SENATE On the Agenda April 17, 1996

Making Penn the Undergraduate University of Choice for the 21st Century

Report of the 1995-96 Faculty Senate Committee on Students and Educational Policy April 8, 1996

Penn's rich and distinctive array of undergraduate and professional classes, programs, and schools gives it the capacity to be the undergraduate school of choice among all its competitors. This unrivaled aggregation of resources on a single campus should give students unique opportunities for intellectual exploration. Exploited properly, the extensive and wide-ranging intellectual resources can be harnessed to increase the array of substantial, intellectually distinctive, and highly attractive cross-disciplinary and cross-school programs and majors, of which Biological Basis of Behavior, Management and Technology, and Cognitive Science are such fine examples. Such programs attract some of the ablest undergraduates in the country, provide opportunities for faculty across the University to unite in common educational and research activities, and offer those who usually teach only graduate or professional students the refreshing challenge of stimulating the intellectual growth of undergraduates. Within and across schools, Penn students can choose from large lectures or intimate seminars in liberal arts or pre-professional departments and pursue research projects in an unusually wide variety of fields. We believe that such experiences should become not just a possibility, but an integral part of undergraduate education at Penn.

We have examined previous reports of other committees (see Almanac March 15, 1994, p. 2, and the series of reports cited therein) and have interviewed faculty members intimately involved with undergraduate programs and budgetary matters at the University. We have concluded that decentralization and responsibility center budgeting create some important obstacles to building and maintaining undergraduate programs that take full advantage of Penn's multi-disciplinary and multi-school resources. A University-wide mechanism is needed to coordinate undergraduate education across the schools. We propose some structural modifications in order to encourage and nurture interdisciplinary programs, and to address more general issues in undergraduate education, such as advising and the need to foster courses with small enrollments, that should be addressed from a University-wide perspective.

A Need for Structural Change in the Political Economy of Undergraduate Education at Penn

The decentralized structure of undergraduate education at Penn generates serious dysfunctions that discourage the initiation, and threaten the survival, of interdisciplinary programs that transcend departments or schools, and also create obstacles that frustrate undergraduates who attempt to explore across the University. This report advocates some structural modifications of the University's political economy to foster the initiation and nurturing of programs and policies that exploit more fully Penn's special capacity for innovation and distinction in undergraduate education. Changes are needed in the way undergraduate education is coordinated and budgeted. Let us quote some excerpts from a recent report of the Faculty Senate Committee on Administration (Almanac April 12, 1994, p. 3):

Penn has come through the last decade in relatively good financial shape by focusing on the bottom lines of its major budgetary units. ... This owes something to responsibility center budgeting. ...

But the system is not merely an anchor to windward against the gale of financial catastrophe. It has promoted an everyday spirit of entrepreneurship and accountability at the school level, where, in many cases, it inspires innovation and demands sound management. ... Unfortunately, these benefits are not reaped without incurring costs. The economic emphasis in policy discussions has expanded to shape the performance reviews of even very small units, departments and individuals and there and throughout the system, the economic emphasis has been coupled with a lack of focus on priorities in research and education. The function of the Provost has become an economic mediator rather than chief academic officer, and Penn's profile as both a research university and a provider of excellent education has seen relatively few substantial enhancements since the implementation of responsibility center budgeting. ...

Although the schools may be the appropriate level at which to manage most University functions, responsibility center budgeting has also impaired some important activities. The most significant of these is undergraduate education, for which no single center is responsible. ...our undergraduates work under financially inspired regulations, devised by the schools to which they are admitted, which limit their access to the educational resources of the University as a whole. For them, "One University" exists only insofar as it has been negotiated among the deans. What is potentially the most distinctive and attractive characteristic of a Penn education is not being achieved.

