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The Academic Departments: Home Base For Doctoral Students And The Center of The Graduate Mission of The Institution

Tomorrow's Academy

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Departments are rarely equal in power. Some command larger shares of resources, have an easier time getting their people hired and promoted, have lighter teaching loads or more teaching assistance distributed to them. Different groups dominate in different universities.


The posting below gives a nice overview of how things really work in most academic departments. It is from Chapter III, Getting the Big Picture of How Things Work in the World of Higher Education, in The Academic Game - Psychological Strategies for Successfully Completing the Doctorate, by Elaine R. Parent (with Leslie R. Lewis). Published by Infinity 1094 New De Haven Street, Suite 100, West Conshohocken, PA 19428-2713. []. Copyright 2005 by Elaine R. Parent All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. ISBN 0-7414-2713-3 [].


Rick Reis

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In universities, there are two types of departmental administrators. One is called a head, the other a chair. According to Sirchik (2003), the choice of words is probably not accidental. A head is appointed with no fixed term. Its occupant authorizes all departmental educational, budget, hiring, promotion, and salary decisions. It is a very powerful position and much like headships at other universities.

The chair position, in contrast, has fixed term. Its resident is obligated to attend to the advice of the elected "executive committee" of a department. Responsibilities include submitting a budget on behalf of the department, requesting funding for new appointments, salary increments, secretarial support, office and laboratory space, supplies and equipment and funds for graduate fellowships and assistantships.

How Departments are Administered

The department chair also has to evaluate each faculty member, regardless of rank, on the basis of their teaching, research and service, and makes recommendation to administration about merit increases, Departments bargain competitively with other departments for the allocation of limited institutional resources.

Useful in understanding the influence on faculty values and behavior is the description of the four primary cultures (Table III-13, page 81) and how they influence faculty role behavior.

Hinchey (2001) suggests that in order to understand a culture, one must understand the choices and the power, or lack of it, that people experience within it. She suggests that the implications for doctoral students are clear. Since administrators, functionaries and faculty all inhabit several cultures with individual values and rewards, students face the dilemma of sorting out those values which are rhetorical, serving only appearances, and which ones are in force, driving behavior and rewards.

The Role and Distribution of Money

Departments are rarely equal in power. Some command larger shares of resources, have an easier time getting their people hired and promoted, have lighter teaching loads or more teaching assistance distributed to them. Different groups dominate in different universities.

Prestigious private universities are more likely than prestigious public universities to have outstanding law and business schools and prestigious public universities are more likely to have outstanding engineering and agricultural schools. These differences reflect the historical flow of resources into institutions. In a similar way, the distribution of power among and within departments results from the way resources come into them and the roles they play. As Darley (1987, p.64) writes, "power distributes along the lines of critical dependencies."

Departmental power hinges on the funds from grants. Grants serve two purposes: they benefit research and departments thrive on them. The biggest contribution they make is to institution, in the form of overhead rebates. These funds to departments are discretionary, which means that they can be used for activities that don't have to fit into other budgetary categories, like teaching innovations, seed money for special projects, summer research, equipment, etc.

According to Salanchik (1987) overhead rebates can vary from 10-50 percent of the grant total. "The one generality is that power plays a role in every university and derives from the critical resources that shape that institution's success and ultimately its survival. Private universities, lacking the subsidies of a state appropriation process, operate very differently from public universitiesŠthey survive by accumulating endowment." (p.68)

Differences between the Disciplines

"Each discipline has its own sources of funding, its own markets for faculty and students, its own journals, and its own definitions and its own markets for prestige. Although some intellectual strands link them, and although they compete at some level for funds, students and public attention, disciplines for the most part operate independently. The facts form the basis for the distribution of power in universities and departments."

Departmental Power and Politics

In general, departmental responsibilities include: determining their curricula subject to school approval; making the initial recommendations for promotion and tenure; admitting and awarding financial aid to graduate students, within the rules and resources made available by administration. At the undergraduate level, departments determine the requirements for their majors, subject to school approval.

In the graduate arena, departments exercise almost virtual autonomy in determining all aspects of the doctoral student experience. Included are the curriculum, the distribution of courses, the breadth and depth of knowledge to be examined in the Ph.D. preliminary orals, as well as the nature and quality of the dissertation.

