CU Boulder A&S Reorganization Response Paper


The College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder has engaged in a reorganization exercise. Earlier this week, the campus released a report from this exercise, which can be found here.

The campus has asked for 2-page response papers to the report, and I have submitted one. It is titled “Let’s Discuss A&S Divisions.” You can read it here in PDF. You can also read it in full after the break.

Let’s Discuss Arts and Sciences Divisions
Roger Pielke, Jr. – 13 November 2018

The notion of a liberal arts education dates to antiquity. At the University of Colorado Boulder the classification of the liberal arts into the tripartite division of natural sciences, social sciences and arts and humanities can be traced to at least the 1950s. However, the use of this three-part structure as the organizational basis for the governance of the College of Arts and Sciences dates only to the 1990s. Other models of governance that integrate form and function have existed in the past and are also possible for the future. In this response paper I suggest that a discussion of the substantive organization of A&S is a missing link in the admirable reform efforts now underway.

In recent months various reports have been produced on the future of the university and A&S. These include:

  • Academic Futures: The Future of CU Boulder as a Public University: Embracing the Core Mission of Furthering the Public Good
  • University of Colorado Boulder College of Arts & Sciences Strategic Plan
  •  Organizational Design requirements to Support the College of Arts & Sciences Strategic Plan
  •  Report and Recommendations of the Academic Reorganization Committee

Together these reports reflect a strong consensus on the role of CU Boulder in fostering student-centered civic education and engagement grounded in the liberal arts. The A&S focused reports reflect a consensus that the university’s largest unit should be led by a single executive dean supported by deans at the divisional level, to facilitate decision making that spans multiple units and to reduce the need for a large administrative staff that would be associated with creating multiple smaller organizational units.

What has not been discussed in any detail is the apparent widely-held assumption that the substantive portfolios of the divisional deans should reflect the traditional liberal arts categories of the natural sciences, social sciences and the arts and humanities, as they do today.

In what follows, I’ll make two points. First, such an organizational structure is dated, given how academic scholarship actually takes place in 2018. Second, there are many other possible substantive divisional arrangements which might better match the needs and priorities of the governance of A&S in 2018.

According to CU Boulder course catalogs as far back as 1958, for purposes of undergraduate education the College of Arts and Sciences was divided according to these same three disciplinary distinctions. Since that time faculty have created news departments, certificates, minors and programs of study that integrate across these traditional divisions to such a degree that it is no longer appropriate today to refer to them as divisions. Today, the natural and social sciences, and arts and humanities unite teaching and research more than they divide them.

According to former A&S Dean Todd Gleeson, prior to the 1990s the governance of A&S was based more on functions (e.g., personnel, curriculum, advising, space) than disciplines. A look further back in time shows that in the 1940s A&S was organized to focus on lower division and upper division students. In the mid-1990s when Peter Spear assumed the role of A&S Dean, the traditional undergraduate educational divisions were formalized as functional units. In short, functional organization has changed periodically as needs and times warranted.

History need not be destiny. There is no requirement that A&S in 2018 be organized along disciplinary lines that would have been familiar to a faculty member or student in the late 1950s. In fact, it would be odd indeed if a 60-year old organizational and intellectual structure were found to be most appropriate for a leading research university in 2018.

No taxonomical structure is perfect, of course. Nonetheless, I suggest that we engage an open and formal discussion about whether in 2018 we might devise a substantive organizational structure for divisions within A&S that can better meet the campus vision and A&S strategic plan, while acknowledging the design criteria implied by that plan. Among these criteria, divisions should:

  •  be roughly balanced in terms of faculty and funding. Currently the Natural Sciences division represents more than 50% of A&S.
  •  represent our strengths and opportunities.
  •  represent our values in both disciplinary and interdisciplinary research and education.
  •  be fit for purpose for a university looking ahead to the 21st century, not back to the 20th.

With these thoughts in mind here is a conceivable alternative structure for A&S divisions:

  • Earth and Environment
    •  Considerable effort has been devoted on recent years to conceptualizing a school of the environment, bringing together the notable campus strengths in this area. This critical mass of research and education could form one of the A&S divisions, to include Environmental Studies, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Geography, Geological Sciences, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, etc.
  •  Liberal Arts and Humanities
    • The traditional conception of the liberal arts – physical sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities – could form the basis for units grounded in the conception’s deepest academic traditions, such as Economics, Physics, Philosophy, Chemistry, History, Political Science, Biology, English and so on.
  •  Public and Civic Engagement
    • Programs that are focused on research and education that are most impactful and connected to civic society could form the basis of a new division. These might include programs as diverse as languages and area studies, Computer Science, Applied Mathematics, Cinema Studies, International Affairs, Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences and Theater and Dance.

The bottom line here is that there are many ways in which we could re-conceptualize a divisional structure within A&S that is more in line with the campus vision and school strategic plan. Further, such a reconceptualization should reflect the aims and ambitions of the modern research university that connects and integrates traditions disciplines, rather than dividing them.

A formalized and meaningful discussion of divisions in the College of Arts and Sciences in a notable missing link in the admirable institutional evolution now underway at CU Boulder.

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