Three newly appointed “divisional deans” are working to simplify the administrative structure of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences this semester.
An organization that encompasses five schools, 29 departments, and 32 institutes, centers, and programs has been split into just three divisions—sciences, humanities and social sciences, with a dean overseeing each. And just a few months after those deans started, FAS administrators and faculty say that the new division of labor has helped reduce the bureaucratic complexity of Arts and Sciences.
Amber Miller was appointed dean of sciences in April, and Pierre Force and Geraldine Downey were added July 1 as dean of humanities and dean of social sciences, respectively. The divisional deans are meant to serve as bridges between faculty and administrators while addressing issues such as hiring and space planning.
A&S Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Margaret Edsall said that the advent of divisional deans has allowed her office to split up the overwhelming amount of work that it is responsible for, from approving staffing of courses to examining curricula and overseeing degrees.
“Bureaucracy is kind of a painful thing. It’s a huge thing to keep functioning,” Edsall said. “If you have 29 departments, in addition to deans and institutes, that’s 50 to 60 people who need attention, and if they’re all in single-file, then everything will happen more slowly.”
Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks said in an interview earlier this semester that he had wanted to institute divisional deans at Columbia since 2004. But he wasn’t able to make it happen until earlier year this, when, coincidentally, an analysis of the structure of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences by the consulting group McKinsey and Company strongly recommended adding divisional deans. Dirks said the McKinsey findings helped him “chart how we might do that.”
In a memo to department chairs last month, Dirks said that the new structure mirrors similar administrative choices made by Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford University. The divisional deans will facilitate the relationship between departments and the administration in order to serve as “a voice in strategic planning” for their individual divisions, Dirks said.
For classics department chair Katharina Volk, the new structure translates into more communication with the administration. She said that since Force has become dean of humanities, she has had “way more face time than with other administrators in the past.”
“There is interest on the part of Pierre about what we’re doing in classics because he’s actually in the humanities, whereas Dirks is chair of 29 departments,” she said.
Miller, a physics professor, said that as faculty members themselves, the divisional deans benefit from wide-ranging knowledge and experience within their specific fields and divisions.
“Building the divisional dean position is about having somebody whose role is to be the support the faculty needs to do their jobs—with fundraising, with space, and with academics,” she said.
In the relatively short time they have been in office, the divisional deans have met with the department chairs in their divisions, both individually and as groups. They are also non-voting members of the Policy and Planning Committee, an advisory body to Dirks that represents the interests of the faculty.
The divisional deans are also meant to help faculty members advance the interests of their divisions. Force said he was pleased to now be able to officially advocate for the humanities, and that one of his goals is to raise funds to support initiatives in the digital humanities, including digital imaging of art and the use of computational linguistics and artificial intelligence in humanistic research.
“I don’t buy the idea that the humanities are in decline. Particularly at a place like Columbia, humanities is an essential part of liberal arts curriculum,” Force said. “I don’t buy the notion that studying literature, language, or philosophy makes you unfit for the real world. I think it’s the opposite.”
Downey is currently working to develop an experimental social sciences lab that would incorporate researchers from the sociology, political science, and economics departments, among other projects. She also currently occupies the position of executive vice dean of arts and sciences, another newly created office which has her working closely with Dirks on day-to-day issues within A&S.
Miller is working with Interim Provost John Coatsworth on a unified plan for the sciences at Columbia, and said she wants to focus on promoting fundraising and development in the basic sciences. She has also already helped realize a longtime goal for the sciences—this year, Columbia will support endowed post-doctoral fellowships in the basic sciences for the first time, beginning with the ecology, evolution, and environmental biology and astronomy departments.
Astronomy department chair Frits Paerels said science faculty have wanted a program like this for “at least a decade.”
“All other major universities with famous basic sciences programs have endowed post-doc fellowships,” Paerels said. “I don’t think it would have happened if Amber hadn’t started in this new position.”