Archived Speeches

Rodney A. Erickson Remarks
Presentation to the Board of Trustees, January 18, 2008


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Slide 1-Title Slide

I'm delighted to have the opportunity today to talk about a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and that is academic affairs.

This is, of course, a very broad topic, and we could spend days discussing various aspects of Academic Affairs.

Slide 2- Three Related Aspects of Academic Affairs

I thought what might be useful today is to tie together three closely related aspects of academic affairs: 1) academic programs and how they emerge from the faculty, 2) the structure and demographics of Penn State's faculty and how they are evolving, and 3) the importance of strategic planning to the University within this overall context of academic affairs.

Academics is the heart and soul of the University, and there are many significant challenges that confront us; these challenges will only intensify in the coming years.

Slide 3- The quality of academic programs . . .

We know from our own survey research and that of other universities that the quality of an institution's academic programs is THE single most important reason why students choose to attend a particular university. Similarly, academic quality is also the main reason why faculty want to be a part of such groups of scholar teachers; it is rare that faculty willingly choose, other things being equal, to take a position at a significantly less prestigious university in a lower quality program unless forced by circumstances to do so.

Thankfully, Penn State has throughout its existence been fortunate to attract and retain a faculty that very deeply wants to improve the quality of our academic programs, and many of them have spent much or all of their careers here working hard to accomplish that. They do so not just for the currency and self-satisfaction of thriving in competition, but I believe, most importantly, for the benefit of our Penn State students.

Slide 4- Assessing Program Quality

Assessing program quality, of course, always involves a significant amount of subjective judgment. There are many ways to measure quality, none completely satisfactory. Some assessments are based on an amalgamation of numerous statistical measures, such as academic qualifications of incoming students, pass rates on licensure exams, prestige of the faculty in terms of recognized awards, post-graduate placement success, the share of students who go on to graduate or professional studies, and the like. Other rankings are much more subjective, and may be based on the rankings of other academics, corporate executives or recruiters, or even students themselves. Some represent a combination of quantitative and qualitative scores. Most are controversial because most of us academics are highly competitive.

In general, Penn State 's academic programs stack up well against the competition. Indeed, we often do better in individual program rankings than we do overall as a university, in large part because the major national rankings game is so heavily skewed to the what elite private universities have in greater quantity: wealth, whether measured in such terms as endowments per student, the student/faculty ratio, or the like.

Slide 5-Penn State Has Many Top Ranked Academic Programs

Working with our deans, I recently pulled together a rough listing of Penn State academic programs or major subfields-undergraduate, graduate, and professional-that are generally considered to be among the Top 20 in the nation by at least one generally recognized or reasonably reputable ranking. Some are ranked by US News &World Report, others by the National Research Council, others by NIH research funding, others by scholarly or professional societies, and still others which, despite the absence of a formal ranking, would undoubtedly be included on any such list by the academic or professional leaders of the field. There are currently more than 90 disciplinary programs or major subfields at Penn State that would rank among the Top 20 programs nationally, and more than 50 of those that would fall into the Top 10. So Penn State generally stacks up very well, and has added more to the list of top programs in recent years.

Programs generally earn a reputation for high quality through a combination of excellence in teaching, research, and visibility within the profession. Students who have benefited from high quality teaching and learning, involvement in the cutting edge of their fields, and knowing something about the professional world they will enter upon graduation generally do well and are, in fact, among the program's best advertising.

One of the reasons why Penn State 's academic programs are generally ranked highly is that they are continuously evolving and our faculty put significant effort into keeping them on the cutting edge. The process of accreditation, for most of our professional programs, also serves to continually push the frontiers of best practices.

I know that it must appear to our Trustees that there is a huge amount of sifting and sorting in the curriculum. Almost every meeting you see a list that includes new degree programs, program drops, and /or program changes. For the most part, all of this sifting and sorting is a good thing. It's a major reason why Penn State has so many highly ranked programs.

