Report of Fall 2016 Campus Visits
The Senate Officers visited seven campuses during Fall 2016 including: Lehigh Valley (9/19), Berks (9/19), York (9/22), Mont Alto (9/22), Behrend (10/5), Shenango (10/6), and Beaver (10/6).
During campus visits, Senate Officers met with staff, students, faculty, and administrators. Each group was met with separately to encourage open and frank discussions. Two basic questions were asked in each meeting: “What do you enjoy about your campus and your position” and “What are the challenges faced at your campus or position?” These simple questions led to rich discussions.
While campuses vary in their enrollment, academic programs, and the nature of their student populations, consistent themes were evident:
- All of our Commonwealth Campuses share a passion for helping students and all members of the academic units take pride in fostering this relationship. Their smaller enrollments create close knit communities, where faculty, staff, and students frequently know each other by name. Such relationships enable close collaboration across each campus. The recent efforts to centralize many key functions at University Park, however, are beginning to impact each campus’ ability to serve their students with the same care and efficiency that they have provided heretofore.
- Each campus shares a “Penn State pride” that is evident from the moment one steps on to campus. Grounds are immaculately kept and visitors are greeted warmly. Faculty, staff, and students alike are eager to share their love of their campus and explain how Penn State has made a difference to them and to their communities. Almost every student group, however, shared a desire to have a stronger connection to the resources and activities available at University Park.
- Recent efforts to centralize many University policies and procedures, such as the Common Schedule, registration timetables, room scheduling software (CollegeNet), advising records (Starfish), and student information (via LionPATH and iTwo), were points of frustration at each campus we visited. Campuses share a common perception that “University Park” is making changes to policies and procedures that result in negative consequences at Commonwealth Campus locations. Faculty and staff feel that campuses are either left out of key decision-making processes or that Commonwealth Campus input is not taken seriously.
- The implementation of LionPATH is seen as especially problematic. Advisors are challenged to complete the routine aspects of their job effectively and accurately (e.g., transcripts, degree audits, transfer credits, pathway to graduation). Registration staff are frustrated trying to coordinate and confirm bill payment and student aid. Admissions offices and programs are convinced that they have lost potential students due to non-timely application responses. Overall, we heard loud concerns related to inefficiency (e.g., “What used to take me 2 steps now takes 5,” “I have to double-check all data coming out of LionPATH, as we routinely find errors”). Faculty, staff, and administrators alike were clearly stressed and cited lack of clear and regular communication from “central administration.” Many reported a decrease in overall morale among faculty and staff.
- Universally, campuses we visited reported that they are not using College Net for scheduling their classes and buildings and are effectively using their legacy systems to accomplish this task.
- Some programs at University Park are apparently not accepting same-numbered courses for degree requirements when those courses have been taken at Commonwealth Colleges. Given our continuity of degree intention across locations, “course is a course” concept, and 80%/20% shared vs. unique course content rules, this inequity needs to be addressed. Programs mentioned where this seems to be an issue include Administration of Justice, Business, and Meteorology.
- Depending on the campus, there is a need for “student space” in either dedicated buildings or increased space for libraries and other student common areas. Some campuses we visited recently had such a facility constructed and were very happy with this “community improvement.” Those locations that do not have such dedicated spaces claim it is challenging to build a campus community without one, particularly for those campuses with large commuter populations.
- There was general worry about the impact of the VRP (voluntary retirement program) on faculty lines and administrative leadership. At the time of our visits, the exact impacts were unknown, but campuses were concerned about the impact on smaller programs and majors, where potentially 2-3 faculty out of 4-5 total could be retiring and it was unknown whether those lines would be replaced, replaced with tenure-line or fixed-term faculty, and the speed at which jobs could be posted and replacements found.
- The role of both tenure-line and fixed-term faculty was also a common theme during our campuses meetings. Varying workloads, promotion opportunities, and professional development resources were raised as issues faculty would like to see addressed both at their individual campus locations and across the University.
- Staff workloads, promotion opportunities, and professional development resources were also raised as key issues during our visits. “We are continually being asked to do more with less” was a frequent refrain. Staff shared their suggestions for how to improve their ability to do their jobs and to be able to continue to provide the high level of service that has been a point of campus pride.
- Issues related to Risk Management were also echoed in our visits. There was a general feeling that Risk Management is too risk adverse, especially when they encounter something they haven’t heard about before. There has been a significant increase in paperwork and need for permissions, to a point where Risk Management requirements have become so onerous that it dissuades many events from even getting started.
In addition to the overall summary provided above, unique information was learned from each campus. Below is a campus-by-campus summary, while an appendix to this report provides detailed information. A careful read of this information will illustrate the unique attributes and successes of our Commonwealth Campuses, as well as the important issues they are confronting. It is our hope that this information will ultimately reveal pathways for improvement.
Infrastructure is currently viewed as limiting the student experience and growth potential of this campus. The building is very nice and up to date, but student needs, especially extracurricular, are reportedly outgrowing this single structure. We heard about the need for a Student Activity Building that might be used for athletics, traditional student union/social functions, and fitness center activities. The Senate Officers observed that student options for these kinds of activities and gatherings seem to be very limited. Currently, the campus reports that athletic activities are in off-campus spaces being rented at other college/university locations; not ideal locations for promoting the Penn State brand. There was also a stated need for an academic building or addition to existing building. Faculty specifically discussed need for organic chemistry labs. It was also mentioned that some of the grounds immediately surrounding the campus may or may not be buildable due to underground mines/sinkholes that are in the area and that would obviously need to be evaluated. Our impressions were that the new Chancellor is working very hard to build an administrative relationship with Faculty and Staff and moving forward, has a growth vision for this campus.
