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Revisioning the University

  • Date: 10/28/2009
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Message to the University Community
  • Yesterday, Dear Colleagues . . .

    . . . I delivered the 2009 State of the University address. At the heart of my message is the conviction that we, all of us at The University of Akron, can succeed only by what we do to earn and secure our economic future - no one else can or will do it for us.

    Knowing that challenges and opportunities go hand in hand - with great challenges such as those we now face offering great opportunities - let me first share the context of our current situation and then offer some emerging perspectives of our possible futures.

    Our Context and Our Opportunities

    Of course, by now all of us are acutely aware of the impact of the economic recession and of the demands of an increasingly competitive, global environment. These are not matters that simply can be "waited out" - rather, we must adapt to the new realities and craft new ways of fulfilling our noble charter.

    At the same time, we have established great momentum on which to craft our future. We have done so through our New Landscape for Learning, New Landscape for Living and New Mindscapes for Learning initiatives, and also by working assiduously to align our efforts with those of the Northeast Ohio Universities Collaboration and Innovation Study Commission, the Chancellor and the University System of Ohio. Indeed, in many ways we are increasingly recognized for our leadership - whether through our shared services initiative as part of the Innovation Alliance with Lorain County Community College, the success of our Research Foundation, our Austen BioInnovation Institute partnership, or through the execution of our earlier strategic plan, Charting the Course.

    As we began to shape our new strategic plan earlier this year, we first responded this summer to the Chancellor's call for a set of proposed centers of excellence at each of the state's public universities. We offered a first draft that included five broad and interdisciplinary centers to build world-class excellence in response to regional needs and strengths in the areas of Community Health, Economic Vitality and Human Talent:

    • Creating the New Materials for the New Economy: Center of Excellence in Globally Distinctive Polymer Sciences and Engineering Applied in Regional Industry Clusters, including the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron and its Center of Excellence in Biomaterials and Orthopaedics
    • Center of Excellence for the Development, Protection, Marketing and Commercialization of New Technologies
    • Future Centers of Excellence in Areas Supporting Other Northeast Ohio Economic Clusters Now Not Served (such as metals, financial services, propulsion, alternative energy and others)
    • Center of Excellence in Access and Inclusive Excellence
    • Center of Excellence in Developing Talent, Capacity and Creativity

    Our Centers of Excellence proposal expresses the broad and comprehensive value of our institution by leveraging all of our strengths through these five aggregations and thereby optimizing our ability to work easily and effectively within and between units for the betterment of our students, faculty, academic disciplines and society - as well as our University. 

    Now, through our ongoing strategic planning process, which I summarized yesterday, interest has been rekindled in optimizing our ability to execute on emerging goals, and many of you have shared suggestions that clearly point to a need for an organizational structure that better reflects and facilitates our mission, vision, goals and objectives. Essentially, the idea is that we need to express specific elements of our mission and vision better by strengthening the relationship between what we intend to accomplish and the organizational structure of the University, both academic and administrative. And, in reflecting on this idea, some of you have shared the thought, perhaps in jest, that up to this point we largely have relied upon a traditional model in which our organization is based largely on history, custom and academic discipline or, in a few cases, even the happenstance of convenience.

    Furthermore, what many of you have told me is that the basic academic units should provide the necessary resources to accomplish the University's vision, while the larger organizational structure optimally assembles those resources to efficiently and effectively achieve that vision.  And if we do this well, it should enable us to act more rationally and responsively, remove organizational impediments at all levels and, thereby, garner the financial success that will reward our efforts.

    Toward a Needed Dialogue

    As a starting point, we need to offer improvements and alternatives, discuss the optimal number and mix of academic units, develop a plan for the comparable optimization of administrative units, and suggest built-in incentives and assurances within a re-envisioned organization. To begin this discussion, I offer the following ideas for us to explore, critique and improve.  

    Because departments and similar academic units are tied to the scholarly disciplines that produce and apply the knowledge necessary to achieve the University's mission, they remain the basic building blocks of the University's organizational structure.  Departments would continue to focus on creating and disseminating knowledge through teaching, research and scholarly activity, and service and engagement. 

    The next level of organization would combine departments that are closely related in terms of the kind of knowledge they contribute into what might be a called a "school."  "School"-level responsibilities would include organizing faculty according to the interdisciplinary issues we choose to pursue (rather than just by department) and creating degree programs or revised curricula that draw on courses taught by several related departments.  A council of the department chairs could manage the schools.

    At a still broader organizational level, colleges would combine closely related schools to provide their faculty with resources and capabilities drawn from throughout the entire college.  With much larger but fewer colleges, the resources available within each would be significant and could be directed toward educational rather than administrative efforts.  Colleges also could provide greater incentives and opportunities for faculty to cooperate with one another in new and creative ways to achieve the University's vision.  For optimum effectiveness and flexibility, departments, parts thereof, and individual faculty could belong to multiple schools or colleges, and some schools could belong to multiple colleges.  The Centers of Excellence noted previously could be seen as examples of this kind of thinking, with personnel drawn from across departments and colleges.