Slide 6-Curriculum Review Process

I certainly won't take the time to walk you through this diagram of the approval path for program changes, but merely make a few key points. As the bottom of the diagram indicates, everything starts with the faculty of the academic units and proceeds through a college and dean review. For undergraduate programs, it also includes a preliminary review by the Administrative Committee on Undergraduate Education (ACUE) to ensure that any potential effects on other programs or campuses are considered. From the colleges, proposed changes go to the Senate Curricular Affairs Committee and there is a parallel and final review by my office. There is always extensive review that takes place within the department/division, college, ACUE, the Senate, and the Provost's Office. A similar path is followed in the case of graduate program changes, although the Graduate Council has been delegated authority by the Senate to handle graduate affairs including curriculum.

Slide 7-Administrative Review Criteria

As part of the administrative review, program proposals are stacked up against a number of important criteria, including alignment with mission, availability of suitable faculty to deliver the program, potential demand for the program and its graduates, curricular integrity, and other necessary resources to deliver a high quality program.

Overall, this is a good process that generally works well, and Penn State 's curriculum is continually changing for the better.

Slide 8-Penn State Majors, 1997 and 2007

Clearly, there has been an increase in the number of academic programs offered. Penn State , across all of its campuses (not including Penn College ) has seen a 7 percent increase in the total number of degree programs over the past decade. The largest numerical growth has occurred in the area of baccalaureate programs, and that is not unexpected given the reorganization of the Commonwealth Campuses a decade ago that encouraged them to create new baccalaureate degrees that would help to meet the workforce needs of their regions. Similarly, the expansion of Master's degree offerings across all campuses serving graduate students and new online degrees through the World Campus have pushed the number of Master's degrees up about 5 percent over the past decade.

Slide 9-Penn State Minors, 1997 and 2007

The greatest growth in the curriculum has occurred in the offering of minors, which have increased from 114 a decade ago to 185 now. This, we believe, is a good thing, that provides opportunities for students to explore program subfields and interdisciplinary studies more formally without the University expanding the number of degree offerings.

Slide 10-Challenges in the Realm of Academic Programs

So our programs are doing well generally in terms of quality, and increasingly recognized nationally. Then, what are the challenges in terms of academic programs?

  • We've made considerable progress in figuring out how to assess the learning of our students, but we've discovered that the best assessment takes place at the program level, making the process even more complex. We need to have all of our faculty focused on learning outcomes, and in that manner, we will best serve our students.
  • Curricular integrity continues to be a challenge in programs across multiple campuses. Penn State is an exceedingly complex University in every respect including curriculum.
  • The degree of cohesion among faculty from the same discipline varies across campuses, and further attention is needed in some fields.
  • To my way of thinking, there are too many degree programs, both undergraduate and graduate. Many large universities have fewer programs. Small enrollment programs result in significant inefficiencies in delivery and can adversely affect program quality. Too many faculty are teaching in class sections that are not cost effective.
  • It's difficult for many faculty to let go of programs in which they have invested years of effort. And there are contractual obligations to continue to offer a program for a period of years following elimination when the enrollments can get very small. And there are the program's alumni, who have, from time to time, responded with indignation to the closing of programs.
  • A "Build It and They Will Come" philosophy is often prevalent. Reliable market data are frequently unavailable, and the initial enthusiasm among students sometimes wanes.
  • Some programs are very costly to deliver and must be cross-subsidized by other programs.
  • The costs for technology, laboratories, and equipment for state-of-the-art education have risen enormously. We have many laboratories and classrooms across the University in which significant investments will need to be made in the coming years.

We grapple with all of these challenges and more in academic affairs every day.

There's a story that, in the late 1940's, the president of Columbia University finished an address to the university community by presenting his ideas on how to better manage the faculty. A faculty member stood up and said, "Mr. President, with all due respect, the faculty are the university." The president of Columbia was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who found that the faculty were not quite as used to taking orders as his troops had been!

Slide 11-Penn State Faculty

Let's turn our attention, now, to the faculty who drive these programs and are the foundation of the University.

