One of the first decisions every provost must make before launching new programs is where those programs will be housed. With traditional programs, it’s usually as simple as approving the program launch request from the department that makes it. But with new, high-demand program launches in interdisciplinary fields, the answer is less clear.
Take data analytics, for example. Analysis is an in-demand skill for students and employers, and doesn’t have a clear connection to a single academic discipline. So as provost you might face three different proposals from the departments of statistics, mathematics, and computer science to launch their own data analytics programs.
Should you approve three competing and redundant programs, or risk alienating two departments by “awarding” the new launch to a third? Launch it in your continuing and online education unit, where traditional faculty feel like they have minimal oversight? Or launch a department of data analytics, requiring new faculty hires, office space, a chair, staff, and the rest of the departmental infrastructure?
What if the answer is “none of the above”?
What do programs really need?
Many departments already house more than one degree program, so it’s clear programs don’t need separate, dedicated departments to thrive. What programs need are qualified faculty, a forum for those faculty to make decisions about curriculum and pedagogy, and a designated leader to carry out or delegate those decisions.
That’s why more and more institutions are developing programs in a faculty cohort model, where groups of faculty informally self-designate as members of a disciplinary or programmatic grouping and elect a representative cohort lead. Cohorts can span multiple departments and even colleges. Many institutions are even thinking past departments as organizational units entirely, creating larger interdisciplinary divisions that serve as cost centers and administrative units while faculty are free to teach and conduct research in informal cohorts.
Essential ingredients for successful faculty cohorts
Unfortunately, many institutions’ policies present barriers to successful program cohorts. First, institutions often target programs with few majors for program cuts and reductions in faculty lines, which disincentivizes faculty’s support of cross-department programs. To enable cohorts to focus on these programs, universities must allocate student credit hours back to the instructor’s home unit and use the promotion and tenure process to reward cross-disciplinary teaching. Then, consider whether faculty in low-enrollment departments could teach in new interdisciplinary programs. For example, could faculty in a declining English department offer data journalism classes?
Cohort leads in particular need extra support, since the work of the position—from developing curriculum and conducting assessment to administrative work like registration, scheduling, and budgeting—is usually conducted in-load. Their work must be counted toward their service requirement for promotion and tenure, and institutions must be thoughtful in particular about reducing or even eliminating the administrative burden on leads by investing in technology to automate processes or hiring more frontline administrative staff, often in a cross-unit shared-service model.
Most of all, cohort leads need clarity about what aspects of program leadership are and aren’t their responsibilities. For institutions moving to this model, EAB has developed position descriptions for cohort leads that clarify the division of responsibilities with unit heads as part of our larger Multidisciplinary Reorganization Toolkit. Whether you are launching a single new program across three departments, or reorganizing all of your departments into flexible multidisciplinary units, use the toolkit to learn more about the principles of effective interdisciplinary governance.