That report then called for

...a vigorous reassessment of the University accounting system, aimed at universalizing the benefits of responsibility center budgeting while ameliorating its structural defects.

and concluded, in part, that

...the Provost must be reestablished as the chief academic officer of the University. To do so will require additional funding for his/her office so that it may promote the kind of research and instruction that serves the University as a whole. Such support is critically needed by undergraduate education and interdisciplinary scholarship, both of which draw on the talents of more than one school and which carry the name of the University as a whole to the outside world. To achieve this goal, there is no alternative to the reallocation of present resources.

We agree that some important adjustments are needed to eliminate some dysfunctions of responsibility center budgeting and to bolster the role of the Provost's office to achieve greater coordination of undergraduate education across the University. In the sequel we first propose some objectives to guide these structural modifications then advocate some specific steps towards these goals.

Goals of Structural Change

The changes we advocate are intended to achieve the following objectives.

  1. Realize more fully Penn's distinctive potential for interdisciplinary and cross-school undergraduate courses and programs (majors, concentrations, and minors).

    Comments. This will require the establishment of an appropriate organizational structure to coordinate undergraduate education across the University and the creation of incentives both to develop and to sustain attractive courses and programs. These incentives should not merely provide "start-up" funding. Such short-term assistance is insufficient and, occasionally, even counterproductive; it commonly does not provide support in the longer term to compensate departments and schools for released time, alternative staffing, or for the reorganization of curricula to accommodate faculty members' new teaching activities.

  2. Establish conditions under which (a) undergraduates can pursue their studies across the University without encountering undue obstacles, and (b) schools and departments are encouraged to cooperate more fully in the delivery of quality instruction and research opportunities to students who cross their boundaries.

    Comments. Current budgetary procedures, for example, have led to strict limits on the number of course units that may be taken outside a student's home school, thus restricting the student's explorations and discouraging the creation of cross-school courses and programs.

  3. Improve cross-school advising and information interchange to generate University-wide perspectives on undergraduate programs.

    Comments. The primary information now available to advisors is limited to the programs in their own schools. Even those who attempt to bridge this gap encounter serious obstacles. For example, advisors of dual-degree candidates can view advising notes only in their home school. [In fact, advisors in at least one school do not have online access to their advisees' records even within their own school, because of cost considerations.] Dual-degree students discover, upon return from study abroad or leave, that their identity has been removed from the database of their "second" school. Information is not currently available on the number of students who are minoring in a particular program. The boundaries of schools and departments too often present a formidable maze to both students and advisors alike. These problems can be alleviated in part by changes in the student information system, as advocated by this committee last year (Almanac Supplement April 11, 1995, pp. 6-8) and extended by the Student Information System Committee of the Provost's Council on the Undergraduate Experience. In addition, a University-wide organization is urgently needed to share information and to coordinate educational programs and advising across the schools.

  4. Reinforce the University's commitment to excellence in intellectual diversity.

    Comment. Small, high-quality departments and programs that are central to the mission of a distinguished university should be supported in order that they survive and prosper, despite changing academic fads and vagaries of the market.

  5. Provide incentives to ensure that enough small courses are offered on a regular basis so that every undergraduate student can take one each semester.

    Comment. Low-enrollment courses and seminars are essential to a distinguished undergraduate program. They engender more intimate relationships of students with faculty and contribute significantly to the students' depth of knowledge and enthusiasm for their undergraduate experience.

  6. Offer meaningful incentives to ensure that faculty collaborate with undergraduates in research and supervise undergraduates' independent research projects.

    Comments. Opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with distinguished faculty members should be a hallmark of the Penn experience. Faculty should be rewarded for their participation, because this is a most demanding and time-consuming kind of teaching. First, faculty incentives might be created through the development of a University-wide "voucher" system in which students are given a budget of vouchers which can be exchanged for faculty participation in student projects or small seminars, and faculty can apply the vouchers they accumulate to obtain release time from other obligations to conduct research or teach a small seminar. Such a system might be extended to graduate instruction as well, so that faculty could accumulate vouchers through supervising graduate research, and so on. Second, an undergraduate research fund should be created to which faculty can submit proposals for collaborative research with students. Third, support should be provided to encourage small seminars that focus on students' research projects.