Penn State 's faculty today is clearly a much different faculty than I encountered when I arrived here nearly 31 years ago. It is a much more accomplished group of scholar teachers who have made tremendous strides in every respect. They are not only the foundation of an organization that educates 90,000 students annually and a research enterprise totaling nearly $700 million a year, but a group that is much more attuned to student learning outcomes and sharing their discoveries with a wider, global audience.

The number of prestigious awards won by Penn State faculty increases every year, the most recent recipient of one being Jim Tumlinson, the Ralph O. Mumma Professor of Entomology, whose picture is framed in the center of this slide. Last week, Jim was named co-winner of the Wolf Prize in Agriculture-widely regarded as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in agriculture-for his path-breaking research on plant-insect and plant-to-plant interactions.

Slide 12-Penn State Members of the National Academies

Penn State is also increasingly well represented in the National Academies, where both current and retired Penn State faculty play an important role in helping to shape higher education, research, and national policy. Membership in the national academies is among the most prestigious recognitions by one's academic peers in these fields.

Slide 13-Growth in Penn State's Full-Time Faculty

Penn State 's faculty has not only grown in stature, it has grown significantly in size. We currently have about 5,300 full-time faculty. Since 1998, about 440 more faculty have been added at the University Park colleges, about 260 at the Commonwealth Campuses, and another 270 faculty at the College of Medicine. President Spanier and I have put considerable emphasis on increasing the size of the faculty in order to reduce class sizes and bring our student/faculty ratio more into line with our peer institutions. When Graham arrived at Penn State , the student/faculty ratio was about 18-to-1; it is currently about 16-to-1, which takes us more toward the middle of the pack for Big Ten public institutions, but still far above our private university peers.

Slide 14-Full-Time Faculty - Fall 2007

Just over half of our full-time faculty are either tenured or on the tenure track, which we often refer to as provisional or pre-tenure faculty. The remainder are also full-time, but fixed-term; in other words, they are not on tenure-line appointments.

Slide 15-Penn State's Full-Time Faculty 1998-2007: Percentages by Category

Penn State 's full-time faculty is currently comprised of 36 percent women and 17 percent minorities, with 6 percent of the faculty classified as underrepresented minorities. These data are similar to national data for public doctoral institutions, which average 32 percent women and 19 percent minority faculty. It is also clear from this slide that the percentages of women and minority faculty at Penn State have grown significantly over the past decade. We have worked hard to build those numbers as we hire faculty.

Slide 16-Faculty Headcounts by Appointment Type, 2000-2007

Another interesting, and challenging, dimension of the growth in the size of the faculty can be found in appointment types. Penn State annually employs about 2,400 part-time faculty. This number has changed very little over the past decade, actually falling slightly. The number of tenured or provisional faculty has not fallen, in contrast to many other universities where the number of tenured or pre-tenure faculty has declined; at Penn State the number has increased by about 100 faculty over the past decade. What HAS increased substantially is the number of full-time, fixed-term faculty who are on either year-to-year renewable contracts or multi-year fixed-term renewable contracts, the latter of which could, in some instances, run as many as five years, although most are three-year commitments. The use of non-tenure line faculty appointments has increased at University Park , the Commonwealth Campuses, and the College of Medicine . Some of these fixed-term faculty have been appointed to work mainly on externally funded research projects or in clinical practice, but the majority of them are engaged in teaching.

Slide 17-Fixed-Term Multi-Year Faculty

The increasing use of multi-year fixed-term faculty appointments is clearly apparent in this slide. It is currently the most rapidly growing type of faculty appointment in relative terms among our full-time faculty.

Slide 18-Part-Time, Contingent, and Tenure-Line Trends: The National Picture

As this slide indicates, Penn State mirrors very closely the national picture in overall trends, based on US Department of Education statistics.

