The Gray Area | A faculty-initiated fix
The key agent for change at Penn can be faculty members — they just need to make it happen
April 19, 2011, 4:36 am·
The modern-day research university has thousands of moving parts. When one of these parts heads off track, who should step up to fix it?
When a particular curriculum is failing, when a residential program isn’t working or when one of the numerous programs our University offers isn’t reaching its full potential, who should be expected to come to the rescue?
Penn’s four major constituencies — students, faculty, staff and administration — all have different interests, goals and roles in trying to improve the University.
But over time, the faculty has largely been lost in the mix. Universities have evolved in the last few decades with administration and staff gradually superseding the role of the faculty in administering and governing particular facets of University life.
The reasons for this change are simple — time and money. For the standing faculty members who are seeking tenure, the time it takes for these sorts of administrative projects have been known to significantly diminish the chances of receiving the coveted job security. And for those who are tenured, these administrative tasks do not seem like the best use of time.
But when faculty members decide to get involved in a part of the University that is having trouble, they have the potential to make immediate changes for the better.
A key example of this power occurred with the reformation of the Benjamin Franklin Scholars Program over the past year.
BFS has existed since the 1970s. Its original mission was to attract candidates to Penn at a time when the University did not have the top-tier Ivy League reputation that it has now. It was a yield tool — an attempt to increase the number of accepted students who decided to come to the University.
Since that time, the situation has completely changed. Penn is now a first-choice school, and — as a result — the program’s structure became outdated. Penn doesn’t need to resort to gimmicks like providing a special program for certain admits to convince potential students to come to the University.
This lack of a cohesive goal prevented the program from having an identity. Students who were in the BFS program would simply take three separate seminars and would be done with their experience. But they never had a chance to get to know all of their fellow students in their program or interact with them on a deeper level.
These problems didn’t mean the program should be completely eliminated. Rather, it just needed to be reworked.
The potential to change that problem began when Classical Studies professor Peter Struck was selected as the new director of the program.
He set out to fix the main problems with the program. To solicit feedback, he worked with a faculty committee and with the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education.
The solution that was eventually established was to put together an initial freshman experience for students in the College called the Integrated Studies Program. In this intensive freshman experience to be piloted next year, students will meet in an interdisciplinary class four times a week that addresses issues from multiple academic perspectives.
In addition, these students will be living together in Riepe College House, where they will be able to get to know each other and build a community.
At the same time, the selection process for the program was fixed by opening it up to anyone who wants to apply.
The faculty work that produced these changes may not be the best for any particular person’s career advancement, but these types of faculty-initiated changes provide some of the most long-lasting and positive changes to the broader Penn community.
This model will be a key way that a university like Penn will move forward, and the faculty members who participate in it need to be commended.
Charles Gray is a Wharton and College junior from Casper, Wyo. His email address is gray@theDP.com. The Gray Area appears every Tuesday.