When you take a course at a college or university, the course itself will be offered by a particular department (or school). For instance, if you want to take a course in macroeconomics, it may be offered by the economics department or the business school. If you want to take a course in rhetoric, it may be offered by the philosophy department or the communications department.
Your teachers at college or university are always attached to some department (or school). Departments are where the intellectual life of scholars in a given discipline is supposed to thrive. Many departments are just fine in this regard: faculty are pulling in the same direction, encouraging each others’ teaching and research, providing a collegial atmosphere for fellow faculty and students.
The organizational structure of higher education in American, however, also allows for departments to become dysfunctional. Sometimes animosities can brew, leading to departmental fractures where key professors jump ship and join other departments. Brown University’s mathematics department, for instance, was a premier place for algebraic geometry in the 1980s. Its key people in this subdiscipline of mathematics all ended up leaving. Northwestern University in the 1990s was a premier place for philosophy of science. Its key philosophers of science, after a departmental clash, ended up leaving.
Besides such overt conflicts, however, students may face more insidious dysfunctionalities. The deeper danger with departments is that they can become self-selective and biased. Typically, when departments hire new faculty, it is at their own initiative. Indeed, for the university administration to “foist” a new professor on a department without departmental approval is regarded as gross sin. Back in the 1930s, when John Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, tried to install Mortimer Adler at Chicago’s department of philosophy, all the philosophers threatened to resign. Hutchins backed down and ended up getting Adler a job at Chicago’s law school.
Such self-governance of departments can be healthy provided that the department is itself healthy, valuing top scholarship as well as diversity of expertise and perspectives. Unfortunately, self-governance can degenerate into self-selectivity, in which departments hire only people who agree with a party line and who deliberately exclude faculty holding alternate points of view. In many disciplines, not just one approach or theory dominates, and so it’s important for good pedagogy and for well-rounded scholarship to give voice to these different views.
When bias creeps into a department, however, alternate voices tend to be silenced and hiring decisions are made to exclude them. Such departments will attempt to hire only those who already agree with them. The university practice of conferring tenure (i.e., lifetime faculty appointment to the department) tends to exacerbate this problem: biased faculty can use tenure to secure their own position. Moreover, they can use the threat of denying tenure (tenure decisions tend to be made intra-departmentally) to ensure conformity.
So here’s the lesson if you’re a student: If you’re going to be taking more than one course from a department at your college or university, know its health. Do the faculty in that department get along with each other? Do they value diversity of viewpoints? Are certain questions or topics forbidden so that even raising them will get you in trouble? A healthy department is one that encourages free inquiry and is at ease with itself. If you see signs of dysfunctionality in a department, be careful about tying your fate to it. If you’re an undergrad planning to do graduate studies in the department’s field of study, you may want to think about going elsewhere to graduate school.
Learning should be fun and will be fun if you’re with people who don’t take themselves too seriously and have a certain flexibility of mind that allows them to engage and enjoy scholars with viewpoints different from their own. If you don’t see this, watch your step.