Slide 19-Percentage of New Full-Time Hires Who are Non-Tenure Line: UP and Big Ten/AAU

Comparative data are hard to find, but information from 20 Big Ten and AAU peers indicate that the percentage of new full-time hires who are not on the tenure track closely follows Penn State 's University Park experience over the past dozen years.

Slide 20- Percentage of New Full-Time Hires Who are Non-Tenure Line: Commonwealth Campuses and Peers

The Commonwealth Campuses and a set of 110 public peer institutions also reflect similar patterns.

Slide 21-Student Credit Hours Taught by Appointment Type, Fall 1999 - Fall 2006

The increasing number of non-tenure line faculty is also reflected in the greater role such faculty are playing in the delivery of our educational programs. The share of overall student credit hours taught by full-time, fixed-term faculty increased by 11 percentage points between 1999 and 2006. In contrast, the share provided by part-time faculty has fallen. The largest decline in the share of student credit hours taught has occurred in the category of standing faculty, largely tenured and tenure track faculty. The average number of course sections taught by standing faculty has held steady in recent years, but the mix of courses taught by standing faculty increasingly involves more upper division courses. The increased number of lower division students at University Park has greatly expanded the need for teaching in general education courses. At the Commonwealth Campuses, standing faculty are teaching more of the advanced (and therefore smaller enrollment) courses required for their baccalaureate majors.

Although many people outside academia believe that graduate assistants are doing a large and increasing share of undergraduate teaching in institutions such as ours, that is not the case at Penn State, where the proportion taught by graduate assistants, who are most generally advanced doctoral candidates, has actually fallen.

We have had a concerted effort over the past decade to shift more fixed-term faculty positions to multi-year commitments, to reduce reliance on part-time faculty, and to reduce the share of teaching performed by graduate assistants.

We have also allocated funding to several colleges to assist them in stemming the tide of fixed-term hiring in favor of more tenure track hires.

Slide 22-Tenure Rates at Ten Research Universities

The decision to grant tenure is an important milestone, both from the perspective of individual faculty members and for a department and college. So let's look at that process more closely.

At Penn State all faculty are evaluated annually, and new faculty on the tenure track are evaluated formally and receive feedback on their performance in second- and fourth-year reviews, and the sixth-year up-or-out review. The final decision is based upon the judgments of faculty committees and administrators at the department, campus, college, and university levels. It's a very structured, carefully engineered process.

A question that people often ask is: What percentage of new assistant professors emerge at the end of the provisional period as tenured associate professors?

In a typical year at Penn State , we have about 150 newly appointed assistant professors. If we take one of those entering cohorts and look at them seven years later, we can see what percentage received tenure-the tenure success rate. Overall, that rate has averaged about 55 percent over the past decade. Penn State 's rate appears to be very similar to the average rate for a group of our public university peers. It's important to emphasize that a 55 percent tenure rate doesn't mean that 45 percent were denied tenure. Many individuals leave voluntarily, not necessarily because they were denied tenure. There are many factors involved. It is also evident that our experience at Penn State closely mirrors the experience of our peer institutions in terms of the success rates for women and minority faculty on the tenure track.

Slide 23-Associate Professors Year in Rank

Another important developmental stage in faculty careers involves the step from associate professor to professor. There is no national dataset or standard regarding this issue-no one can say what is the average or right number of years that someone should expect to serve in rank before being promoted, or what percentage of associate professors do or don't get promoted. In any case, this slide shows the most recent data on time in rank for our associate professors. As you can see, on average our associate professors have been in rank for about 6½ to 7 years. Minority and female associate professors had a shorter average time in rank than their non-minority and male colleagues, while associate professors at the Commonwealth Campuses had a longer average time in rank than their University Park counterparts.

Slide 24-Turnover Rates by Academic Appointment

Another practical consideration for us is faculty turnover. Recruiting and retaining faculty is obviously one of the most important challenges for all of our program heads, deans, and chancellors.

