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Credit: Caroline Gibson

Over a number of tumultuous months, University officials have overhauled the structure and leadership of Penn's Fels Institute of Government, prompting swift criticism and calls for increased transparency from students and alumni.

The Fels Institute offers a number of programs including a Full-Time Master of Public Administration program, which prepares about 30 students each year for careers in public policy and public service, and an Executive MPA program, which is geared toward professionals with full-time jobs.

In December 2017, students and alumni received a newsletter mentioning that admissions for the 2018-2019 academic year had been halted due to the Fels Faculty committee's recommendation for "significant modifications to the future Full-Time MPA program."

The message prompted widespread backlash including the presentation of a letter co-signed by more than 140 alumni to Penn administrators calling for increased transparency in the restructuring process. Rogers Smith, the associate dean for the Social Sciences at the time, responded indicating that administrators would accept alumni input in the program's redesign. 

School of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty abruptly announced the program changes in May, incurring even more criticism from the Fels community. 

In addition to moving the institute back under the administrative control of the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, three administrative positions within the Fels program saw changes. The Executive Director Nelson Lim was ousted from his role and the Director of Admissions and Graduate Studies Josh Power and the Administrative Assistant Ilene Ford accepted new roles in LPS. 

Matthew Levendusky

Fluharty indicated that political science professors Matthew Levendusky and John Lapinski would take over as the new Fels faculty directors for the full-time and executive MPA programs respectively.  

In a June 1 email to administrators, Fels students cited a number of concerns with the planned changes, describing the elimination of the leadership roles as "shocking and damaging to the community we know and love."

John Lapinski

Power declined to comment. Lim and Ford did not respond to request for comment. LPS Vice Dean Nora Lewis told The Daily Pennsylvanian that the University does not “comment on personnel issues” concerning the staffing changes. 

Members of the Fels community also voiced substantial concern about Fluharty's announcement that the program redesign aims to “broaden the involvement of the School’s standing faculty more extensively in Fels teaching, in combination with the accomplished practitioners who bring real-world experience and insights” to the program. 

Many current and former students cite the program's focus on practical curricula as uniquely suitable to prepping graduates for careers in public administration. 

“I think a lot of the alums were a little bothered or worried by the tenured faculty [plan] because I think one thing the program did so well was pull in really experienced people doing day-to-day work and have them teach classes,” 2017 Fels graduate and Congressional Correspondent for National Public Radio Scott Detrow said.

2018 Fels graduate Francisco Garcia, who is now the director of business development for the City of Philadelphia, echoed Detrow's sentiment, describing the typical Fels practitioner as “an expert in the field, but he's never going to spend time at the University trying to publish a textbook or you know publish scholarly papers.”

“You can't have that practical everyday experience if that person were just an everyday professor,” he added. 

In a June 8 email addressing the concerns of Fels students, Levendusky and Lapinski indicated that their goal was not to replace practitioners with standing faculty. 

In addition to the personnel changes, Levendusky confirmed that future full-time MPA students will take part in a restructured program which will last 12 months instead of the current two-year academic schedule, noting the "opportunity costs" for students in attending a longer program. 

While Detrow said shortening the program could be beneficial for students, Christopher Patusky, a 2001 Fels graduate and former executive director of Fels, said he was concerned that condensing the full-time curriculum could cut into its benefits. 

Levendusky emphasized that the restructuring would not affect current students and noted that the Executive program “is not changing at all.” 

“We're always looking to hear from other people, so we can design the strongest program that we can,” Levendusky said. 

Eight months after the University's initial announcement about the program's restructuring — a process which Levendusky had said was in the works for more than a year — students and alumni are sill pressuring the University for increased transparency in the process. 

For Patusky, who has donated roughly $40,000 to Fels over the past eight years and is currently withholding money to the program, administrators have not facilitated adequate communication about the matter.  

“I know that there's been increased communication, but I would say that I haven't seen any significant attempt at dialogue with the alumni,” Patusky said.

In June, Brian Majewski, a second-year Executive MPA student, and other students met with Levendusky and Smith to ask questions, noting that while the administrators “did a pretty good job of trying to hear us out” they “didn’t have a lot of answers to our questions.” 

“I think it's very sad that at this time in our country's history that Penn would choose to diminish its investment in public administration given what our country is going through,” Majewski said.