SRU provost announces department restructuring

He promises no furloughs and respect for contracts during planning in Spring 2024

Published by Matthew Glover and James Cressman, Date: October 30, 2023
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Slippery Rock University’s provost said no faculty or clerical staff will be furloughed in the administrative academic department restructuring taking effect in May 2024.

Interim Provost Michael Zieg emailed a draft of the proposed department restructuring to faculty on Oct. 10 and was met with mostly critical responses. The draft laid out the new departments by college with preliminary names, moved some programs to different departments, provided a brief explanation for each and an overall timeline.

The restructure will affect the administrative-facing departments and not the student-facing programs, Zieg said, and students more strongly identify with their major, not their department.

SRU-APSCUF President Jason Hilton and SRU-AFSCME President Lynn Cousins both confirmed Zieg said no faculty or clerical employees will be retrenched or furloughed in the restructuring.

Zieg also told The Rocket that clerical employee’s hours will not be reduced. Faculty course release time may be redistributed based on the number of faculty in a department.

Zieg’s reasoning for restructure

In an interview with The Rocket, Zieg said the questions he is most often being asked are “why now?” and “why all at once?”

“We have an opportunity because of how strong Slippery Rock is to stay ahead of trends,” he said.

Zieg said the restructuring order did not come from the Pennsylvania legislature, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) chancellor’s office or SRU’s new president.

He said the university’s strong financial standing creates less PASSHE oversight and external pressure compared to other schools in the state system. The department restructuring may be disruptive, and restructuring departments incrementally will prolong disruption.

Besides the College of Health Professions, Zieg said most of SRU’s academic departmental structure has not changed for 20 years. His goal is to put academic programs in stronger places using synergy between them.

Restructured departments

The proposed departments in the College of Business are School of Business, Safety, Security and Leadership, Strategic and Sports Communication and Military Science. The School of Business will include the accounting, economics, finance, information systems (+QUIE), management and marketing programs.

The proposed departments in the College of Education are Counseling and Development, Curriculum and Instruction, Physical and Health Education and Special Education. This college is largely unchanged with exception to the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. This new department will combine the existing departments of Secondary Education/Foundations of Education and Elementary Education/Early Childhood Education.

The proposed departments in the College of Engineering and Science will be Biology, Physical Sciences, Engineering and Technology and Mathematics.

His priority in the College of Health Professions is to combine the small departments. The proposed departments are Medical Sciences; Rehabilitation Sciences; Exercise, Health Science and Management and Social and Behavioral Sciences.

The College of Liberal Arts had the same priority of combining small departments. The proposed departments are Art, Humanities, Language, Literatures, Culture and Writing (LLCW), Music, Performing Arts, Social Sciences and Library. The restructuring also aims to consolidate inquiry blocks for Rock Studies and raise the number of course offerings.

Departments with no change in the restructuring include Safety, Military Science, Counseling and Development, Physical and Health Education, Special Education, Biology, Art, Music and LLCW.

Timeline and planning

Zieg wants feedback to be returned by Nov. 10 after faculty have had the chance to discuss feedback and alternatives at department and college meetings. The next APSCUF meet-and-discuss meeting is Nov. 14.

Zieg said SRU-APSCUF has requested the current draft at the time of the next meeting, so depending on the cohesion it is getting by then, it may turn into a working final draft.

The final department structures will be announced Nov. 16, the same day as the provost chair forum. The Spring 2024 semester will be used to plan before the new departments take effect in May 2024.

The department restructuring timeline has not changed since the faculty forum last Thursday, Zieg said.

The Spring 2024 planning phase includes working out course release time or alternative compensation based on new department sizes, which departments will need assistant chairpersons or program directors, where clerical employees will need to be reassigned and holding chairperson elections in April.

Zieg does not think the department restructuring will negatively affect chairperson elections because candidates usually run unopposed, he said.

Administration and SRU-APSCUF meet-and-discuss teams met on Sept. 12 and Oct. 17 where administration expressed intent to reorganize academic departments with updates along the way, Hilton said.

SRU-AFSCME has not had any official meet-and-discuss meetings with administration regarding department restructuring, but they have had informal communication that much of their planning will take place after the department restructuring.

SRU-APSCUF and Zieg put together a Department Restructuring Task Force consisting of one APSCUF-appointed faculty member from each college and four administrators including two deans.

