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Rethinking the academic affairs organizational structure

March 2, 2022

Nina Bates

Director of Operations and Strategic Initiatives, Office of the Provost, University of Arizona

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

Financial sustainability is perhaps the greatest challenge threatening universities, including the University of Arizona. Nearly all funding sources have tightened requiring the colleges and universities to revamp their academic, operational, and financial strategies to sustain their core mission. The COVID-19 pandemic made things more challenging.

Even before COVID-19, the University of Arizona had been facing challenges, such as shifting demographics and budget cuts. All these challenges made me sit back and think about whether our institution is efficient enough and if we are putting resources on the right things. I was motivated to use the fellowship as an opportunity to research and rethink our academic structure.

During the studies, I recognized some organizational strains that hinder us from being nimble in response to the challenges we face and meeting our mission to address the grand challenges affecting our life. The University of Arizona is a large land-grant university with 20 colleges and more than 49,000 students as of fall 2021. Many colleges and reporting lines create complexities, inefficiencies, and do not encourage cross-collaboration as strongly and smoothly as they could.

With many direct reports, the provost spends a large amount of time in meetings, which hinders the provost’s ability to spend more time thinking strategically.

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There are a lot of things to consider if we do want to restructure. A transformational change is scary for most people, costly at the beginning, and time-consuming. However, restructuring usually leads to long-term benefits if conducted thoughtfully and strategically.

Referencing the EAB Academic Affairs Organizational Benchmarking Survey: Key Findings from the 2021 Survey of College, there are some considerations for rethinking the academic structure: functional alignment, institutional priorities, strategic altitude, and the provost’s individual priorities. The provost needs to balance functional alignment with institutional and individual priorities. There are of course many other considerations such as timing, change management, and communications.

These things to consider gave a preliminary roadmap on how we could possibly do this.

  • First, we need to make the case for change and create some guiding principles and goals. What are we trying to achieve with the restructuring? Do we want to increase interdisciplinarity? Do we want to increase collaboration among faculty to enhance teaching and research? Do we want to realize some cost savings?
  • Second, conduct a study to understand the most appropriate structure and appropriate spans of control, and possibly model it after other institutions that have successfully restructured. We need to also understand the cost of delivering our curriculum. This will help us identify weaknesses and opportunities for efficiencies and savings. We need to make sure that the model appropriately aligns costs while preserving the core mission of our university.
  • Third, we must engage and transparently communicate with the campus community, especially the faculty. We need the buy-in and engagement from faculty, staff, and other constituents to create transformational change.

I would like to thank the team from EAB: Logan Morris and Drew Tye. My immense gratitude to my capstone partner Paula Mills from Colorado State University for sharing her insights and feedback. I’m also grateful for the network and friendships we made during the program.


See the fellows’ blogs from the capstone projects

Nina Bates and others participated in EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship in fall 2021

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