    Using this approach and to start our discussion, the following four colleges could make sense in terms of the University's emerging vision:

    • College of Scientific, Technical and Medical Innovation-with schools comprised of departments in mathematics, natural sciences, engineering, technology, nursing and healthcare.
    • College of Commerce, Marketing and Entrepreneurship-with schools comprised of departments of economics, business administration, marketing, communication and finance
    • College of Community and Institutional Development-with schools comprised of departments in the social sciences, public administration, social work, education and law
    • College of Cultural and Artistic Enrichment-with schools comprised of departments in the humanities, languages, drama, art and music

    Of course, we might consider other alternatives. For example, we could choose to identify the most salient issues confronting our region, community and comparable areas across the nation and the world and organize ourselves around those topics. None of these options need be exclusive of another, and our goal should be to optimize our success by engaging with our community to address significant issues and problems.

    Moreover, a similar approach would be applied to the organization of administrative services in the University with the goal of focusing every administrative sector on supporting our core mission efficiently and effectively.  Already, we have made some progress in that regard.  For example, we followed our leadership efforts with the Northeast Ohio Universities Collaboration and Innovation Study Commission in 2007 by-(1) developing a shared services model for information technology with Lorain County Community College that we hope to extend to other partners and into other technical, functional and administrative processes beyond I.T., (2) beginning efforts through the Inter University Council to consolidate the statewide purchasing power and efforts of all public universities, (3)  centralizing and streamlining our print-management functions, and (4) extending our technology transfer and intellectual property management expertise to other colleges and universities.  We even learned that Akron was considered to be the most efficient among area universities in its competitive bidding of health insurance plans.  Still, those examples represent only small steps in the right direction.  We must develop ways for all administrative units to be linked to the academic enterprise and actively facilitate work on core priorities such as academic programming, interaction with students and community engagement. 

    Broader Questions Still

    Finally, there also are other important questions that we must address around the idea that public universities in the 21st Century must be increasingly more relevant, connected and productive.  Among those questions are these:  How do we focus the entire university on engaging with the community to solve vital issues for mutual benefit?  How do we identify regional challenges and needs, and then link them with the institution to engage and organize resources?  How might our own faculty tell us how to tie those challenges and opportunities to our mission and vision?  How can we best facilitate faculty interest and involvement to address specific regional challenges?  How do we create an effective and evolving university organization that becomes increasingly more capable?  How do we organize to enhance and optimize effectiveness, responsiveness and competitiveness?  How much more varied and numerous might our alternatives be if we expand our thinking to include the possibility of creative collaborations and consortia both among universities and with the private sector and government, as we have done with the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron?  And how would we rethink the University if we started with no preconceptions but simply a blank piece of paper?

    Creating Our Future Collectively

    While we are not alone in the challenges we face, I believe that we are significantly ahead of our colleagues elsewhere, an impression strongly echoed by the invited speakers who visited campus as part of our strategic thinking process. Higher education is undergoing a paradigm shift that began years ago, but now has been accelerated.  In my mind, this shift can strengthen the core of what we do and value as academics-creating new knowledge, disseminating and expanding upon the existing knowledge base, and facilitating student and societal growth.

    In an April 20 message, I quoted Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee's statement to the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, "At this defining moment-when our communities and our nation need us more than ever-we must fundamentally reinvent our institutions. We must become more agile, more responsive, less insular and less bureaucratic. In so doing, we will save ourselves from slouching into irrelevance."  The October 26, 2009 issue of Newsweek magazine carries a similar warning by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, who wrote, ". . . as with the auto industry in the 1960s, there are signs of peril within American higher education.  . . . in some ways, many colleges and universities are stuck in the past."  I think that if we heed these warnings, as I concluded in my April 20 message, "... (we will) see the opportunity for all of us to consider how we might adjust our practices and our organization so that The University of Akron can continue on its promising path. Indeed, I believe it is obvious that doing business as usual will not enable us to enjoy the gains we have made." 

    That belief now is even stronger; thus, I have offered some ideas with examples and questions for discussion that I believe provide sound bases for a vital campus-wide discussion. The underlying approach can lead us toward a different way of organizing and expressing the University's capacity so as to focus on our core vision; to become more effective and efficient, especially in administrative operations; to enhance the long-term viability of our University community; and to create a future in which our University meets the great expectations of our society by taking leadership in economic and community development.  Furthermore, we must do better at rewarding, incentivizing and compensating those activities that will advance our success because that is the only way in which we can transform ourselves and shape our own future.

    I know that the best answers to those questions will come from our collective thinking, and I encourage you to dive into this important discussion. 

    With every good wish for our continued success,


                                                                Proenza signature


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