Penn’s Fels Institute of Government announced that it will be restructuring its Master of Public Administration program and will not be accepting applicants for the 2018-2019 academic year. Students and alumni have expressed confusion about the changes, and many say that Fels has not been transparent about the restructuring process.
The MPA program is a two-year program that prepares students for careers in public policy and public service. Every year, about 30 students take courses in management, finance, data analysis, and politics. The Fels Institute also offers an Executive MPA program, which is geared toward professionals with full-time jobs.
In December, students and alumni received a newsletter which tangentially mentioned that “the Fels Faculty Committee [had] recommended significant modifications to the future Full-Time MPA program,” adding that new applicants would not be accepted for the 2018-2019 academic year “to allow faculty and staff time to focus on this important initiative.” The announcement stressed that current students would not be affected.
The students and alumni who spotted the story in the newsletter say they found the announcement unclear regarding what specific changes were planned.
“[The announcement] kind of just was completely out of nowhere and didn’t allow a lot of time for students to respond,” 2017 College graduate and first-year MPA student Kellen Wartnow said.
Students and alumni alike have taken action to address their concerns. Students have founded a committee to bring together students and administrators, while alumni have drafted a petition with hundreds of signatures.
Wartnow, along with fellow MPA student John Pierce, founded the Fels Committee a few weeks after the announcement in order to bridge the gap between the administration and current students. The committee has met several times over the past month with Associate Dean of Social Sciences Rogers Smith and Fels Faculty Director John MacDonald, who are leading the restructuring.
Fels Executive Director Nelson Lim did not provide a comment on the effort to restructure the program, writing in email statement that since Smith and MacDonald are leading the effort, "I can try to explain the effort, but I can get the facts wrong."
MacDonald did not respond to request for comment.
In an emailed statement, Smith said that “the ideas of the students and alums will be drawn on in the final proposal.”
Smith also confirmed that the Fels Institute plans to accept a new MPA class in the fall of 2019.
Wartnow said that in these meetings, the administrators gave more details regarding the specific changes that they plan on making to the program. These include a shift from a two-year program to a one-year program, as well as an increased focus on “data-driven” courses. There has also been discussion to reestablish the program as a Master of Public Policy, but Wartnow said that the Fels Faculty Committee has moved away from that.
The Fels Committee shared this information with the MPA student body in early March and conducted a survey to assess student opinions. It also hosted an open forum for Fels students and administrators to discuss the changes. Wartnow said that student feedback has been mixed.
“There was a lot of emotion at the beginning of the process just because there was so much confusion and nobody really knew what was going on,” he said. “But as the process went on, I think people definitely settled down and they wanted to really provide constructive feedback.”
Wartnow added that while Fels administrators have been “receptive” to scheduling meetings with the Fels Committee, the students’ requests to sit in on Fels Faculty Committee planning meetings were denied.
In fact, Wartnow and other students say they do not even know who sits on the Fels Faculty Committee.
“It’s still kind of frustrating that there hasn’t been a whole lot of communication,” Wartnow said.
Fels alumni have also said they feel a lack of transparency from the administrators. 2014 College and Fels graduate Adam Silver, a former columnist for The Daily Pennsylvanian, said that “what would have been better for us was being more upfront with the changes.”
Silver, along with 2014 Fels graduate TJ Hurst, wrote a letter to the Fels administrators that was signed by 255 alumni. In the letter, they expressed their concerns and requested that the restructuring process be transparent and incorporate feedback from alumni.
"A pause in admissions is an unusual step for a program of Fels’ stature," the letter read. "Additionally, this important news was buried in the newsletter with very few details surrounding the decision provided, and it caught the entire alumni community by surprise."
"Our request is simple: we would like the full-time MPA redesign process to be transparent and to incorporate the perspective of alumni who have not only had the Fels on-campus experience, but have seen the value of the degree in our careers since completing the program," it continued.
Silver added that alumni “never really were or still are opposed to the idea of changing Fels, but … want to have a say in that process.”
He said that as of now, the administrators “haven’t given [them] any official word” on what the proposed changes to the MPA program will be, but that a meeting between administrators and alumni is being scheduled for the upcoming weeks.
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