Goal 2: Advance Academic Excellence and Research Prominence
Strategy 2.4: Consolidate Academic and Administrative Programs through Targeted Reviews
Penn State has long accepted the role of being “all things to all people,” if a university in America can claim to have achieved that distinction. With twenty-four campuses (including Penn State’s affiliated technical college, the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport), more than 575 academic degree programs, well over 100 research centers and institutes, and the largest unified outreach operation in the nation (Penn State reaches one out of every two households in Pennsylvania), the University is indeed characterized by its comprehensiveness and its reach. That said, and in the context of a deteriorating fiscal environment for public support of higher education, there is a growing and widespread sense that not all current programs can be sustained at a level of excellence characteristic of Penn State quality in education or service delivery.
Rigorous program review provides a vehicle for elevating the strongest academic programs and most effective administrative units of the University, an opportunity to redirect resources from weaker programs, and a way to reduce redundancies and create greater efficiencies. Program review can also help to ensure critical mass - an important determinant of academic excellence - is achieved both for students who come to study expecting to encounter the depth and breadth of academic fields and for both faculty and students who benefit greatly from the interaction and stimulation of colleagues in the same or related fields. Academic and administrative support operations have grown over the years, and redundancies and inefficiencies are likely to have emerged, recreating some support services in small, dispersed operations that may be better provided centrally.
A review of all academic programs and administrative/academic support units is neither necessary nor appropriate, given that the strongest programs and most effective units are often widely recognized across the University. In addition, many programs and units have already undergone various types of reviews as academic and administrative budget executives have identified potential reductions in their unit strategic plans. Therefore, the approach to program/unit review must be highly targeted. Thorough and fair reviews require an appropriate investment of faculty, staff, and administrator time, which is also a sound reason for a targeted approach.
Program and support unit reviews must take into account five principles: (1) unnecessary duplication or specialization are grounds for consolidation; (2) programs that serve regional and workforce demands must be viable; (3) appropriate facilities and resources are essential for achieving and sustaining excellence; (4) a critical mass of full-time faculty, staff, and students is essential for excellence; and (5) resource efficiencies can be achieved through collaboration, consortia, interdisciplinary cooperation, and alternative modes of educational and service delivery. Program reviews must consider not only critical mass, resources, and the demand for our offerings, but also program distinctiveness, overall quality, centrality to the University’s core mission, and ability to address critical contemporary social and technological problems, as well as ability to push the intellectual frontiers and prepare graduates for lives as educated and engaged citizens. Rigorous program review also provides an opportunity for academic units to analyze and reformulate their curricula, strengthening programs and facilitating student progress through the curricula at the same time.
A five-step process for the review of academic programs, statewide cooperative education programs, and research centers and institutes will be implemented that includes (1) the identification of programs for review based upon relevant preliminary data, (2) program evaluation by a small task force of knowledgeable faculty and administrators, (3) feedback to the relevant unit and budget executive, (4) a final report, and (5) the reallocation of resources either within the unit or centrally, depending upon original funding sources and circumstances. To the extent feasible, these reviews will draw upon clearly defined, specific measures of performance. While these metrics will be flexible enough to account for unit and program differences in disciplines and mission, they will be centrally developed, openly articulated, and mutually understood. There will be a similar process for administrative unit reviews. The academic program review task forces will also include representation from the University Faculty Senate, as this body has an advisory and consultative role regarding the academic impact of proposals that involve the establishment, reorganization, or discontinuation of academic organizational units.
Many such reviews carried out over the past decade have resulted in the consolidation or elimination of various low-performing units. But much remains to be done across academic programs, research centers/institutes, and administrative units. Even when program/unit reviews do not result in short-term personnel reductions and large cost savings, the long-term improvements in quality, performance, and cost effectiveness, as well as the flexibility to take elements of the University in different directions, can be realized.