The forum level in the Discussions (a.k.a. Forums) tool causes a great deal of confusion for faculty. Most users don't understand that they cannot post messages directly to a forum, but must first create a topic within the Forums tool and then post messages within the topic. The forum level is essentially an organizational distinction, similar to a category in the Gradebook. However, many faculty prefer a more simple, non-hierarchical setup for their discussions. Since faculty often do not need an additional level of organization, requiring forums results in a barrier rather than a useful feature in many cases.
Making the forum level optional provides a more streamlined workflow for faculty who simply want to create topics. (This is similar to the experience in the Gradebook where categories are optional and faculty can choose to create them or not.)
If the required forum level is removed, users would go directly to a list of existing topics on the Discussions landing page. The "New Forum" link on that page would be replaced with a "New Topic" link that takes users directly into the new topic workflow. The topic creation screen would include a new option to assign the topic to a forum (if forums exist).
Forum creation could move to the "Organize" tab, since this is a more logical location for an organizational unit. The settings for forums could still be used as the default options for any topic assigned to a particular forum.
See mockups attached illustrating what these changes might look like.