“Too many single units are doing overlapping things, colleges and non-college units included.” “Too many meetings, too many meetings, too little bandwidth, and entrenched silos.” “Too many reports leads to bottlenecks in my office, because leaders wait on me for decisions.”
The above responses to open-ended prompts in our 2021 survey of chief academic officers are emblematic of the organizational dynamics within provosts’ cabinets. Respondents often described their roles as both exceedingly broad and deep—requiring a degree of flexibility matched by few roles inside or out of higher education.
In response to growing interest among provosts in norms and emerging trends associated with academic affairs units—perhaps accelerated by the financial strain brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on higher education revenues—we launched a survey to provide much-needed insight into the size, scope, and processes in place at colleges and universities across North America. The survey asked respondents to describe the following:
- The number of direct reports to the provost, including both academic deans and administrators overseeing units such as undergraduate education, libraries, IT, and international programs
- Functions reporting directly to the provost and desired changes to the functional portfolio (what should and shouldn’t report to you?)
- Meeting and check-in periodicity with reports—both collectively and individually
- Desired changes to the academic affairs office and/or organization of academic units
What does the typical academic affairs organization look like?
While results varied in intuitive ways by institutional size and segment (segment differences are highlighted in our full report), we found that the average provost:
- Has between 11-15 direct reports
- Has 1.37 non-academic dean reports for every one academic dean
- Feels they have too many direct reports
- Directly oversees libraries, faculty affairs, graduate education, the registrar, institutional research, undergraduate studies, academic resource planning, an office for student success, and a center for teaching and learning
- Does not directly oversee admissions, career services, IT, financial aid, military affairs, community engagement, DEI, marketing and communications, or museums
- Meets with academic deans once every two weeks as a group, and once a month individually
- Meets with non-academic deans (administrative) reports once a month as a group and once a month individually
- Has already made changes to their organizational structure and is considering additional realignment
Survey participants receive customized benchmarking reports highlighting their responses against peers, which can be instrumental in determining whether, and how, to consider a change to one’s organizational structure.
When should provosts consider reorganization?
Many problems that initially seem to be organizational problems are not actually rooted in reporting lines or structures. As one former provost remarked in an interview with our research team, “My advice to a new provost would be to hire well. If you hire the right people, they’ll figure out how to collaborate and solve problems without having to re-organize who reports to who.” Relatedly, many organizational models, titles, and processes are highly personality-dependent and deeply contextualized within the idiosyncratic history of that institution.
Reorganization also brings with it several trade-offs that should be understood. New offices, titles, protocols, policies, and people take significant time and energy to adapt to. Change fatigue can create cynicism or even resistance, where frequent re-examination of reporting lines has taken place or where, as in recent years, teams have already been grappling with significant external and internal disruptions. Finally, an executive impulse to clarify ‘ownership’ can go too far—organizations can end up with dozens of ‘czar’ appointments with topical mandates, but little control over execution in their areas and a tendency to resort to lowest-common-denominator solutions to challenges that benefit from decentralized specialization. Simply put, re-organization should be approached carefully, and done when there are clearly identified organizational problems that can’t be easily addressed within current structures or with adjusted individual incentives.
Here are six common signs of organizational strain within administrative units:
- A need for many ad hoc meetings to solve problems, and/or with significant redirection by managers. Standing meetings and check-ins rarely result in progress, and the provost spends significant time tracking down information or standing up new ‘task force’ structures.
- Uncertainty about decision-making authority. Direct reports delay or deflect decisions out of a desire for consensus or ‘air cover.’ Reports give differing accounts of historical policies or practices, often tied to individual leaders in place.
- Delayed or unresolved to-dos, meeting time spent on basic re-education or explanation. Check-ins and standing meetings rarely end with clear outcomes or assigned responsibilities, and team members have become accustomed to live, unstructured debate. Key information is missing in most meetings that would enable real-time resolution of issues.
- Mismatch between title/office and actual responsibility. Reports have taken on many responsibilities outside their job description over time. Noticeable, unintended inequities exist in managerial span and workload among reports.
- Significant institutional knowledge required to accomplish tasks. New hires take 6-12+ months to learn how to obtain information and resources necessary to perform their roles successfully; informal power gravitates toward most tenured internal staff.
- Duplication and/or internal competition across units. Reports feel greater pressure to advocate against others for resources than to collaborate. Most executive decisions require multiple leaders to negotiate or share staff time.
4 considerations for rethinking your office structure:
- Functional alignment: Does this area benefit from shared oversight by the chief academic officer in particular? How critical is regular coordination and collaboration with the provost’s other direct reports, including academic deans?
- Institutional priorities: Does this area align directly with our top strategic priorities (i.e. enrollment growth, student success, online learning) and therefore warrant special attention by a senior cabinet officer?
- Strategic altitude: Where is the need for management in this area on a spectrum of strategic vs. tactical considerations? How much time is spent explaining details and operational information to the provost?
- Individual priorities: Are regular check-ins with and leadership over this area distracting or contributing to the provost’s desired time allocation against goals? Does ownership of this unit align well with the provost’s particular strengths?
If you or a colleague are considering changes to the organizational structure within academic affairs, I hope this guidance is useful—reach out to your strategic leader if you’re interested in speaking with us about this topic.
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