Occasional Paper II: What Works: Leadership— Challenges for the Future

Reengineering Science Education

Daniel F. Sullivan
President--Allegheny College

Michael Hammer and James Champy's recent book, Reengineering the Corporation, is the current rage among corporate CEO's trying to figure out how to remain competitive in today's business world. The sociologist in me reacts with skepticism to these cyclical restructuring panaceas within the for-profit sector. Nonetheless, Hammer and Champy do offer us--including those of in education--considerable food for though.

We are encouraged to focus on the whole process, rather than the existing organizational structure alone:

Most business people are not "process-oriented;" they are focused on tasks, on jobs, on people, but not on processes. We define a business process as a collection of activities that takes one or more kinds of input and creates an output that is of value to the customer. (p. 35)

If we take Hammer and Champy seriously, we need to start our analysis not with, for example, what the chemistry department does, but by looking at the whole process within our institutions whereby we attempt to have students learn chemistry. This might include such things as they way recruit students, stock and operate the library, organize the computing and facilities infrastructure, and operate our security departments (science students like to have access to labs 24-hours per day, seven days per week). If we embrace this "process" perspective, we are led to think boldly about how we allocate resources all over the college--not just in the chemistry department--to help students learn chemistry and in other departments across the campus.

Hammer and Champy go on to say that in successfully reengineered business processes, workers make important decisions and check and controls are reduced. Empowered to make substantive, thoughtful decisions involving the whole learning process of their students, faculty may be willing--and should be able--to make critical trade-offs. Perhaps a grant to foster this kind of thinking and reengineering could be had from anew NSF Systemic Institutional Reform Initiative.

Stephen Lewis, of Carleton College, a president with a background in economics, takes exactly this approach. His focus is on creating more value for our students with existing resources by reengineering institutional planning and budgeting systems.

His idea is to give faculty the freedom to reallocate funds so as to maximize student learning which, in turn, increases the value students and parents perceive they are getting for their money. He suggests a three-year budgeting cycle, allowing those responsible, for example, the "chemistry-learning-process" to overspend in some years and underspend in others if that will increase both their efficiency and effectiveness.

We are not yet doing this kind of thing at Allegheny, and I'm not sure they're doing it at Carleton either. I don't want to mislead you. Nor do I want to suggest that it is obvious how one would segregate the "chemistry-learning-process." It is embedded in an overall liberal learning process and should not stand by itself in a curriculum. Nonetheless, if undergraduate science education reform is going to happen in our increasingly resource-constrained environment, we may need to incorporate fundamental reengineering of the processes we use to educate our students.

The kind of reengineering I suggest requires radical thinking. Colelges and universities are known for having radical thinkers among their faculty and students, but are rarely known for engaging in radical thinking regarding the processes used of teaching and learning. We are challenged to consider whether the environment of the future will reward anything less than radical thinking--and acting--on our part.