Staff Q&A / Eli Lesser

Eli Lesser, director of Academic Summer Sessions  Photo credit: Mark Stehle

It may be cold outside, but for Eli Lesser it’s always summer. As Penn’s new Director of Academic Summer Sessions, he is responsible for Penn’s entire School of Arts and Sciences roster from late May through mid August, a multifaceted offering of about 300 courses on campus, online and abroad.

Working through the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, formerly known as the College of General Studies, Lesser says his focus has been on making Penn’s summer sessions more accessible, more visible and more convenient.

The Current sat down with Lesser to discuss what makes a Penn summer special and how students don’t necessarily have to be on campus to get the full Penn experience.

Q. You are fairly new to this position in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, but you aren’t new to Penn are you?
No, I call this my second tour of duty at Penn. I spent two-and-a-half years at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. I worked with the Annenberg Classroom project doing teacher training and curriculum development.

Q. Can you explain how LPS differs from other divisions of the School of Arts and Sciences?
SAS has three divisions: The College, which is the undergraduate division; the graduate division; and LPS. LPS offers a bachelor’s degree for non-traditional students. The LPS program is for people whose professional lives have started but who also want to attend Penn. It’s also for people who started their undergraduate degrees and stopped because life got in the way, or people who never started.

Q. Summer courses are offered during several academic sessions, right?
We offer three Summer Sessions. There’s a 12-week session that runs from May 24 to Aug. 13; and two six-week sessions that run from May 24 to July 2, and July 6 to Aug. 13. About 300 courses are offered over the three sessions, and we also offer courses online. This summer, we will be offering 10 online courses. We also offer Penn Summer Abroad and Penn Summer High School, which gives high school students an opportunity to come to Penn’s campus or study online. Most of our 12-week courses take place in the evening, and most of our six-week courses take place in the day before 4:30 p.m.

Q. What is the prime focus of your job?
I was asked to think about how we can continue to serve, and better serve, the Penn community, our undergraduates, our graduate students, our staff and also make Penn a destination for students from around the country and around the world, where they can come and have a Penn experience in the summer.
To do that, we’ve launched a new website, We have a new brand and a new look, putting everything under the heading of Penn Summer. We want to stress that summer is about flexibility, creativity and exploration and that you don’t have to be at Penn physically to have a Penn experience. You can be online. You can be studying in southern France in one of our study abroad programs. You can be doing an archeological dig in central Greece and still have a Penn experience. The main message is that you can have a Penn summer in lots of places.

Q. What are some of the main changes students will see in Summer 2010?
We’ve changed our admissions policy. Before, there was a long application process and a $75 application fee. To make things more convenient we’ve reduced the fee—it’s only $35 now—and we’ve moved to a more streamlined system that allows for a simple two-part registration. We also worked with the instructors and departments to offer courses that are unique to Penn and will be attractive to students who may not have access to these courses at their home institutions. I’m talking about courses like ‘The Biological Basis of Behavior,’ ‘Archeology,’ ‘Classics’ and ‘Positive Psychology,’ to name just a few.

Q. Can you talk about Penn staff attending summer courses?
The great thing with this new application system is that staff can be admitted to take courses in the summer simply by registering. The thing for staff to keep in mind is that they can use their tuition benefit, but admission to a summer session is just admission to a summer session. It doesn’t guarantee entry to a degree program or entry into fall courses or spring courses. They would have to go through the traditional application process through LPS to do that. And we would encourage them to do that. But the summer session does provide them with direct access to Penn courses, and for staff who have been out of school for many years and are looking to make their way back to a degree program, this is a great way to get their feet wet. It’s a great way to reengage with academia.

Q. How time consuming are summer classes?
Our six-week classes meet three times a week for an hour to an hour-and-a-half each time, and in the middle of the day. In our 12-week session most classes meet in the evening for about two or three hours a night, once a week; or two evenings a week, for an hour and 40 minutes. It’s important to stress that this is not ‘Penn light.’

Q. How do people sign up?
Registration is open now. In order for staff to participate they need to complete the two-step registration process. They should go to our website. They will see a special section for staff that explains the process. The first part of the registration is filling out basic biographical information, and then within three to five business days they will receive an email from us confirming that their registration is complete and they’ve paid their $35 fee. They should also visit the HR website to download the necessary forms they need to complete to get their tuition benefit.
I would also encourage all staff to attend a ‘new-student’ orientation, even though they may have been working at Penn for a long time. It’s important for them to understand the ins-and-outs of being a student here.

Q. Where can people get more information?
Well, to start, people should visit the website. Then, if they want to talk to someone in person, we have information sessions called Walk-In Wednesdays. [Feb. 10 and 24, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and from 4:30 to 6 p.m.] And we are hosting a special information session for Penn employees on March 3, from noon to 1:30 p.m.

Originally published on February 4, 2010