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SENATE 2006-2007
May 22, 2007, Volume 53, No. 34

Report of the Faculty Senate Committee on Students and Educational Policy (SCSEP)

May 16, 2007

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Charge for 2006-2007

This Committee was asked to (1) review the University’s interdisciplinary educational programs and opportunities, particularly at the graduate level, (2) examine the current status and future trajectory of funding for graduate education across the schools, (3) review and discuss the Committee’s general charge and identify the most pressing issues facing the faculty, students and educational programs over the next few years, recommending two or three high-priority charges for 2007-08.

Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs and Opportunities

The Committee focused its discussions for the year on graduate interdisciplinary programs and opportunities; the issue of graduate funding was set aside for future consideration.

A major theme of President Gutmann’s Penn Compact is fostering interdisciplinary education and research across the University, and the Committee kept this in mind in discussing opportunities for graduate interdisciplinary research and education. The role of interdisciplinary study at the graduate level is complex. By its nature, graduate education is generally more focused in a single discipline than is undergraduate education: programs of graduate study do not usually incorporate a requirement for general education in the same way that undergraduate programs do. The Committee considered four aspects of the general issue of graduate interdisciplinary study during the year, with emphasis on Ph.D. and professional degree granting programs: (1) the nature of existing formal graduate interdisciplinary programs, (2) access to information about formal programmatic and informal interdisciplinary opportunities and events at the graduate level, (3) the extent to which formal programs of study at the graduate level are and should be flexible in granting students opportunities to cross disciplinary lines to pursue coursework, and (4) the nature of possible financial impediments to cross-disciplinary course-taking, particularly between schools.

The University’s existing formal interdisciplinary programs and opportunities are strong and varied and include approximately 150 interdisciplinary Centers and Institutes. Examples of these include the Center for Excellence in Cancer Communication Research, the Institute for Medicine and Engineering, the Center for East Asian Studies, and the Penn Genomics Institute. In addition, numerous graduate groups across the University are essentially interdisciplinary in nature; examples include Neuroscience within the School of Medicine and Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World in the School of Arts and Sciences. Finally, a number of other training programs exist which are essentially interdisciplinary. Examples of these include the Medical Scientist Training Program (Schools of Medicine, Dental Medicine, and Veterinary Medicine), the Cell and Molecular Biology Training Grant which supports programs and students in all biomedical disciplines, a graduate training program in Language and Communications (Graduate School of Education, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Department of Psychology) and a program of Graduate Training in Methods for Field-based Research in Education (Graduate School of Education, Wharton School of Business, School of Arts and Sciences, Annenberg School for Communication). The ongoing appointment of several new faculty with strong interdisciplinary interests under President Gutmann’s Penn Integrates Knowledge initiative will strengthen commitments to formal programs in graduate interdisciplinary study at Penn. The University’s interdisciplinary programs of study are described in helpful detail on a webpage at the Office of Graduate Study (www.upenn.edu/grad/interdisciplinary.html).

As might be expected at a university of Penn’s size and complexity, communication and awareness of less-formal, one-time graduate interdisciplinary opportunities varies widely. The Committee had a sense that information on events such as seminar presentations and lectures of interdisciplinary interest was not always as easy to obtain as it should be. The online calendar available through the main Penn webpage lists numerous daily events and seminars of possible interdisciplinary interest to graduate students, as does the Almanac, the University’s journal of record, but these sources are sometimes incomplete and more could be done on a program-by-program basis to alert graduate and professional students to important opportunities and events at the interface of different disciplines across the University. In particular, the Committee felt that individual departments and programs could do more to provide easily available links on their home pages to seminar series and lectures in related programs across the university. A good deal of improvement can be made in this area simply by increasing awareness of the many informal opportunities for graduate interdisciplinary enquiry available across the University.

