Coppin State University is contemplating an innovative experiment in higher-education management: letting professors run their own school.
Arguing that the public college in West Baltimore has a glut of high-paid administrators, a faculty committee charged with finding a dean for the newly configured School of Professional Studies proposed last week that the search be aborted and that the school be managed instead by a council of four department chairmen.
"We have data that supports the argument that we're administratively top-heavy," said veteran sociology professor Elias L. Taylor, the search committee member who originated the idea. "What's the point for a small group of 25 faculty members to have another dean?"
If enacted, such a governing structure would be unusual in American higher education and difficult to execute well, experts in public administration said.
Typically, a "school" within a university - comprising several academic departments - is headed by a full-time dean who reports to the chief academic officer, or provost.
Taylor, who has studied the sociology of large institutions, said his proposal is grounded in his philosophical opposition to all but the most limited bureaucracies.
"Once you create a beast, it has to live its own life," he said. "Bureaucratic structure never ends enlarging itself, to the detriment of the little guy at the bottom, even if its original intent was to help the little guy."
But doing away with administrative leadership at the dean's level is a utopian "fool's errand," said H. George Frederickson, a University of Kansas professor of public administration and former president of Eastern Washington University.
Frederickson predicted that the Coppin plan, if enacted, would quickly end in failure.
"A good dean can form coalitions and articulate a strategic vision and be influential with the provost and president, and marshal resources and build support out in the community - all the things you expect deans to do," Frederickson said. "You can't expect that to happen if you're simply rotating it every two years among four chairpersons."
Taylor said Provost Sadie R. Gregory approved the proposal last week. In an interview, Gregory said she had not made a final decision and declined to speak about the idea before discussing it with outgoing President Stanley F. Battle and more faculty members.
In making its case to the provost, the faculty committee said Coppin already spends a significantly greater proportion of its operating budget on administrative expenses than any other campus in the University System of Maryland - and the smallest proportion on instruction.
According to a report presented earlier this month to the Board of Regents, in 2005 Coppin spent 29 percent of its operating expenditures on administration, twice the average of about 10 similar institutions nationally.
The money saved by not hiring a dean - who typically makes about $90,000 a year at Coppin, according to Taylor - could be used for student aid or to hire additional instructors, said social sciences department Chairman John L. Hudgins, who would be one of the four department heads on the governing council.
"We are hurting for faculty," said Hudgins, pointing out that about 40 percent of Coppin's roughly 115 regular full-time professors teach more courses per year than their contracts require.
Coppin officials did not respond to questions about administrative costs, but University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan said the 4,000-student college has only recently begun receiving an infusion of money, which may account for increases in administrative overhead, after years of being severely under funded.
"The capital commitment there is well over $200 million for a relatively small campus, and just the planning, construction management and capital program development of that magnitude ... would require a disproportionate investment" in administration, Kirwan said.
National experts said the plan might well look better on paper than it would in practice.
"I think they are probably underestimating the amount of coordination that will be required in order to get decisions made," said Michael Bastedo, a higher education scholar at the University of Michigan. "But it would be a very interesting sort of experiment to see if a model like this could work."
Hudgins, the social sciences chairman, acknowledged that governing by committee might make decision-making less efficient, but he said that the benefits of consensus and increased faculty input would outweigh the potentially cumbersome process.
He also expressed hope that the council structure would encourage collaboration between departments and generate interdisciplinary programs that could receive external funding grants.
Such fundraising activities are typically the province of a dean.
Established shortly after Battle's arrival in 2003, Coppin's professional studies school is in its second incarnation, and has never had a dean, Taylor said. An earlier yearlong search for a leader failed to find any suitable candidates, said Taylor, who also served on that search committee.
Last summer, Battle carved out from professional studies a separate school of education, leaving the original school with just 25 full-time faculty in four departments: social sciences, social work, criminal justice, and applied psychology and rehabilitation counseling.
"We believe that such a small structure does not require an additional administrative position mandating a high salary," said the dean's eight-member search committee in its written proposal to the provost delivered last week.
The four department heads all support the governing council idea, in which each chairman would have an equal vote on management and policy decisions, said Hudgins, the social science chairman. In the case of a tie, decisions would be brought to the entire professional studies faculty for a tiebreaker.
The chairmen would take turns heading the council for two-year terms, according to the proposal.
The extent to which faculty participate in administrative matters has been a hot topic in academia in recent years, said John W. Curtis, public policy and research director of the American Association of University Professors, a group that advocates for faculty rights.
Curtis said the Coppin proposal bucks current trends, in which administration is increasingly seen as its own profession, rather than an extension of the faculty.
"This certainly would be an interesting approach to try and keep from having a person in an administrative position who is somewhat isolated from the rest of the faculty," Curtis said.
Taylor predicted that Coppin's faculty would prove skeptics wrong and that successful implementation of his plan would put the urban university - which has long struggled with low student graduation and retention rates - in a positive light.
"This will be a feather in Coppin's cap," he said.