As colleges move through Core Council process, new ideas emerge

February 24, 2011

A little over a year ago, a University committee started a process of reviewing academic programs, college-by-college, in response to a strategy in goal #2 of the University strategic plan calling for a consolidation of academic programs through targeted reviews. The committee was charged with identifying new ways to maintain academic excellence, while helping Penn State become a more efficient and effective institution.

The Core Council, or as it is formally known the Academic and Administrative Services Review Core Council, is the group charged by the president and chaired by executive vice president and provost with identifying $10 million in permanent cost savings and nontuition revenue sources for the University for the coming fiscal year. Every area of the University is undergoing review by committees set up by the Core Council.

Smeal College of Business Dean James Thomas wanted to be ready to answer the University Park Academic Review Coordinating Committee's (UPARCC) questions, so he held a series of forums and discussions with his executive council. "We came up with a number of things we could do to enhance Smeal's productivity, efficiency and strategic relevance, and wrote them up as a series of about a dozen initiatives we would take, from eliminating programs to restructuring. When I met with the UPARCC, I presented those initiatives to the group," Thomas said.

Thomas said the committee came back to him with some follow-up questions, which he answered. When he became the first dean to receive his recommendations from the Core Council, there were no surprises. "There were some minor differences and further suggestions between what I presented to them and what was in the final recommendation letter, but they were pretty much spot-on with what we thought we could do," he said.

The recommendations for Smeal included both organizational and curricular changes.

Administratively, Thomas said they've completed a restructuring that eliminated one associate dean position and the merging of support staff. The college also has merged the administrative infrastructure for the MBA, Executive MBA and Executive Education programs.

"In addition, we've dropped the degree in economics that has been offered in Smeal, because the University already offers an economics degree in the College of the Liberal Arts," Thomas said. The college also has eliminated the manufacturing management master's degree."

In fact, in the last six months, changes in Smeal have gone through the Faculty Senate, and the Board of Trustees where appropriate, and the college has implemented about 90 percent of the recommended changes.

"The process has been fair, relevant and comprehensive," he said. "There's been strategic relevance in the recommendations. Cutting for the sake of cutting isn't good. There needs to be rhyme and reason for the strategic goals of a college in addition to relevance for the University, and that's what we're seeing in this process."

At this point, almost all of the deans at University Park have received letters from the Core Council and are in the process of addressing the recommendations.

Recommendations for the College of Agricultural Sciences included the consolidation of academic units, reorganization of some programs and examining Cooperative Extension operations.

"When I received our letter, I brought in our leadership teams and engaged directors of various support units because they're directly involved in some of these changes," said Bruce McPheron, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. "On the issue of academic restructuring, we have six teams of eight individuals working to come up with academic recommendations for the structure of the future." In addition, McPheron said all faculty involved in the college's 11 departments and school are providing input and having discussions about the recommended changes, and Extension regional directors and others are working on some of the recommendations specific to Extension operations around the state.

"I've been asking faculty to provide ideas for a structure that ensures we can achieve excellence in our goals for the future," McPheron said. He said the college is taking advantage of the restructuring to position itself as a worldwide leader in the areas of sustainability and health-related aspects of food production. "There's a huge demand on the food and fiber system worldwide. We're looking for areas where we can make a difference. We're focusing on the health aspects of food – protecting plants and animals from disease and pests, or making sure the food we grow is healthy and safe," he said.

In the College of Education, Dean David Monk convened a faculty committee to examine the implications of his college's recommendations from the Core Council, including a recommendation to merge the Department of Counselor Education, Counseling Psychology and Rehabilitation Services with the Department of Educational Psychology, School Psychology and Special Education.

"This is really about putting resources to their best uses and not solely about cost savings," Monk said. "I think the reorganization of our two departments and the changes we're making in the graduate programs in this area of the college will take better advantage of complementarities that can and should exist. We have been running a group of separately organized programs with similar areas of content. These were all strong programs, but more costly to operate than was necessary."

