Appendix N



Disciplinary Communities Revisited


Implementation: Upon approval by the President


At the April 25, 2006 meeting of the University Faculty Senate, an Advisory/Consultative Report entitled “Disciplinary Communities” submitted by the Intra-University Relations Committee was passed in response to a charge to “recommend the creation of organizational processes and structures needed to implement promotion and tenure, and curricular recommendations of other committees; to identify strategies to support faculty collaboration on course offerings; to develop recommendations for discipline-based coordination councils; and to develop recommendations to support discipline based conferences and communications.”  While this report was accepted by then President, it was never completely implemented.  A few units took the recommendations of the report seriously, but many other units ignored it, and effective disciplinary communities are operating in only some of the disciplines.


Fundamentally, the need for disciplinary communities arises out of the philosophy that we are “one university geographically distributed.”  For this to be meaningful it is necessary that courses across all locations be similar, which is one of the reasons that the Senate passed Legislative Report, Policy 42-10, Course Uniformity last March.  This policy requires that courses offered by multiple units must be substantially similar in that they include a minimum of 80% of the course content and learning objectives described in the most current course proposal approved by the Senate.  Many of the currently approved course proposals on the books do not have this course content or learning objectives adequately stated, and in the next few years many of them will need to be redone.  In order to carry this out effectively for courses that are offered at multiple locations, the disciplinary communities will be critical.   There is an additional imperative, based on the recommendations of our accrediting agency, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, to develop effective assessment methods for our degree programs and to truly act as “one university geographically distributed.”  Since all of our campuses are jointly accredited as one university, it is more critical than ever that these organizational processes and structures are completely implemented.

The Committee is deeply concerned that the disciplinary communities report was accepted by the administration 10 years ago, but little has been done to implement the recommendations.  Due to the size and geographic distribution of the university, disciplinary communities will not happen spontaneously unless there is a strong driving force.  Instances where these communities are currently functioning are due either to specific accreditation needs or the historical recognition of the importance of curricular coherence dating back to the days of the Commonwealth Educational System (CES).  However, there has been no systematic effort to create disciplinary communities across all disciplines.  Without such an effort, which is best led by the administration, we cannot claim to be one university, and in fact, could be putting our Middle States accreditation at risk.  The Committee admonishes the administration to not only execute the recommendations listed below, but report back to the Senate on how effective the implementation has been.

The rest of this report is taken practically verbatim from the 2006 IRC Disciplinary Communities Report.  The recommendations made then are as appropriate as they were in 2006, possibly even more appropriate, given the recent recommendations of our accrediting agency.  Part of the Rationale Section of that report has been removed in the interest of conciseness.  Secondly, a section proposing how disciplinary communities meetings would be held, but that was not stated as a recommendation, has now been explicitly listed as a recommendation (Recommendation 3).  Thirdly, a specific recommendation (Recommendation 4) regarding a report back to the Senate has been added. 



The word “community” is typically used to refer to the form and function of a wide variety of political, economic, and social collectives. The word, “discipline” is used to refer to a branch of learning or education, or system of rules for proper conduct. In this report, IRC defines a disciplinary community as:

A behavioral system composed of persons having extensive education and training in practice of an art or science using similar processes and resources. These persons are linked by means of positions, groups and associations in professional organizations that control entrance to the community and regulate its members’ behavior through shared norms, policies, rules, standards and codes.

When referring to a branch of learning or body of knowledge, we use the term discipline. When referring to the collective of persons who practice that branch of learning, we use the term disciplinary community.

Characteristics of Disciplinary Communities

The broad function of a disciplinary community is to provide ways and means for the interaction, development, evaluation, reward, and sanctioning of its members. IRC members believe that critical structures and processes necessary for the development and functioning of disciplinary communities include:

  1. Periodic meetings of the community with a focus on collegiality, open discussion, fairness, equal treatment, ethical behavior, full participation in rule making, and the opportunity to exercise authority and responsibility.
  1. Ongoing opportunities for fostering personal growth, challenge, responsibility, and professional achievement through engagement of different points of view, higher stage logical and ethical reasoning, and research collaboration.
  1. Ongoing and appropriate exchange of information with discussions revolving around responsibilities, course offerings, curricular development, and other issues affecting the educational interests of the University.
  1. Opportunities to participate in the development and application of policies, standards, and structures for the coordination of academic and administrative processes such as curricular development and integration.

Identifying Faculty Disciplines

Faculty disciplines are taken to be the primary field of study in which a faculty member engages in teaching, research, and service, and are most often identified by the individual’s position title. Disciplinary Communities arise informally through the interaction of faculty members sharing common disciplinary interests, or may be formally structured by appropriate authority to carry out a specific purpose or function. Well-functioning and mature disciplinary communities exhibit the structures and processes noted in the preceding section.

Defining Organizational Structure

In this report, we define organizational structure, operationally, as the way we organize our behavior to carry out our work. More formally, we define structure as the repetitive and identifiable patterns of behavior used to coordinate and carry out the tasks and functions of an organization.

