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How to Start a New Academic Department: A 7-Step Plan

This professor dreamed of building a new department of web engineering. Here’s how he pulled it off, what he learned along the way, and why he would do it again in a heartbeat.

How to start a new academic department
If you have ever likened the department in your university to a well-oiled machine, then you can extrapolate what it might be like to be the inventor of one. A few years ago, Samir Tartir, PhD, of Philadelphia University in Amman, Jordan, along with several other professors, decided to try—with results that have been rewarding for all involved.

“There is a relatively small number of students in Jordan and a good number of universities,” he explains. “So there’s high competition.” Adding a new Department of Web Engineering, he believed, would help attract students, particularly since it would be the first department of its kind in Jordan and the surrounding region.

Tartir explains that he and his fellow educators saw a growing need for web engineers in today’s marketplace, and they wanted to provide students with the skill set they would need to meet this demand. “If a professor is given the chance to start a new department, he must take advantage of it,” says Tartir. “This opportunity doesn’t come too often, and it must be utilized fully!”

According to Tartir, he and his colleagues went through 7 key steps from the day they first conceived of the department until now. These include conducting market research, developing a strong case, defending your case, building a strong faculty, creating a competitive curriculum, providing ongoing student support, and updating the program as needed to ensure that it remains as cutting edge as it was at its inception.

Educator

Samir Tartir, PhD

Head and Assistant Professor, Department of Web Engineering and Department of Management Information Systems, Philadelphia University

PhD, MSc, and BSc, Computer Science

For educators who dream of founding their own department, Tartir offers these lessons learned from his own experience:

1. Assess the need with market research

To ensure that a Department of Web Engineering would be sustainable and relevant for students, Tartir and his team of 4 other professors began by conducting some market research. It was helpful, he says, that his team hailed from various research backgrounds and had collectively worked in the United Kingdom, France, and Jordan. They scoped job listings online, and they paid close attention to market trends in web development and engineering. What they discovered was confirmation of their hypothesis: There was a deep and growing need for skilled talent in this career field. “We [talked] to people we knew in the market to see if this [department] was actually needed,” says Tartir, “and it was obvious that it was. We found a huge interest from people, specifically [regarding] experience in the web, how to deal with web projects and services—all these topics. [Also] there was a general lack of programs that would graduate students who were qualified for this specific kind of job.” This was encouraging news for Tartir and his team.

2. Develop a strong case

Next, Tartir’s group presented their idea for a Department of Web Engineering to the University’s administration. Tartir explains that such an endeavor is no small feat, and one of the administration’s biggest concerns was whether such an undertaking would be sustainable. Tartir knew that his team would have to make a strong and compelling case because, as he explains, “The university [won’t] want to offer a program that could potentially fail in a couple of years.”

To counter such fears, Tartir’s team built a case based on their initial market research, their industry connections, and their existing credibility in their respective departments and on campus. “[We explained how the department] would support the university,” he says. Ultimately, the administration gave Tartir the green light.

3. Defend your position

Even after getting the OK from administration, Tartir had to continue to defend the concept to people both within and outside of the university. “There were people claiming that nobody teaches the web in Jordan, so why do you think you are the [experts] and [the department will] go successfully?” Tartir says. While he recognized that skeptics had a point—namely that web engineering overlapped with software engineering—he also saw that there are distinctions between the two. In making his case to the wider world, Tartir found it important to highlight those differences to show that his program would be (and now is) “building graduates who specialize in web software engineering, not software, which has its own characteristics and limitations.”

Within the university, students also expressed some hesitation about joining the newly formed department. “[Students would ask me], ‘Are there any jobs after we graduate?’ or ‘It seems attractive, but is this even a good program?’” says Tartir. “We convinced them by showing them the jobs [relevant to their studies].”

