Finding the perfect structure
If you do an internet search for ‘university restructuring’ you will get an impressive list of hits – over 9 million. If you then start looking through the results, you will find that any university you have ever heard of turns up somewhere in the list. In fact, it seems that whatever university you are associated with or interested in, one experience you will have there (alongside issues to do with catering and car parking) is restructuring. Furthermore, the life cycle of each restructured system is on average less than 8 years, so that a typical academic will, over an average working life, take part in some five restructurings. Either this tells us that a whole new structure improves performance significantly every time, or that nobody ever gets it right and they keep trying again.
Furthermore, every restructuring is typically accompanied by a statement explaining the inevitable benefits of moving from academic departments to Faculties, or from Faculties to Colleges, or from Colleges to departments, or whatever it is in your case. These statements can read as if they have all been taken from the same template with just the institutional name and organisational nomenclature added. Every new structure is going to save costs, encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, restate the university’s values, present a more focused institution to stakeholders, produce a more coherent middle management structure. Often the benefits will be happily shared with a firm of management consultants, for whom this whole thing can be excellent business.
It is worth stressing that restructuring can be a necessary form of change; it would be silly to imagine that an organisational framework originally devised for 19th century conditions would be good for the new millennium. Furthermore, where it is properly prepared and where faculty and staff are fully involved and motivated it can work very well. But it will rarely be the case that a structure that was successfully implemented in 2003 will need to be changed again in 2011. So why is it so popular?
It is probably the case that as the environment in which universities operate has become much more hostile, and as there is an increasing sense that university leaderships need to be seen to be doing something, restructuring is an easy response. But if it is initiated for that reason it is unlikely to do much good. It will divert creative energy from innovative academic activities to defending the status quo. Furthermore, the universities’ own focus on structure has the capacity to infect government thinking, and before you know it political pressure builds to change structures, generally in wholly unnecessary ways.
There is little doubt that universities, always the most conservative of organisations, need to reform. But the priority target of such reforms should not be organisation and structures.