring deficiency in the organization was in the area of institutional research and assessment, which led to the recommendation that we create a student learning outcomes, assessment, and accreditation (SLOAA) unit within academic affairs, allowing us to combine assessment activities that had previously been in various offices into a single unit and to task this unit with curricular issues such as mapping, course redesign, and learning outcomes.
Under the reorganization, the associate provost for academic affairs relinquished some of these duties and became the primary reviewer of issues requiring provost action, such as grade appeals, faculty retention, and promotion and tenure decisions. The position of dean of lifelong learning was to be eliminated. The individual who held this position would make a lateral move to assistant provost in the SLOAA unit.
Reporting to the dean of lifelong learning were our center for teaching and learning, online education, and the learning management system group. For strategic purposes, the reorganization plan called for changing the position title and moving these units to SLOAA. Once all the recommended changes were discussed among the provost and the two individuals making the recommended changes, the provost shared the plan with the chancellor of the university.
From conducting the evaluation to approval of the plan by the chancellor, the process took four months. Up to this point in the process, we informed academic affairs personnel only that alignment of functions in academic affairs would occur. We did not discuss a timeline or what the potential changes might be.
Presenting the plan
When it came time to present the plan, we informed the dean of lifelong learning that this position was to be eliminated. We then met with all direct reports and unit leaders in academic affairs and outlined the reorganization that would go into effect in approximately two weeks. We did this to ensure that everyone was informed at the same time and heard the same message.
During the presentation, we emphasized the need for academic affairs to be nimble and adaptive. We talked about the value and importance of academic affairs staff, while ensuring that personalities were not an obstacle in determining organizational outcome. And we repeated the university’s mantra: students first.
The reorganization leaders presented the color-coded organizational chart to illustrate how the changes would improve administrative functions. Then they outlined the changes that the reorganization would bring:
- A reduction in the number of direct reports to the provost from six to four and in the number of dean reports from eight to seven
- Consolidation of assessment and data collection and analysis functions into a single streamlined office (which resulted in the elimination of one staff position)
- Creation of two major units: Enrollment Services and Student Success; and Student Learning Outcomes, Assessment, and Accreditation, both of which were charged with evaluating their units and making necessary organizational changes
Seven months after the initial reorganization, we are still in the process of fine-tuning the alignment. However, change and continuous improvement via reorganization are becoming more a part of the cultural norm within academic affairs rather than something that sends shock waves through the staff. An ongoing challenge has been identifying facilities where units can now be housed in the same office complex, or at the very least in close proximity.
The reorganization changed the overarching administrative structures, and now the staff members who are operationally in the trenches doing the work are empowered to make other necessary structural changes that can generate a variety of exemplary practices.
We offer the following recommendations based on this reorganization experience:
- Take time to investigate. You’ve got to take plenty of time to study the landscape and know that change is absolutely necessary before proceeding. Don’t reorganize for minor issues.
- Talk to staff members about their positions. Ask administrative staff members questions such as: What do you like about your job? What have you taken on that was not part of your job previously? What do you think you do best?
- Reduce the likelihood that rumors will spread. Inform staff members of changes at the same time.
- Don’t let personalities drive the process. No matter how well you communicate respect for the people involved, there will still be people who are not going to agree with the changes. Don’t let personalities affect how decisions are made. Take a very calculated look at the functions within the unit and reorganize according to how these functions fit together, and find the best places for people on the team. Match the right person to the job rather than adapting the job to the person. If positions are eliminated in a reorganization, try to find other suitable positions at the institution for those displaced staff members.
- Focus on outcomes. The role of academic affairs (and all units) is to serve students. The primary question should be how a reorganization will improve outcomes for the students.
A. Jerald Ainsworth is the provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs. David Rausch is the interim associate provost for assessment, accreditation and student outcomes. Both are at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.