At Penn State , the turnover rates among the three ranks of faculty are quite different. In 2005-06, it was 4.5 percent for tenured professors, 3.2 percent for tenured associate professors, but 9 percent for our assistant professors. This all stands to reason, however. Professors are retiring in greater numbers than associate professors, which adds to their higher turnover rate, and assistant professors are the most mobile given their untenured status. Although there are no national comparative data on faculty turnover, some reliable estimates suggest that Penn State 's turnover is fairly typical-perhaps even a bit below average.

Slide 25-Age Distribution of Full-Time Faculty University-wide, 1998-2007

A final demographic characteristic of the faculty I'd like to address relates to age. As this slide demonstrates, the percentage of Penn State faculty age 60 and above has been increasing in recent years. The percentage of faculty age 60 and above held relatively steady through the decade of the 1990's, but then began to increase to the present level of 15 percent in what's commonly referred to as the "graying of the faculty." This trend obviously reflects the significant faculty hiring that took place in the 1960's and 70's in response to the Baby Boom generation that attended college in much higher numbers. We don't generally find, at Penn State or elsewhere, that faculty continue to work beyond what most folks would consider a normal retirement age. A recent national survey by TIAA-CREF found that a majority of faculty members would like to retire by age 65. Thus, we should anticipate that turnover rates among our most senior faculty could begin to inch upward. On the one hand, this turnover represents a substantial loss of scholarly capacity; on the other hand, it represents a tremendous opportunity to add faculty of even greater potential and to restructure some of our existing academic programs.

Slide 26-Challenges in Hiring and Retaining a World Class Faculty

So what are the greatest challenges we face in recruiting, developing, and retaining a world-class faculty? There are many, and most revolve around resources.

As Penn State 's stature as a world-class university has grown, so has the competitive environment in which we must recruit and retain top quality faculty. Penn State now competes not only with our traditional public research university peers, but increasingly with elite private institutions for the best faculty. The widening resources gap between public and private universities-highlighted in a recent Business Week article-is reflected in both significant faculty salary differentials and in the quality of research and teaching facilities in which faculty will shape their careers. It is, quite simply, difficult to do 21st century research and teaching in facilities that are often 50 years old or more. The competitive situation is also sharpened by the growing number of large endowments for professorships, chairs, and fellowships that are held by many other universities, both private and public, so fundraising is also front and center on the agendas of our colleges and academic support units. The competitive environment in which we find ourselves for top faculty is usually a seller's market, and like the private sector, fewer new faculty anticipate remaining at a single institution for all or most of their careers.

Building academic quality is a multi-dimensional and self-reinforcing process. Academic quality is dependent not only on having great faculty, but also having great students.

One reinforces the other, and having adequate support to compete for the best and brightest students is no less significant a challenge.

A third challenge, as my earlier remarks suggest, is hiring a higher proportion of tenure track faculty as vacancies occur. Although our fixed-term faculty are very talented and most engage in some scholarly research, tenured and tenure track faculty are the foundation for long-term academic excellence and program recognition. And, it is also good for our lower division undergraduates to have classes with the scholars who are writing the books in their field. Unfortunately, 15 years of budget recycling has meant that some departments or divisions have no place left to get the funds for recycling than the hiring of fixed-term faculty or collapsing faculty lines.

A fourth challenge is to hire additional women and minority faculty. Although we have made considerable progress in hiring more women and minority faculty, we remain significantly underrepresented in many fields, particularly the so-called "STEM disciplines," science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

A fifth challenge is to encourage faculty to reach beyond the confines of their own disciplines or subfields to engage research and teaching in a truly interdisciplinary manner. The most interesting research questions often exist at the boundaries of our traditional disciplines. We must focus our energies in these boundary areas if we are going to contribute significantly to solving the major societal and global problems. Yet, much of our framework for assessing the academic contributions of faculty still revolves around rather narrow disciplinary paradigms, research outlets, and assessment measures.