Graduate and professional students, whether in one of the expressly interdisciplinary programs mentioned above or in one of the more tightly defined graduate groups or professional programs, should have access to courses across schools that are necessary for advanced development in their chosen field. The rationale for, nature of opportunities for, and possible impediments to such cross-school course-taking were discussed extensively by the Committee in light of a report by Drs. Jack Nagel and Stanton Wortham to the Council of Graduate Deans in 2006. The Provost’s Office has recently established a webpage listing each graduate group’s policies and practices on cross-school and cross-department course-taking at www.upenn.edu/grad/phdquestions.html, and this provides a ready source of information on specific programs for prospective and current graduate and professional students. In all cases, students wishing to take courses outside their schools or departments must first clear this with the graduate group chair, program director, or other appropriate administrator. The Committee’s strong consensus, in agreement with the Nagel and Wortham 2006 report, was that such administrative decisions should always be made on a strictly academic basis, without regard to possible funding implications at the school level. The Committee did hear some anecdotal evidence that cross-school course-taking may be restricted for inappropriate reasons at times, and this forms part of the basis for our recommendation that a survey of graduate and professional students and their advisors be considered to obtain more systematic information on the frequency of such problems as well as on other aspects of graduate education, as described in more detail below.

Potential financial impediments to cross-school course-taking were discussed extensively by the Committee in light of the 2006 Nagel and Wortham report. The essential concern here is that smaller schools may suffer a net export of students and credit units because a disproportionate number of specialized courses of interdisciplinary interest will be offered through the larger schools. Indeed, Nagel and Wortham provided data to show that only the schools of Arts and Sciences and Medicine are net importers of Ph.D. students from other schools into their courses. The imbalance of import/export of students certainly has the potential to generate financial conflict of interest among schools, but whether such potential conflict of interest has translated into real, pervasive problems for graduate students is not readily apparent, as noted in conversations of the Committee with Dean Nagel and with Associate Provost Andy Binns. The Committee was made aware of limited and anecdotal evidence that cross-school course-taking has been restricted in certain cases, but systematic data on the frequency of such restrictions and the cited reasons for restricting cross-school registration are entirely lacking at present.

The Committee met separately over the course of the year with the following individuals: Mr. Lee Shaker, chair of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA), Dr. Andy Binns, associate provost, and Dr. Jack Nagel, associate dean for Graduate Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences. As a consequence of these meetings and the deliberations described above the Committee agreed to recommend to the Faculty Senate that the University consider undertaking a formal survey of graduate and professional students and their advisors to obtain more systematic information about possible impediments to interdisciplinary course-taking at the graduate level at Penn. We stress that there is no evidence that such problems are widespread, but in the absence of systematically obtained data it is impossible to assess whether the matter requires further attention. Indeed, a survey of this kind could usefully also ask questions about more general issues concerning graduate education and graduate life at the University, as described below in the recommendations for the Committee’s work in 2007-08.

Recommendations for Next Year’s Committee

The Committee recommends that next year’s Senate Committee on Students and Educational Policy be given the charge of working out specific questions and areas of interest to include in a confidential University-wide survey on aspects of graduate and professional education, to be administered to students and their advisors. The survey need not be limited to the subject of interdisciplinary course-taking but could also seek information on such important areas as the nature of graduate financial support, graduate medical insurance, and other policies and practices in graduate education at the University. We stress that such a survey should not be viewed as an effort to document problems but instead as an important fact-finding exercise that can be useful in informing future policy at the graduate level.

In addition, the Committee recommends that next year’s Committee examine the current status and future trajectory of graduate funding across the schools as detailed in the charges for the past year. This charge is particularly important in view of the possibility that the University will adopt a “flat” tuition structure (in which graduate tuition is the same across all years of the Ph.D.) in the coming years. The potential effect of this change in tuition policy on graduate students and their advisors should be brought to the attention of the Faculty Senate by the Committee.

2006-07 Committee Members

Paul Sniegowski, School of Arts and Sciences/Biology, Chair
Christopher Coleman, School of Nursing
David Graves, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Paul Heiney, School of Arts and Sciences/Physics
Susan Lytle, Graduate School of Education
Kelly Jordan-Sciutto, School of Dental Medicine

Senate Chair, Vincent Price, Annenberg School for Communication
Senate Chair-elect, Larry Gladney, School of Arts and Sciences/Physics

Almanac - May 22, 2007, Volume 53, No. 34