Faculty Service on Departmental Committees

Faculty serve on a number of departmental committees, both standing and ad hoc, that are responsible for making decisions on a wide variety of departmental issues, These can include courses, decisions related to the procurement of library collections, to lab equipment or audio visual materials, on long range planning, on faculty search committees and graduate admissions.

Social Relationships in the Academy

An institution of higher learning is a peculiar creature, a dynamic organism that cannot be defined as the sum of its parts. According to Colton, (1995), people can get balkanized in departments and isolated, even lonely, in their offices just as they can in large cities.

Colton maintains that as in any polite society, that the academy is held together in part by conventions of decency, honor and mutual obligation. If occasionally they are breached, it is important to repair them quickly. This refers not only to the strategic tact of treating one's elders with deference, but of treating all one's colleagues with a responsible measure of respect you also expect and deserve from them (p.339).

Power Relationships in the Academy

According to Salancik (1987), power is situational, not personal. It is important to realize that power organizes around those subgroups (departments, disciplinary groups or individuals) in an organization thought to contribute its most critical resources. The distribution of power among and within departments results from the way resources come into them and the roles they play.

Money is key in understanding power and influence. Most academics prefer not to think about money believing if they have a good idea, it should be funded. However, those who run universities are confronted by many good ideas and must choose among them. To choose they must maximize the quality of the entire institution.

Where the Money Comes From

Funding varies across institutions. Traditionally, private institutions have been supported by large endowments along with the higher tuition paid by the majority of students attending. Public universities and colleges have been funded by the state and are thus vulnerable to the fiscal whims of politicians and policymakers. According to recent government reports, during the 1994-95 school year, $509 billion, or 7.6 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was spent on education in the United States. Forty percent, or roughly $203 billion of this went to colleges and universities. When funding is low, students must shoulder a larger proportion of the cost through (out-of-state) tuition and registration fees.

A relatively recent trend is the growing involvement of large business corporations in the universities' research funding. This is a welcome new resource but it may also have implications for the direction and ownership of academic research. Often, if the company sees the potential benefit of a particular line of research, it will fund the activities of a particular researcher and his/her team. This may raise ethical questions about the practical researchers can often do apply for grant and foundation funding to support their own research activities. The universities receive a large proportion of this (sometimes as much as forty percent) for administrative overhead costs.

Departmental Structure and Culture

Academic departments, even within the same discipline, vary significantly from one university to the next. This is because the history, reputation, orientation, philosophy, politics, faculty make-up, departmental cohesion, and graduate student expectations of each differ. Every department has a particular body of knowledge, technique and approach they use to orient and train their graduate students. This may mean that a single tradition or paradigm guides the curriculum, or it may be a combination of two or more different traditions that combine to form the philosophy of the department. Individual faculty members may or may not completely tow the departmental party line. That is to say, their theoretical ideas and philosophies may differ from the official one.

Regardless of what particular theoretical or methodological paradigm faculty members espouse, they are interested in establishing or maintaining an intellectual tradition. Graduate students are the vehicles for this. Each faculty members hopes to train up-and-coming experts in such a way that they carry on his or her theoretical approach or line of inquiry. Such collaboration and continuations build legacies and invite additional followings among subsequent graduate students and emerging professionals.

Some departments are conservative; others have reputations for being progressive and even radical. Some departments are cohesive: faculty members constitute a harmonious blend of individual philosophies and personalities. Other departments are characterized by a strong rift along theoretical or personality lines. This kind of tension can be problematic for unsuspecting graduate students. When considering doctoral programs, it's worth taking a couple of days to visit the campus and talk with graduate students from various years. If you can get a hold of them, they can be rich source of information for what you can expect theoretically, methodologically, and relationally from different faculty members. Once you're admitted at a school and you're ensconced in your new surroundings the first term, you'll want to listen and ask questions to try to get a lay of the land.

Some students have found themselves in the midst of bitter conflict and polarization. Without knowing the major issues and people involved, they unwittingly align themselves with one side or the other. This can unfortunately alienate a pool of otherwise helpful and interesting faculty members. As many have learned, there may be relationships of tension or ease between and among faculty, the administrative staff, and graduate students. Recognizing these early on can help you negotiate potential hurdles.