A sixth challenge is to make certain that we do our best to develop the capabilities and institutional commitment of our new faculty. Every faculty hiring decision that our units make represents a major commitment of resources, not just for the salary and start-up package, but also for the opportunity cost of having made a poor initial decision, or not having given the new faculty member the best possible chance to succeed. Appropriate mentoring by more senior faculty and administrators, flexibility along the career path, and accommodating major life course developments such as childbirth, adoption, or sickness by stopping the tenure clock are all important ways in which the University can maximize the value of its investment in our faculty.

The final challenge I'll note here-although there are clearly many more I could list-is the necessity of being strategic in our decisions about faculty hiring and replacement. With about 5 percent faculty turnover occurring annually, it is obvious that over a decade or two, the individuals populating our faculty ranks can be quite different in many units. With an aging faculty who will be retiring in greater number over the coming decade, we have an extraordinary opportunity to reshape the institution in the years ahead.

Slide 27-Unit-Level Strategic Plans

This last challenge is a perfect segue to the third leg of my stool: the importance of strategic planning to the future academic excellence of the University.

As you know, we have recently launched a new round of University strategic planning that will be focused on a 5-year period from 2009 through 2014, although we will clearly want to encourage everyone involved to be thinking beyond the 5-year time frame.

Penn State has had a long history of effective strategic planning, and the new round of planning builds upon our commitment to a "top down, bottom up" process. To that end, each of our 40-plus budgetary units-colleges, campuses, and academic and administrative support units-have been engaged since last July in developing the next 5-year plans for their respective operations. These plans are to be completed by this June 30th. All academic units have been charged to spell out their plans for assessing student learning outcomes, and all units have been charged to integrate elements of how they will further integrate themes of diversity into their futures.

We have challenged all our planning units to be realistic in formulating their plans, with the expectation that some level of central budgetary recycling would continue, but also to be bold, and articulate a vision of where they could be in a decade if there were more resources with which to work. For the colleges and campuses, faculty hiring and replacements along with changing thrusts of their academic programs will obviously be front and center in the scenarios they formulate. Thus, there will be many worthy ideas for changes in academic programs and the faculty who drive them that will percolate upward from the units.

Slide 28-University Strategic Planning Council (USPC)

President Spanier has also recently appointed a University Strategic Planning Council, which is charged with developing the overall 5-year plan for Penn State . Specifically, Graham asked the Council, which I will chair, to think about what we hope to accomplish and the accompanying strategies we need to embrace to achieve those goals. He has asked us to utilize the many resources of expertise across the University, and to incorporate themes and ideas emerging from the best thinking found in the unit plans.

Slide 29-Longer-Range Issues

President Spanier also asked us to consider where we should be as a university in a decade or more, and consider such issues as --

  • What it means to be a Land Grant university in the 21st century.
  • The appropriate balance between student access and the tuition resources required to maintain academic excellence.
  • The keys to building future faculty strength and attracting top students.
  • Strategies for achieving greater student-centeredness.
  • Our challenges for achieving greater diversity.
  • Breaking down barriers to interdisciplinary collaborations.
  • Penn State 's evolving multi-campus structure and campus missions.
  • The role of information technologies in shaping our future.
  • Ways to operate the University more effectively and efficiently.

Slide 30-University Strategic Planning Council, pg.1

Slide 31-University Strategic Planning Council, pg. 2

Slide 32-University Strategic Planning Council, pg.3

The Council met for the first time last week, and it is clear that the membership collectively possesses the talent and dedication to tackle this major assignment. Faculty, staff, student, administration and Trustee membership on the committee ensures a broad-ranging set of perspectives on the University's future. We also have a very talented group of senior staff to support the work of the Council. I personally look forward to working with the USPC over the next 12-15 months to complete the plan in time for the beginning of the 2009-10 academic year. Once a draft plan has been completed, about a year from now, there will be ample opportunity for a wide range of constituencies to provide feedback before a final version is brought to the Trustees for approval.

Slide 33-Questions and Comments

Thank you for this opportunity to scratch the surface of academic programs and the faculty at Penn State . These are core issues for the University, and I hope I've given you some useful information to consider as we collectively chart Penn State 's future.


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