4. Build a strong, diverse faculty

It is no secret that faculty are the backbone of an academic department, so special care must be given to attracting and retaining the best talent possible. “If the staff is not qualified, anything you have on paper is not going to be effective,” explains Tartir. It is also important to have a faculty with diverse experience, he adds. Tartir sought to include professors who are experts in various areas so they could bring a variety of perspectives to the students’ learning.

As his department was created just under a year ago, Tartir has thus far added 3 faculty members (himself included)—2 with PhDs and one with a master’s degree—and with mixed backgrounds in web and software engineering. They are aiming to add two more faculty members who will specifically focus on the web. Tartir would also like to sponsor one of his faculty members to study abroad to earn a PhD in web engineering, which further demonstrates his commitment to bringing specialized, relevant, and diverse training to the classroom.

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5. Create a competitive curriculum

During their curriculum-development phase, Tartir and his team looked at similar programs at other universities in Europe and the United Kingdom. However, they found that there were not very many programs around the world that offered what Philadelphia University aimed to provide. This made research more difficult, but also it revealed a hidden blessing: His school would be one of the few to offer a program that was in high demand.

Tartir also took great efforts to include career readiness in the curriculum. He has created career days and invited industry representatives to talk to students about their company’s needs and to offer students the opportunity to make connections with them. To prepare students for these networking opportunities, Tartir created a class called Connectivity and Communication Skills. This course helps students develop their interpersonal and writing skills to communicate more effectively in the workplace. It also focuses on how technology can be used to achieve desirable business goals.

Lastly, Tartir stresses that the curriculum should mix theory with real-life application. In the new Department of Web Engineering, every course needs to have some type of project-based element to it. He says that exams and quizzes are great for reinforcing foundational knowledge, but in order to really get his students to apply what they learn, it is more effective to simulate office conditions and requirements. This strategy of bringing theory into the real world, he adds, will really help drive the lessons home. Tartir hopes that this business experience, albeit simulated, will give students a leg up after they graduate.

6. Provide ongoing student support

Tartir has found that attracting and retaining a quality student body is one of the growing pains of building a brand-new program. Some students may have an initial impression of the department based on the website or marketing materials that have been created. Then, partway through the program, they hit a snag: Perhaps the requirements are beyond their capacity, or they have trouble balancing work with school.

To combat this disconnect, Tartir says, “We always try to go an extra mile with these [struggling] students. We encourage them to see us in office hours. We give them a few extra chances for extra credit to support their grades. Sometimes we even give extra lectures.”

These steps help reassure students that staff and faculty are invested in their success and want to see them thrive. “[We want] to give them that [extra] push to work a little bit harder,” he says. “[So they see,] ‘Even though it’s a couple extra steps, your work will pay off.’”

7. Continue to update the program

Lastly, to actively build the students’ trust in the degree program, Tartir explains the importance of having an ethic of constant improvement. This means always staying on top of the industry’s trends and developments, then using that information to keep the program up to date. “Since I’m the head of the department, I always try to focus on what is really needed in the market, in addition to [maintaining] my market connections and being on top of my readings,” he says.

This is especially vital in a field like web engineering, where a particular type of software can become obsolete within just a few years. “You don’t want [students] to get left behind in the job market [due to] having knowledge that is 4, 5, or 6 years old.” By keeping courses and their content as fresh as possible, the department will best prepare its students to meet the emerging market needs. “[This will help] them feel confident when they graduate,” he asserts.

So … what are you waiting for?

Establishing a new department is no small feat and has many moving parts, but Tartir insists that the results are well worth the effort. Once the idea has taken hold, even despite the potential obstacles, he says, “You keep coming back to it because you want to raise the level of the university.”

By investing in solid faculty, then creating and continually improving upon a cutting-edge curriculum, your new department can be a win for everyone: Students will be well prepared for life post-graduation, you and your fellow educators will raise the bar for yourselves and learn more about your industry, and the university’s reputation and community trust will be amplified. The only way to prove that, he adds, is to see it through.

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