Samuel Preston

For the dean of SAS, keeping the faculty happy, the students engaged and the budget in balance is all part of the plan.

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

If all goes as planned, 200 students in next year’s freshman College class will graduate without meeting the current course requirements. Instead, as announced this month, they will follow a new experimental curriculum that features a streamlined general requirement, a new communications-skills requirement to accompany the existing foreign-language and quantitative-skills requirements, and a chance to sample more of the College’s wide variety of academic offerings.

The new curriculum is one of the centerpieces of the current five-year plan for Penn’s largest school, the School of Arts and Sciences. Announced six months into SAS Dean Samuel Preston’s tenure, the curriculum reflects the plan’s overall emphasis on strengthening the quality of undergraduate education.

That emphasis also shapes many of the plan’s other goals, such as pouring significant additional resources into the biology, economics, English, history, political science and psychology departments to add faculty and improve facilities.

But Preston stressed in a July conversation with Current that the plan leaves no corner of the school neglected.

Q. The first thing I’d like to know is why just six departments were singled out for growth, because we also have strong programs and good reputations in other departments -- sociology, chemistry, physics...

A. Okay, stop right there. We have just made two outstanding appointments in sociology to begin the next academic year, and in chemistry, we just made two senior appointments as well. In physics, we’ve authorized three new appointments and we are hopeful that we will succeed on these.

The school is a massive enterprise. We have 25 departments, 38 graduate groups, I think. Over 40 undergraduate majors and minors. It is not the case that we are phasing out all but six departments and programs -- obviously, we have great strength throughout the school and we are going to do anything we can that appears to be feasible to maintain these strong departments.

It is the case that the six departments we’ve singled out are the most vital elements in our undergraduate programs. In fact, these six departments accounted for two-thirds of the undergraduate majors, which is quite amazing.

They are also, with one exception, already very, very distinguished departments and are doing an excellent job of graduate education and research, so they’re managing to satisfy our three aspirations of research, graduate education and undergraduate education.

We have other departments that are very good in this but not that, and again we are looking at every program to be sure that it is doing everything it can on all three of our dimensions. But we have claimed that we are putting our incremental resources into the programs that have demonstrated that they have a culture that supports undergraduate teaching.

Q. That sixth department --

A. You know which one I’m talking about --

Q. Yes. Will there be additional resources poured into it to bring its status up to that of the others?

A. I think we’ve had some outstanding success this year in political science recruitment and we will be continuing to work very vigorously to appoint others. This is the one department that I have said will grow from its current level of 20 faculty to a level of about 27. It needs to grow in order to satisfy the demands that are being placed on it. Besides, Penn ought to have a very distinguished department of political science. Now, I think that [its] history of recent recruits has clearly shown the department can do very successful recruiting, and we just have to give them the resources to keep at it.

Q. What about some of the smaller departments that have outstanding reputations, such as music? Where do they fit into this larger picture?

A. Let me be careful in answering this question. The size of a department is not a parameter that we consider carefully when making resource decisions. What does matter is what the department is doing with the resources it has. Music is a good example of a department that uses its resources extremely efficiently.

What we have to do in music, and it is one of our highest priorities, and it’s mentioned in the plan, is to find some new physical facilities for it, because it’s in absolutely miserable physical condition.

Q. It looks like the experimental curriculum will let students pursue their own intellectual interests more thoroughly by reducing the requirements. Is this correct?

A. It’s not exactly correct. The idea is not only to give students more flexibility in their curricular choices, but to provide a core set of courses that will provide a common learning experience and that will touch on the most important themes in human history.

But really, the purpose of this experimental curriculum is to conduct an experiment that we can carefully evaluate and examine the benefits and costs of before going ahead to the next step, which is curricular reform for the entire school. Our current general and distribution requirements are 12 years old, and my own sense and I think that of the other [SAS associate] deans is that students have found ways around the parts of the requirements that they don’t like and that these choices are not educationally as valuable as they might be. So I think it is important to investigate other alternatives, and it seems to me to be best to do so in an experimental context.

Q. As we talk, the news has recently surfaced that the SAS budget is in balance and running a slight surplus for the first time in recent memory.

A. Uh, “surplus” is a term I haven’t heard before, but we do anticipate with a high probability being in balance for the next fiscal year.

Q. Does this change how or when the five-year plan will be implemented?

A. It certainly increases the probability that we will be able to move swiftly. Obviously, many features of this plan require funding from outside. You’re in a much stronger position to seek funding from outside when you have a balanced budget than when you have an unbalanced budget.

Q. What specific things might we expect to see in the next 12 months that would mark significant milestones on the way to implementing the goals of the plan?

A. That’s a good question. I think one thing to look at would be the faculty appointments that are made, and in particular faculty appointments in the six departments that have been singled out.

I think another marker would be whether or not we are able to mount the experimental curriculum we propose, and how effectively we get the Fox Leadership Program off the ground.

[But] fundamentally, the quality of the school is dependent more than anything else on the quality of the faculty, and if we have a good year of recruitment and retention we will in general have had a good year for the school. This past year has been the most grueling year, I think, in the school’s history in terms of the attempt to maintain the faculty that it has. We had 35 faculty members in the school who had offers from other institutions this year. We managed to retain the large majority of them, but we had some very significant losses as well.

I have a sense that the academic job market is heating up very quickly, and we will have to work very hard to recruit and retain one of the top faculties in the country.

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Originally published on September 30, 1999