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Academic Reorganization: A New Policy School

Academic Reorganization: A New Policy School

Changing the structure of any big organization is a complex process. Academic reorganization may be particularly challenging, because our procedures are broadly if imperfectly consultative, which means that top down directives don’t work. Extensive faculty involvement and input are essential. I’ve been involved in several restructurings at Mason (and there were many others in the late 1990s and right as I arrived, in which I had no real role). We have moved Social Work around several times – we never intended a separate School in the field, given the dimensions of the program; so the question was where it fit best, and we batted around between what was then a Nursing College, Arts and Sciences, and ultimately back to an expanded Health and Human Services unit where, I think, it fits well. But the nomadism was troubling for a while. Early on it became obvious that we needed to complete the formation of an Arts unit; Music, oddly, had remained separate, in liberal arts, so I thought, and still think, it was a no brainer to combine it with the other arts. I think this change was relatively painless – I hope I was adequately consultative – and the result, in terms of the current College of Visual and Performing Arts, has been spectacular. A huge change – splitting Arts and Sciences but merging into the latter a separate School of Computational Sciences – was proposed by the two Deans involved, and the faculty went along. The focus was on an enhanced and coordinated effort in the Sciences, and I think that has worked out, though merging an Institute with a strong teaching unit was not easy. We were worried about the residual humanities and social sciences, but in fact I think the improved focus has paid off here as well. But none of this is easy. Faculty have to learn to work in different combinations, often with different colleagues. Finding effective leaders to shepherd the change can be a challenge. There’s a ton of back office work – registrar, fiscal etc. – where we often fail to appreciate the effort involved. And it has to be recognized: there is no perfect structure. Any organizational scheme has some overlaps, some gray areas. At the same time, it’s obvious that a variety of specific structures can work quite well – it is not always necessary or desirable to insist on maximum clarity, to ignore the sometimes quite acceptable results of historic accident. The current and appropriate focus on interdisciplinary combinations makes organizational logic even harder to achieve – again, a number of combinations can make sense, and there are always drawbacks and cross-unit coordination needs to any chart. Certainly it’s important not to reorganize too often, again if only because of the stress involved. Right now we are putting the finishing touches on a proposal that does constitute a significant change, and on balance in my view an appropriate one. We have long had a School of Public Policy, operating at the graduate and research level, and a Department of Public and International Affairs in Humanities and Social Sciences. The separation between the two units was certainly partly historical accident: Public Policy could focus on the graduate mission, while the Department had and has a strong undergraduate component and fit well with the other social science units. Both units achieved considerable success. Partly under the spur of a new President, it has seemed appropriate to take another look. Current leadership of the two units put a great deal of time into a merger consideration, and I must add that the Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences also maintained a consistently constructive approach. We’ve now decided to propose a new, merged School of Policy, Government and International Affairs, hopefully to begin operation in the coming academic year. While faculty in the two units are not unanimously supportive, strong majorities in both cases favor the change. The discussion has on the whole been quite positive and responsible. As with any major academic change, there will be some downsides, or at least areas that require some careful oversight.  The two units have different specific systems and somewhat different cultures, and it will take some time to blend. The Policy group has had no systematic involvement with undergraduates, and the refocus is not automatic. The need for continued close coordination with the other social science components in Humanities and Social Sciences is obvious, lest we lose more from the merger than we gain. But two or three clear advantages stand out for S-PGIA, and we think these will easily justify the remaining approvals we need. First and most important, we immediately construct one of the largest and liveliest Policy schools anywhere, certainly in this region where the policy focus is so obvious. We anticipate clear results in terms of enrollment, research combinations, and wider support. As a subset, the enhanced opportunities for undergraduates, as they take advantage of a greater set of offerings and, in some cases, a readier path toward accelerated graduate work, will be immediately positive. There are also some obvious gains in terms of curricular coordination and rationalization – both units have strong Masters programs that can help each other. So – always remembering that there is no perfect structure – this most recent reorganization scheme should lead to richer student outcomes and research vitality, well worth the stress that moving academic chess pieces always entails.