Monk posted his college's recommendations, along with other relevant documents, on the Web to keep everyone informed and reduce the chances that misinformation would spread.

McPheron also has worked to keep accurate information about his college's changes accessible. He has held webinars to discuss the changes, and met with students in person to reassure them about what is happening related to their educational programs. "Students will be provided the opportunity to finish the degrees they started," McPheron said. "Current students are not going to be affected by this. This is really more about owning academic issues of the future and making sure we're focused on the problems of the future."

The same is true in every college at University Park and on every Penn State campus. "Even if a program is recommended for closure, any student that's in that program will be given time to graduate," said Executive Vice President and Provost Rod Erickson.

Erickson said the process began more than a year ago, with the gathering of data. "To start the process, we asked budget executives to give us information concerning opportunities to enhance program quality while creating greater efficiencies."

After the Core Council's UPARCC received the data, it met with each dean. "We asked them to give us some ideas about where they saw opportunities for improvement and greater efficiencies," Louise Sandmeyer, executive director of the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment. "Through the strategic planning process deans had identified goals for their units, and this process is enabling them to move their resources strategically from one area to another to achieve their goals. Some of the final recommendations emerged from discussions with each of the deans. What we've done in terms of the Core Council is frequently to lend support and say, 'This is a good idea.'"

Taking the data and the information from the deans, the committee then drafted its preliminary recommendations and sent them to the Campus Academic Program Review Coordinating Committee (CAPRCC), to learn what implications any changes at University Park might have for programs at other campuses. After receiving feedback from the CAPRCC, the University Park committee sent its revised recommendations to the Core Council, where they were discussed and modified as needed. The recommendations then were sent to the deans for review. Once additional feedback was gathered, the final recommendation letters were sent to the deans. The next stage in the process is for the deans to come up with responses to the recommendation and implementation plans and send updates on progress back to the Core Council. As the plans are formalized, those involving academic changes will go to the Faculty Senate for review and comment as required and ultimately to the Board of Trustees for approval in the case of unit reorganizations.

"This was the first time this was ever done for Penn State," said Mike Dooris, director for planning and research assessment. "It's good to look at every academic program at the University at some point. That's what this process did, in terms of the productivity, performance and quality. We used objective data, such as longitudinal data on enrollments, degrees awarded, productivity of faculty, costs of instruction, research funding, number of under-enrolled sections, indicators of quality such as GREs, SAT scores, that sort of thing." However, Dooris emphasized that no decisions were based strictly on those kinds of objective data. "That was one part of the process, used as a starting point to inform the conversation about quality."

Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts and chair of the UPARCC, agreed. "The deans realize they have programs of variable quality. As we're tightening our belts, programs with lower quality, or programs with low demand, should be identified," she said. "There are programs that enroll only a few students. Maybe they need to be updated, or merged with other programs. We have tried to look at quality indicators wherever we can find them and use them to inform our recommendations along with the quantitative data."

Although the process is nearly complete for the University Park colleges, they are not the only units undergoing this review. The first of the CAPRCC recommendations should be ready to go out to the campuses in the near future. "The campus review process is not quite as far along as the University Park process. These reviews are, as they should be, informed by data. While data were readily available for the University Park colleges and the long-standing campus colleges, we had a good bit of work to do at the start to disaggregate program and other critical data specific to each of the University College campuses. This preliminary work was unanticipated perhaps, but nevertheless important to engage chancellors in meaningful conversations about program quality and to set in place a basis for appreciating ongoing progress,” said Madlyn Hanes, vice president of Commonwealth Campuses and chair of CAPRCC.

Erickson emphasized that it's important to look at the process in its proper context of the University-wide strategic plan. "What we want to remember is that we're talking here about one strategy in one goal of the strategic plan. There are seven goals. There are 37 other strategies. This is part of the larger effort to make Penn State the best it can be."

  • Click on the image above to visit the Core Council website.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated September 04, 2020