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Do we really need deans and provosts?

Written by: Michael Hadjiargyrou
Published on: 6 Jan 2022

People fall as they attempt to form a “castell” during an exhibition of the human towers, or castells, in Vilafranca del Penedes, 2016

Source: Getty

For many years, the administrations at US colleges and universities have become exceedingly bloated. But when the money and students were plentiful, it was easy enough to just shrug. 

Now, projections of shrinking enrolments and lost revenues, alongside exorbitant university executive salaries and the student debt crisis, are putting entire academic departments at risk. Even tenured faculty are being laid off. Is this really where the cuts should be?

Having been an academic for more than two decades, I perfectly understand the university hierarchy. Still, I find myself asking whether it is time to rethink the current structure, especially the offices of dean and provost. These are usually packed with affiliated assistant/associate deans and provosts, who collectively can cost universities millions of dollars in salaries and resources per year. And for what? Mostly they just rubber-stamp work produced by academic departments.

Provosts, often known as vice-presidents for academic affairs, are thought of as the chief academic officers, reporting directly to the institution’s president or chancellor. Their predominant tasks are the administration of academic issues related to degree programmes and research/scholarly activities. But in reality, all these tasks are carried out largely autonomously by the academic departments.

The provost’s office is also responsible for submitting written documents and proposals drawn up by the academic departments to accreditation agencies, state boards of education and so on, but this could also be accomplished by capable department administrators or chairs. Occasionally, the provost might initiate the formation of a centre/institute of excellence for a particular research theme, but again, they rely predominantly on the research expertise of existing faculty. Occasionally, they will recruit additional faculty – but that is achieved by departmental search committees.

Academic departments also drive the processes to which the deans (reporting to the provost) are charged with ensuring adherence. Aside from representing the faculty of the specific academic unit they head, deans hold departments to policies related to curricula and degree programmes, student academic issues and scholarly activities. They are also involved in approving the hiring of new faculty members, choosing chairs and making tenure and promotion decisions. But typically, they merely follow departments’ lead; all these tasks could be entrusted entirely to department chairs or school faculty personnel committees.

Further, many universities have a faculty or academic senate, where academic policies, curricula and degree programmes are introduced, debated and recommended to the upper administration. Ultimately, the president or an executive committee gives final approval; the provosts and deans simply add an additional level of bureaucracy and delay.

Provosts and deans are also charged with providing “vision” for the university and school/college, respectively. In reality, though, very little vision is forthcoming from their offices. They tend to take credit for achievements such as new departments, degree programmes, grants, patents, centres, institutes or start-up companies. But the true visionaries are the faculty who typically come up with the plans for all of these.

The deans’ and provosts’ offices are also involved in budgetary, research and student issues as they relate to academic departments. Yet universities have a financial department headed by a chief financial officer (also a vice-president), an office of a vice-president of research and an office of student affairs, also headed by a vice-president. These could work directly with academic departments on these issues, in consultation with the president.

I realise that abolishing both provosts and deans at once might be a step too far for many institutions. Initially, we could try phasing out the deans and monitor whether the new structure is more efficient and effective. It is conceivable that this would bring us directly to the ideal new organisational structure. But if the data warrant it, we should contemplate phasing out the provost’s office as well.

I also realise that not every departmental chair or administrative assistant will embrace the extra responsibility I am suggesting they take on. As a chair myself, I know how busy the job already is. But that is because we are already, in essence, doing the deans’ and provosts’ jobs for them. An increase in responsibilities would not entail a corresponding increase in workload.

And think of the boost in departmental budget that could come with the change. Eliminating deans and their entourages would surely save millions of dollars, which could be redirected to enhance student learning experiences. It could even permit a reduction in tuition fees – that would be hugely welcomed by debt-laden students and their families.

Universities do not have to follow the static hierarchical structure of corporate America, with its many levels of middle managers. Faculty across the nation will confirm that their deans’ and provosts’ offices are more of a hindrance than a help, placing bureaucracy in the way of efficiency. Let’s see the coronavirus pandemic not only as a threat to colleges and universities, but also as an opportunity to reorganise and create more efficient institutions.

Michael Hadjiargyrou is professor and chair in biological and chemical sciences and director of the doctor of osteopathic medicine DO/PhD programme in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at the New York Institute of Technology.