Analytics and Decision Support Director Kevin McCarthy also assisted with information requests. Members of the task force were anonymous.

The task force drafted initial principles and considerations to help Zieg create an initial restructuring model. The task force did not approve the proposed model after submitting their considerations and has ended meetings since that phase was completed, Hilton said.

Clerical employees

Even though Zieg committed to no furloughs, he said there will be fewer departments than clerical employees at SRU after the restructuring, so clerical employees will no longer be working across departments.

A survey will be distributed asking them to identify their favorite aspects of their job. Zieg said one potential outcome may be increased opportunity for specialization like in public-facing roles or behind-the-scenes roles like travel and purchasing specialists.

The specializations could increase the amount of advancement opportunities available and make the job more welcoming and consistent for all employees, Zieg said. Larger departments may also be assigned multiple clerical employees.

Course release time

Course releases are time allotted to professors to work on departmental duties and obligations outside of coursework. Course release time is often granted to department chairs, faculty serving on departmental committees, and faculty advising some student organizations.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) has a formula for the amount of course release time based on the number of faculty in a department. Department chairs in departments with 10 or fewer faculty members only get a quarter-time release. After the restructuring, each department will have 15 to 20 faculty members and get a half-time release for department chairs.

Course release time will also be affected by the number of assistant chairs and program directors in a department. Faculty may also be offered a summer contract instead of a fall or spring course release.

Most course releases are guaranteed by contract or mandated by accreditation agencies.

“There are very, very few release contracts that are not in one way or another mandated for us,” Zieg said. “It’s too early to say, but looking at some potential models, I don’t see an awful lot of change in the amount of release time.”

Faculty forum

After Zieg released the department restructuring draft on Oct. 10, he held a town hall last Thursday for faculty to voice concerns about the department restructuring draft. An anonymous survey was also released on Wednesday for faculty to provide feedback directly to Zieg and will be open for two to three weeks, he said.

At the forum, Zieg said the three reasons for restructuring were to promote efficiency, equity and innovation.

Most faculty feedback criticized the restructuring itself, the timing, their program’s placement in a specific department or college and the forum as a platform for offering solutions.

Faculty also said some departments have already done internal restructuring and increased synergy between programs and departments have their own culture and identity that cannot easily be changed.

Zieg said at the forum that he “does not have enough time to meet with individual faculty to address their concerns” and received heavy criticism from the audience including claims that administration does not care about students.

“I was a little taken aback by the idea that administration and I,” he said, “don’t care at all about the students…I think that is not an accurate interpretation. It is not true that the administration, in any of its incarnations, does not care about the students.”

Zieg’s priority in the College of Engineering and Science is to create an independent engineering department, but at the faculty forum, mechanical engineering professor Louis Christensen said since the engineering program was only established in fall 2019, the program and its new professors would lose their senior leadership from the physics program.

Dance department chairperson Jennifer Keller said its faculty take pride in being the only Department of Dance in PASSHE, and she worries how combining it with the Theater Department will reduce visibility which attracts high-caliber faculty and students. Public health professors were also worried about decreasing visibility after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zieg understands that these changes have upset a lot of people campus-wide. He maintains that he has done the things he has done because he thought it was the best thing.

“I have done stuff that has ended up being wrong, and I’ve done stuff that has ended up being right, but I’ve always done it with the goal of doing what’s best for the unit I was responsible for.”

The Rocket asked Zieg on his thoughts about how this restructuring, if successful, would impact his prospects of achieving the position of Provost.

“I can only sleep at night if I’m doing what I believe is best for the entire University, Zieg said.

And that really does mean everybody, Zieg said. “Although there will obviously be people who dislike anything.”

“I have some people who are legitimately very angry, there are some people who have been my friends for a very long time.”

This proposed restructuring has ended those friendship Zieg said.

For Zieg, nothing on his CV is worth damaging relationships.

“I honest to goodness believe that this is the path that will make the university stronger.”

In understanding that he is someone who has and can make mistakes, Zieg admitted that this may be one of them.

“Maybe this is wrong, it’s possible, I do make mistakes fairly regularly, but I do care about this place. I’ve worked here for twenty years, my daughter goes here, I want this be a strong university for decades to come.”

The most important thing for Zieg, regardless of the results, is to have SRU be as successful as it can be.

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