Recommendations: Reorganizing Undergraduate Education for the 21st Century

Developing and sustaining the kinds of cross-disciplinary and cross-school initiatives necessary to make Penn more generally the undergraduate university of choice will require major efforts both by the central administration and by the schools. Success in this venture requires a University-wide mechanism with sufficient authority and budget to coordinate undergraduate education across the schools and the emerging collegiate communities. Towards this objective, we offer the following recommendations.

  1. We propose the formation of an Undergraduate Programs and Policies Board (UPPB) to be chaired by a newly created Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE). The VPUE should be a distinguished member of the senior standing faculty, and the UPPB should be comprised of the undergraduate deans, distinguished faculty from the undergraduate and graduate-professional schools, and student representatives. The UPPB should address issues pertaining to the creation, development, maintenance, and monitoring of undergraduate programs that transcend the schools, and to the availability to undergraduates of sufficient small class experiences, opportunities for faculty-supervised research, and an ample variety of curricular offerings, including those offered by high-quality departments that, although possibly small, contribute to the breadth and richness of the University's intellectual environment.

    Comments. We are keenly aware that, in a time of administrative restructuring, our proposal to create the VPUE position seems untimely. Yet in our judgment, the coordination of undergraduate education across the schools and emerging collegiate communities demands more attention than the many duties of the Provost permit. For this reason, we urge that a Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education be appointed as the Provost's primary advocate for undergraduate education, thus putting undergraduate programs on an equal footing with research and graduate studies.

  2. The VPUE should be responsible for all undergraduate programs across the University that are primarily academic in nature and transcend the schools.

    Comments. We mean this to include not only interdisciplinary degree programs but also those activities currently assigned to the Vice Provost for University Life that are primarily academic in nature, including the Benjamin Franklin Scholars program, residentially-based advising, and the University's tutoring service. In our judgment, the VPUL should operate essentially as a Dean of Students, continuing to provide support for students that is not fundamentally academic in nature. The VPUE and VPUL will need to coordinate their activities in helping to guide the evolution of the forthcoming system of collegiate communities and residentially based programs.

  3. The VPUE should control an ample budget for nurturing and sustaining interdisciplinary programs across the University.

    Comments. We think there are three sources of funds that can support this program. First, savings from administrative restructuring could be reinvested in this program for undergraduates. Second, this distinctive approach to undergraduate education, so consonant with Penn's inter-displinary style, should be attractive to prospective donors. We urge that the endowment of undergraduate education be given high priority in the next development drive. Third, some judicious redistributions of the current cross-subsidies among the schools could be applied to this purpose.

Conclusion: Realizing Penn's Potential in Undergraduate Education

The University of Pennsylvania enjoys a singular concentration of eminent and diverse academic talent. One of the University's greatest strengths and most important sources of appeal to prospective students is the juxtaposition of its distinguished School of Arts and Sciences and preeminent graduate and professional schools. Up to now, the best efforts of many students and faculty in various parts of the University often have been frustrated by the lack of mechanisms that encourage exploiting the special advantages and opportunities Penn affords. Our recommendations address directly some ways in which Penn can better capitalize on its strengths by facilitating and actively supporting cross-disciplinary and cross-school programs for undergraduates across the University. Penn's intellectual and academic diversity should be celebrated creatively and effectively. We are convinced that the structural modifications we recommend will encourage the full realization of Penn's unique potential for a distinctive undergraduate experience that involves the University as a whole.

Alice Kelley (English)
James D. Laing (operations & information management), chair
Marie (Betsy) McNeal (grad education)
Mark Steedman (computer & information science)
Lorraine Tulman (nursing)
Guy R. Welbon (religious studies)
Ex Officio:
William L. Kissick (medicine), Faculty Senate Chair
Peter J. Kuriloff (grad educ), Faculty Senate Chair-elect

Staff: Carolyn P. Burdon, Exec. Asst. to Faculty Senate Chair


Volume 42 Number 28
April 16, 1996

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