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I can think of two possible ways in which a new department is born: one, the university decides to start teaching a certain subject, and in the other, an existing department splits into two (e.g. department of physics and astronomy -> department of physics + department of astronomy). If the answer in these two are different, please say so and I will split this question into two.

  1. Clearly the initiative must come from a senior university administrator. Who though - the chancellor? The vice chancellor? The dean of the faculty?
  2. Starting a new department is presumably very expensive. Where does the university find the money? Do new departments usually only start when there is a sudden source of funding (e.g. ___ big new discovery leading to a massive surge in student interest + external funding in the field)? Or do universities spend years saving money before starting a department?
  3. Once the decision is made to go ahead, how does the university go about it? Do they hire a new professor who works in the field, provide her with a budget, and let her hire everyone else? Or do they decide on every individual hire by committee, which is not always made up of people expert in the field or affiliated withe the university?
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    When a mommy department and a daddy department love each other very much... – zibadawa timmy Mar 8 '18 at 4:28
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    There's no standard universal procedure for this. Probably all the possibilities you have listed (and many others) have occurred somewhere at some time. – David Ketcheson Mar 8 '18 at 6:47
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    There are universities where "dean" or "vice-chancellor" or whatever aren't even existing positions. Why would you think that you could get an answer for all the universities on Earth? Your point 3 also presupposes a lot about how departments are run - German-style, apparently. – user9646 Mar 8 '18 at 7:25
  • If this question is off-topic because of "individual factors", most questions would be off-topic. E.g. as of time of writing, we have questions "Can I upload journal articles to a private git repo?" - depends on journal policies of course. "What quantitive metrics would reviewers need to do in order to be classed as an expert?" Depends on the journal that needs reviewers. "How to enter a completely new research area as a 3rd-year Ph.D. candidate?" Depends on what you know + what field. Yada yada blah blah ... – Allure Mar 8 '18 at 11:33
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    @Allure: The central criterion for this close reason is whether we can answer substantially more than “it depends”. The existing answers demonstrate that this is the case here and thus I disagree with the closure. – Wrzlprmft Mar 8 '18 at 14:41
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In all of the cases I have heard of, existing departments split. Sometimes not one, but sometimes faculty from several existing departments split to form a new one. For example, faculty from mechanical engineering, physics, chemistry, and maybe math may form a new department of materials sciences. Or faculty from math, statistics, computer science, biology, and a variety of engineering departments may form a department of computational science. Oftentimes, such departments are born after there is already a graduate or undergraduate degree that exists in this area and to which the involved faculty members have previously contributed.

In the cases I know of, the initiative has always come from the bottom, not the top. Typically, this has to do with faculty members feeling that there is a critical mass of faculty in a variety of departments to create a new degree program, and they later realize that they may as well build a department around it. The other reason is that the members of such a group may feel that the department they are in does not value their work -- this is, for example, how many statistics and applied math departments started as forks of mathematics departments dominated by pure math faculty who did not appreciate the work or style of the stat or applied math researchers.

In all of these cases, new departments consist of existing faculty. So at least as far as faculty salaries are concerned, this is often not substantially more expensive than the existing structure. Where things get more expensive is that departments typically duplicate support structures as well, such as staff, web site maintenance, etc. But it is not necessarily true that this is "very expensive" as you state.

  • Thanks for answer. Do these faculty have to get approval to start a new department, and if so, from whom? There'd also presumably be some conflict of interest, e.g. someone has to be the head of the new department and from other threads here, HoDs are paid more. – Allure Mar 8 '18 at 7:29
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    That is really country and university specific. For example your assumption that HoDs are paid more isn't true for my institution. However, they have to teach less, but not much less. So being a HoD is more of chore than something desirable. Sometimes the structure of the univerisity is part of State or federal law or regulation, and you need approval from appropriate ministries, etc. – Maarten Buis Mar 8 '18 at 8:56
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    Of course you need approval from higher up to start a new program. In fact, typically even from outside the university itself, for example from the Board of Regents. As far as conflicts of interest are concerned -- maybe, and that's why you need approval from higher up to certify that there really is a need for a new department. But it's important to stress that in many cases heads of department are paid more as compensation for pain and suffering, not because it's a badge of honor to be HoD. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 8 '18 at 14:15
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All of these things happen, obviously. What Wolfgang mentions is probably the most common case: vastly oversimplified, a new department gets forked off from existing departments when enough faculty from 2+ existing departments feel that they would rather work with their colleagues from other departments than with their current ones. This process is not so much expensive as politically difficult, as the existing departments will lose money and influence and hence are not unlikely to opposed the plan.

However, I have also seen other cases.

  • Sometimes, a department is formed by joining two existing departments, presumably in an attempt to reduce support structures and create new collaborations. When I have seen this it was always driven by senior university management and not by the faculty, who are generally not thrilled about the disruption. My current department came to life this way, and 10 years later there is still a noticeable rift between faculty coming from both original departments.
  • Finally, there are also cases that look more like what OP had in mind, where there is an executive decision on university level to build a new department from the ground up. This is indeed a very expensive and long-running process (we are talking about many years to maybe a decade), as new faculty needs to be hired on a running basis. Given the strategic nature of such a process, there really isn't one person who "decides" to do this - instead, discussions will be had, committees will sit and provide recommendations, and ultimately the university leadership (rector, vice-rectors, university senate, maybe even sponsoring bodies such as the government) will make a formal decision that closely represents the outcomes of these political processes. The implementation of this decision will then be the responsibility of whatever is the next-highest organisation unit after departments - school, faculty, or directly the university leadership team if departments are already top-level structures.

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