University restructures – The secrets of success

I recently facilitated a workshop on the topic of “Working toward improved collaboration across the faculty”. The faculty was a ‘new’ construct after a restructure across academic units in the university in question.

Several schools that had operated more or less independently now found themselves under a single large faculty umbrella and three quite small schools were merged into a single school. It was a ‘new’ faculty spread across four campuses with two campuses at a considerable distance from the main city campus.

The aim was to identify strategies whereby academics within the newly (re)structured faculty, but working on different campuses and in related but different subject areas, would work more cooperatively to positively improve the teaching-learning environment for all – especially students.

The scenario and the workshop were very familiar to me, having professionally lived through several restructures at different universities and having had to lead the healing process for faculties made up of staff who were, on the whole, not always impressed with what the restructure would bring.

The two most often asked questions were: 1) ‘What was wrong with the old structure?’; and 2) ‘How are we going to be better off under the new structure?’ As an external independent facilitator with no ties to the institution, my job was to help kick-start a change process that the executive dean and senior management group could then effect.

Finding common ground

Every organisation that has been in operation for a while has history based on the people who make up that organisation and the relationships among members.

A restructure where people who have never worked together now find themselves ‘lumped together’, vying for limited resources and maybe having to redesign curricula collectively and build new research partnerships, takes time and effort.

It means diverse people with maybe quite divergent points of view have to suddenly work together and somehow find common ground in order to move forward in a way that is for the greater good rather than for a few, or even for themselves. There is no easy, quick or comfortable fix. It is an arrogant and unwise leader who negates this reality.

Strong leadership is critical to the entire process. The leader – most often the executive dean of the faculty – has to be present every step of the way. He or she has to allay staff concerns and uncertainty associated with transitioning from what people know and feel comfortable with to dealing with a sense of insecurity and doubt.

Regular, positive and honest communication is a must. The leader has to be encouraging and dispel concerns, listen and try to understand the different perspectives staff bring, but at the same time provide clear direction and motivate staff to get on board with the changing reality.

In such times of disruption and considerable change, the leader must calmly and steadily steer the faculty and foreground relationship and team building, or maybe even rebuilding. That does not happen overnight.

A clear vision

It takes a combination of formal and informal practices to help build relationships across campuses and across discipline boundaries. There will be barriers that take significant effort to overcome.

A key one is staff identifying as a staff member of a single faculty – not as a member of campus X or campus Y or the ‘old’ school of A or B. A clear vision needs to be established that helps define what the profile of the ‘new’ faculty will look like, and focus on, in its first phase of development.

Opportunities need to be made available for staff to come together to consider possible connections across teaching and research activities. Occasions need to be scheduled for staff to share teaching initiatives and research proposals and projects and just talk to each other and share their perceptions, concerns and ideas.

It takes time for staff to participate and fully commit to any change process and there is likely to be a small percentage of staff who never fully come on board – that is a reality no matter what the university or leader does or says. But that same small group would never commit to any change regardless of what it is; they seem happiest when complaining and being miserable.

It might also offer an opportunity to offer voluntary retirement packages to some and to start to reshape the staffing profile of the faculty and employ staff who, from the very beginning, contribute positively to the new structure.

It can be an exciting prospect to be part of a faculty reform that considers designing an innovative, interdisciplinary curriculum offered in a completely different way and engaging in new multidisciplinary research collaborations.

In the end, success comes down to building trust and respectful relationships and that includes, for the leader, surrounding him/herself with excellent people, recognising their talents and empowering them to help see the unifying vision through.

The most important element is regular, open, honest communication that includes participation of all interested stakeholders. It is not an easy or quick process and it demands clear, strong leadership.

Nita Temmerman (PhD) is a former university pro vice-chancellor (academic) and executive dean of the faculty of education at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. She is currently visiting professor to Ho Chi Minh City Open University and Papua New Guinea University of Technology, academic reviewer at the University of Queensland, Australia, as well as invited specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications, invited external reviewer with the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority, and a published author.