Academic Restructuring — Some Thoughts at the Crossroads

Provost Steven Dew shares his perspective on the way forward for the university.

30 November 2020

On December 7, GFC will face a critical decision regarding academic restructuring. We have been on this journey since this spring when the Government of Alberta announced major cuts to our Campus Alberta Grant that necessitate a fundamental rethink of how the university is organized and operates. Guided by the University of Alberta for Tomorrow vision and initiative, this restructuring seeks to sustain and grow the university's delivery of its core mission of teaching, research and community engagement even in the face of significantly reduced resources. Unfortunately, the magnitude and pace of the cuts require us to move much faster on this transformation than anyone would prefer.

The university community has been very engaged in this discussion since the university announced the academic restructuring initiative on June 2, 2020. While there has been a wide diversity of views and proposals, we started to hear a consensus emerging from the GFC discussion on November 23. While there is still a significant debate over the management structure and the faculty configuration, there seemed to be movement toward some kind of college model where related faculties are grouped together to share administrative services. Following the approach developed at APC on November 25, GFC will consider three motions on December 7: 1) endorsement of a general college model approach, 2) recommended management structure for the college, and 3) recommended faculty configuration for the colleges.

Faculty Configuration: The Case for Disciplinary Alignment

On the question of faculty configuration within the colleges, the two most favoured options seem to be to group them around disciplinary alignment or around methods (fundamental versus applied). A disciplinary alignment includes (1) health, (2) natural and applied science, and (3) humanities and social sciences.


A methods alignment includes (1) health, (2) professional and applied science, and (3) arts and science.


While the final decision will rest with GFC, I would recommend close consideration of the first option. In my view, a disciplinary alignment better reflects existing research collaboration patterns and opportunities for joint programming. For example, 41% of the interfaculty research grant applications involving Science are with ALES and Engineering, while only 4% are with Arts. Similarly, programs in Law, Business and Education draw heavily from courses in Arts but less so with ALES and Engineering.

A disciplinary alignment also better bridges fundamental and applied research and thereby increases the likelihood and speed of our scholarly work impacting and advancing society. For example, one could imagine that bringing ALES, Engineering and Science more closely together could mutually stimulate each discipline to accelerate work on nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, environmental remediation, green energy, biomedical engineering, bioinformatics, etc., both as technologies to serve society as well as tools to push forward the frontiers of our understanding of the universe. Likewise, a grouping of the social sciences and humanities could advance research on some of the most challenging issues facing society, including advancing equality, equity, justice and social well-being; building sustainable and thriving economies with opportunity for all; and enriching society with the creative arts.

Management Structure: The Case for an Executive Dean

The other central question facing GFC is the management structure for the colleges. The goal of the college model is to consolidate administrative services (e.g. HR, finance, IT) in order to maintain a high level of service while achieving economies of scale and administrative cost efficiencies. The coordination of those services will be supported by a College Manager who is an administrative professional with a strong understanding of the university's business practices. As that person is not an academic, an additional role above the College Manager is needed to ensure that administrative services are accountable to academic priorities and needs.

The ARWG revised report proposes the introduction of an Executive Dean to fill this role. This person would be an experienced academic who provides leadership at the college level to ensure that administrative services are accountable to the academic mission. An Executive Dean can also drive a higher-level strategy and coordination of activities across the faculties of the college.

There have been concerns raised that the Executive Dean role may be a costly addition, a new administrative role that is one further step removed from the "front lines" of the academy. For this reason, some have proposed alternative management structures such as the "invisible college" that does not include an Executive Dean and instead proposes a management model where the College Manager would report to a council of the faculty deans.

In my view, creating the Executive Dean role is an essential step toward making the college an effective academic unit where administrative services are fully responsive and accountable to our academic mission. Without having a single person with the dedicated time and focused accountability for delivering on the college's purpose, this model risks gridlock and failure.

It is unlikely a group of faculty deans can do this effectively off the sides of their desks and deal with the conflicts of interest that will no doubt sometimes arise between what is in the best interests of their faculty instead of that of the college. A collective management model also risks diluting clear accountability to the Provost and the university.

Identifying one dean to serve on a rotating basis on behalf of this group might help with accountability, but it still raises similar challenges. This person will still be doing this job off the side of their desk with the potential for ongoing conflicts of interest.

One of the concerns about Executive Deans is cost, particularly when we have to cut so much of our spending. While these would be senior academic leaders who would have to be compensated appropriately for their significant responsibilities, it is also important to recognize that their role is critical to ensuring the success of the University of Alberta for Tomorrow strategy, including reducing our administrative expenses by $127M. Failure to have an effective structure would be far more costly than adding three positions critical to ensuring its success.

Some have also expressed a concern that Executive Deans could undermine faculty autonomy. As I have said from the outset, I agree that the autonomy and control of academic programming must reside solely with the faculty and its dean. Where the Executive Dean can have influence is to convene the conversation about collaborative and interdisciplinary programming and to provide resources and oversight to ensure that more things can happen between faculties than occurs currently. It is an opportunity to encourage and provide incentives, not to dictate.

Setting a New Direction

We are at a crossroads. As a university, we cannot sit still. GFC's direction on December 7 will set the trajectory for the university for some time to come.

I look forward to an engaged discussion of all options at GFC. I remain encouraged and inspired by the collective will of all members of the university community to pull together at this challenging time and develop a strategic direction for the university that will enable us to continue to thrive and grow, making an even greater contribution to our collective goal to advance the public good in all that we do.

Steven Dew
Provost and Vice-President (Academic)