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Penn State Likely to Close STS Program in June ’12

Penn State is certainly not the only university system whose budget is a mess but the administration’s recent handling of the budget crunch has left me very disappointed.

The university has an ongoing review process as part of its overall strategic plan. The Academic Program and Administrative Services Review Core Council has been examining Penn State’s operations and looking for potential efficiencies– a word with a crispness that disguises what it really means.

The Core Council is looking for ways to cut costs, and more often than not that means cutting jobs and reducing resource allocation. Read as: look for departments and programs that don’t seem to be a net gain for the university. University Spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz explained the process as data-driven:

The process is based on data about program enrollments, costs, demand, efficacy, duplication, future outlook as far as market demand, etc., along with input from those in the affected units.

Mountz said in an email that deans will be receiving letters from the Core Council, led by Provost Rod Erickson, with recommendations on proposed curricular and organizational changes.

One of the first such recommendations became public this week when the Science, Technology, and Society program was informed that the Core Council had recommended its closure. The decision is not final at this point, as it must first pass through Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees, but with a stated intention of closing the program by June 2012, the university does not seem to think that it will be a problem.

Tenured faculty will be transferred to other units and Penn State will make an effort to treat other faculty fairly, but effectively speaking much of STS found out this week that they would probably be laid off in the near future.

Students who are currently enrolled in the STS minor will be able to graduate with it.

I know this because I am one of them.

And frankly, this is why Devon’s column yesterday touched a nerve with me.

As Devon pointed out, we pay Penn State for credit hours and the university is prescribing sterile and committee formed gen eds in the place of meaningful academic development. As a liberal arts student, I believe in the value of a broad knowledge base, but that knowledge base needs to be built with sustained explorations of discrete topics, not saccharine sections focused on writing a proper essay.

Maybe the university needs to think about what its most central long-term priorities are. Undergraduate education might not be the most lucrative of Penn State’s admittedly plentiful enterprises, but there’s much to be said about the shaping the effect college educations have over the course of its graduates lives. Molder of men (and women), but only when it doesn’t cost too much? That’s not the university I want to be at.

Think of it this way… Penn State spent more than $780 million on research expenditures in 2010, a huge percentage of its overall budget. The university received $102.4 million of that from industry partners for sponsored research and the federal government contributed a whopping $472 million.

The university should be creating opportunities for its students, with an eye towards improving the quality of our education over the long-term. I do not believe this is best accomplished by shutting down entire fields of investigation. Science and technology studies are critical in our increasingly technological age.

Now consider the magnitude of cost for the STS program compared to the scale of those numbers. Yes, I realize that the recommendation is just the first of many and that times are tight and that the stimulus money is running out, but closing a program is a very significant move. In many ways, it is defeatist. Surely President Spanier would agree that STS is a valid field for inquiry at a university level– isn’t the Core Council’s recommendation indicative that they think it is less imperative for academic exploration?

Or is this a question of the program’s management? If so, there are better ways to optimize the operation of investigation into the field of STS than eliminating it all together. Why can’t the program be integrated into the College of IST or Liberal Arts? As an interdisciplinary program outside of the colleges, STS was seemingly unable to connect many moving parts of Penn State academia, but that is what is needed. Science and technology studies are an interdisciplinary endeavor, and one that will be even more necessary as emergent trends like bio-engineering and nano technology change the fabric of human life in profoundly new ways.

Universities are institutions meant to survive fiscal crises and last generations. Penn State should not make as rash a decision as closing the STS program based on costs and enrollment without at least announcing a plan for supporting coursework in that field into the future. I do not believe that the popularity of a given program and the quality of its faculty’s academic output are indicative of the value of the subject itself.

The university will need to get creative as it faces tough financial decisions, but it needs to communicate its thinking more transparently here, and not just between the deans and administration.

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Creator of @OnwardState. Big fan of sweaters.

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