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Michael DiBerardinis

Penn announced on Sept. 24 that Michael DiBerardinis, the managing director of Philadelphia, will join the Fels Institute of Government faculty in January 2019 as a professor of practice. This comes amid ongoing alumni efforts for Fels to be more transparent about the drastic administrative turnover within Fels and include input from the larger Fels community, including alumni, students, and other stakeholders.

Since December 2017, the University has implemented a number of changes to Fels, including ousting the executive director from his role, on-boarding two new faculty directors, and shortening of the full-time Master of Public Administration program. In March, the program also made the controversial decision to pause admissions for the 2018-19 school year. 

Fels Faculty Director John Lapinski said the new hire demonstrates the Institute’s continued dedication to the practical education that defines the Institute. 

“I think this hire gives [alumni] concrete proof of the direction that we want to take the program," Lapinski said. He added that the decision to hire DiBeradinis was made internally and independently from alumni concerns.

Yet for Fels alumni, who have previously expressed concern over the lack of communication and abrupt announcements, this recent hire does not ease all concerns that the Institute is emphasizing communication with its larger alumni network. 

On Sept. 19, alumni sent a second letter issuing their complaints, this time to School of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty. The first letter was sent to Associate Dean of Social Sciences Rogers Smith in February this year, and it addressed basic concerns alumni had regarding their own lack of involvement in the administrative decisions, as well as that of students and other stakeholders. It called for the creation of a formal line of communication with alumni, the implementation of alumni seats on "steering committees," and the conduction of surveys to measure alumni opinion.

The most recent letter, which alumni say acts as a followup, is more broad.

"At the time [of the first letter], I think they met with a couple students," 2017 graduate Scott Detrow said. "Then they went ahead and axed the entire staff, changed the program, and again there was no communication beforehand."

The decision to pause admissions for the program was made a month after the first letter was sent.

The Fels Institute offers a number of programs including a full-time MPA 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. 

“Someone with city and state government experience fits the exact kind of mold for Fels,” Detrow said. “But there still hasn’t been interest in having communications with the alumni community. Every step along the way could have been handled better."

Credit: Caroline Gibson

Detrow is one of the alumni who signed what is at least the second mass-signed letter sent to the administration calling for greater communication with alumni as the Institute continues to undergo changes. Detrow said while Fluharty responded, he still failed to address specific calls for alumni and community input. 

Fluharty did not respond to request for comment.

“The University experiences I had were practical and grounded in real life,” said 2013 Fels graduate Kristen Frobriger and signee of the second letter. “We felt this might get lost in the transition.” 

Lapinksi said these letters to administration represent only a small portion of larger alumni opinion. 

“It’s always the people that write the letter to the dean that probably get the most attention,” Lapinski said, distinguishing between listening to alumni and giving them an active role in decision-making. “We’ve gotten positive remarks from alumni.” 

Detrow said that most alumni simply want to feel heard and have their input acknowledged.

"We don’t ask them to undo the decisions they just made,” Detrow said. “If you just set a day where you had an open forum with alumni who wanted to come in and ask questions, I think that would make a lot of people feel better."

Lapinski said he hopes the recent appointment of DiBerardini will improve alumni engagment through the establishment of a mentorship program alongside the new professor. 

“The reason why [alumni] feel so passionately about the program is because they love Fels," Lapinski said. "They love the students that come out of Fels."