This is a robust, growth campus from a student population/enrollment and diversity of strong academic programs being offered. It has an excellent physical plant with good quality, up to date buildings. The Senate Officers heard very vocal concerns expressed by faculty and staff about LionPATH impact and the potential loss of students during application process. Currently there is a wait list for spaces at their dorms and there was some discussion they could expand their dorms, but the impact on this current student demand might need to be tempered given new dorm construction at Abington and Brandywine. Students indicated that the library is problematic. They feel it is too small given student demand for the space and the multiple student uses for that space, which include studying and social gathering, together these two needs are incompatible. We were told the Student Union building rooms are scheduled for use and the cafeteria is used for eating (given the demand, it is an eat-and-get-out kind of space). As a result, students feel a gathering/socializing area is needed (or needs to be designated, somewhere on campus). Our conversations indicated the Campus Administration appears to have a very positive and proactive working relationship with both Faculty and Staff.
Faculty and students reported looking forward to the opening of newly renovated and expanded Student Union Building. All parties thought this was a very welcome infrastructure improvement that will improve campus community and student interactions. We discussed strategies based on their concerns for engaging incoming freshmen (e.g., team building, group cooking, outdoor activities first couple of weeks) as a way to foster a better campus climate and community, with their goal of making this less of a commuter campus and more of a learning community. We again had very frank discussions about LionPATH challenges with Staff, Faculty, and Administration at this campus. Concerns were also raised here specifically about the effects of the VRP (Voluntary Retirement Program) on faculty, especially in small programs were the majority of faculty supporting some of the programs/courses were going to be lost during upcoming year. Our conversations indicated that Campus Administration appear to have a very positive and proactive working relationship with Faculty and Staff.
The campus community shared their pride for their beautiful grounds and buildings and what they feel is a very nice campus and community environment. Students seemed passionate about their professors and academic studies. The biggest challenge they shared is that many students go home for weekends, so they say it is challenging to have engagement with activities and build community. That said, they report that there is a very robust athletic program which is enjoyed by students as both spectators and participants. One challenge reported is that their dorms are only half occupied. This reality represents both a challenge and opportunity. Popular academic programs include Nursing, Business related majors, and Forestry. Participants shared that Faculty, Staff, and Administration at this campus are a very tight-knit group, all working together with the goal of recruitment, serving students, maintaining enrollments, and building a campus community.
Participants here were also proud of their campus’s grounds and buildings and campus and community environment. That considered, Senate Officers were also told that maintenance of some buildings, especially roofs, is a continuing challenge, especially given the winter climate and a limited budget. The other infrastructure issue discussed by staff and administration is the central road cutting through campus, one that apparently is township owned, which presents challenges in the winter with maintenance and snow removal, as well causing traffic flow issues. Apparently, conversations with the Township have not been productive and the campus views this issue as a safety issue for students and employees. Academically, this campus has strong programs in engineering, sciences, business, and nursing, with a strategic RN to BSN degree program. These programs have strong enrollments and student engagement opportunities at academic and extracurricular levels, and we heard from students about some of the internship and hands-on-learning opportunities available in their degree programs. Our meeting with the Administration indicated a very strong leadership team with a future vision for this growth campus.
This is a small campus that takes great pride in serving its local community. We met with very passionate students, two notables were from under-represented backgrounds who were especially thankful for the educational opportunities and future employment opportunities this campus and their Penn State education will afford them. We were told that the allied health majors offered by Shenango are especially popular. Again, the participants share pride in grounds and buildings at this campus. The maintenance staff who attended were extraordinarily engaged and saw their role larger in the respect that positive impressions visiting families have when they step on campus and walk into buildings translates to admissions for their sons and daughters. Faculty discussed some of the dual, shared faculty positions between Shenango and Beaver Campus (Biology was mentioned) but also some of the frustrations over faculty searches for new shared faculty for programs in Administration of Justice and Technology Areas, where they want to make sure both campuses have equal input in searches and hires. Student enrollments are reportedly challenged at this location, but administration shared their commitment to enhancing enrollments, student engagement, and faculty morale. They desire a continued, active involvement with Penn State central administration and University meetings and task forces that they feel have impact on the future of the campus.
As previously mentioned, this campus is partnered with Shenango for some faculty lines and academic program support. Participants shared a pride in their grounds and discussed buildings that had been recently renovated, but they reported that continued work could be done on deferred maintenance and upgrades for some buildings. They have a dormitory that is not completely filled and again, as we observed at Mont Alto and some other campus locations that have partially filled dorms, this represents both a challenge and opportunity. At Beaver, we heard from both students and faculty about frustrations in transferring some identically numbered course credits to University Park Programs. This is important as course offerings should be confluent, similar, and accepted no matter the location in accordance with University Academic Policy, overseen by Faculty Senate. The other challenge faced by the Beaver Chancellor is coordinating joint faculty and programs offered at both Beaver and Shenango locations.
The appendix to this report provides more detailed information regarding each of these campus visits.
Ann H. Taylor, Faculty Senate Secretary, in consultation with Faculty Senate Chair James A. Strauss and Chair-Elect Matthew Woessner.