Departments and Disciplines: Stasis and Change

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Science  30 Nov 1973:
Vol. 182, Issue 4115, pp. 895-898
DOI: 10.1126/science.182.4115.895


Because I believe that the departmental power base of universities has been a major factor in resisting inevitable and continuing changes in the disciplinary boundaries of research and teaching, I predict that significant changes in the nature of departments are inevitable. Departments will either permit, or even seek, a realignment of their spheres of control over disciplinary activity or they will lose the power of control over basic academic decisions and rewards.

To the extent that society at large expresses resistance to change, the status quo of departments may have a temporary lease on life. On the other hand, society's current disenchantment with academia may make radical internal change seem vital to the maintenance of public support, and even the survival of universities, and thus hasten changes in either departmental structure or departmental power. Within universities, resistance to such change is generally supported on the assumption that academic freedom will be threatened. Obviously, all change involves some risk, but a very significant limitation to academic freedom already exists in the pressures that many departments exert on members to restrict their intellectual activity to fit the departmental mold. Departments can regain their important role in fostering both academic freedom and academic responsibility for excellence if they will redefine their discipline-oriented identities and realign their priorities to include cross-disciplinary inquiry and teaching and greater responsiveness to the responsibilities and expectations of the university and society.