Steps in Developing Organizational Structure

Form follows function. That is, an organization’s structure should follow from, and be developed to carry out its work. The design of structure typically follows the following steps:

  1. The process begins with an assessment of the critical tasks and functions that must be carried out if the organization is to exist as a viable entity. For example, faculty has to be interviewed, hired, mentored, evaluated, tenured, promoted, and provided with     sabbaticals. Curriculum has to be developed, kept current, and coordinated across the     University. Students have to be attracted, admitted, registered, taught, advised, and      certified for graduation.
  1. After the critical tasks have been identified, they are clustered together for efficiency and for coordination. The responsibility for their accomplishment is assigned to individuals, positions, groups, and communities. For example, the teaching of English composition might be assigned to five individuals, or election of a promotion and tenure committee might be assigned to the campus faculty governance organization; hiring of faculty might be assigned to the DAA with input from a disciplinary community.
  1. These critical tasks must now be coordinated and controlled to provide for an efficient, lean, and agile structural form. Precisely where, and by what means this coordination is provided is a central focus of this report.

Practices of Effective Disciplinary Communities

University-wide disciplinary communities appear to work best in cases where Associate Deans for Undergraduate Education, and the Department or Division Heads in the Colleges put in place and support the organizational culture and critical structures and processes necessary for the development and functioning of disciplinary communities. (See Characteristics of Disciplinary Communities above) The examples highlight how these individuals and others have made it part of their job responsibility to facilitate communication among disciplinary faculty across the University, bring faculty with common curricular and research interests together, and ensure curricular consultation and periodic review of courses and programs.

Multiple forms of electronic communication are evident in the more successful disciplinary communities. All University faculty in a discipline are listed on department/division websites. A listserv exists to facilitate communication among the faculty in the discipline. The Associate Dean or Department/Division Head within a discipline distribute regular communications and newsletters. Face to face meetings are often used to bring small groups or the entire disciplinary faculty together so they can gain and maintain familiarity with each other as the members of the community change over time. Colleges work together to support these communication and meeting activities.

Commitment and hard work by faculty and administrators in coordinating courses and programs underlies the successful stories of curricular integration that have been achieved by some disciplinary communities. Characteristics and values of disciplinary communities noted earlier such as mutual respect, equity, participation, fairness, collegiality, and collaboration as the basis for improvement seem to underlie the activities of successful disciplinary communities in the University.


Recommendation 1

The Provost’s office, the deans of each University Park college, and those administrators designated to act as deans for the campus colleges and the University College, are responsible for ensuring that effective disciplinary communities are established and sustained. To accomplish this, administrators will, in consultation with the faculty, identify new and continuing disciplinary community leaders in each campus and academic unit, and form multi-campus disciplinary teams. These teams will organize themselves and, with the support of their respective college deans, collaboratively plan ongoing activities for their University-wide disciplinary communities. The multi-campus teams should seek the assistance of campus administration, faculty governance, and faculty at each campus in developing disciplinary structures aligned, to the extent possible, with existing disciplinary communities (i.e., programs, schools, departments, majors, minors and options) at the University Park colleges, Campus colleges, and the University College. Multiple solutions for constructing and sustaining each University-wide disciplinary community will be successful, depending on the particular units, faculties, students, and programs involved.

Recommendation 2

The Committee recommends that the disciplinary communities identified in Recommendation 1 utilize many of the following procedures, if appropriate, to construct and sustain their University- wide activities.

  1. Ensure that adequate two-way communication essential for the maintenance of curricular integrity is carried out with all categories of faculty (including fixed-term and instructors) at every location where discipline courses are offered.
  2. Develop documentation such as course objectives and expected learning outcomes, giving due consideration to the needs of students at all locations in the adoption of course standards.
  3. Recognize, develop, and consolidate the accomplishments of distinctive academic programs at all Penn State locations.
  4. Assess periodically all courses at all locations, including World Campus, to determine the extent to which delivered courses are meeting objectives and expected outcomes.
  5. Evaluate other institutions’ courses related to requests for incoming transfers of credit, and periodically re-evaluate articulation agreements and related credit-transfer agreements with other institutions by benchmarking course components such as credit assignment, syllabus content, texts used, and rigor of courses offered.
  6. Post on a secure website available to faculty, information such as original course proposals, long and short course descriptions, current course content, a “model” course syllabus, sample exams, and any teaching hints or suggestions for new faculty.
  7. Provide consultation to the Associate Deans and Department Heads within their discipline in the development of new curricula, and the revision of current curricula, giving due consideration to the needs of students at all locations;
  8. File a yearly report on community activities to all appropriate college deans, to the Provost, and Vice-Presidents for Undergraduate Education, Graduate Education, and Commonwealth Campuses. These Vice-Presidents make a yearly report to the University Faculty Senate (mandatory).

Recommendation 3

University-wide disciplinary faculty meetings must be held at least once per year to share course, program, and advising information, pedagogical methods, classroom technology, and current research. The responsibility for convening and hosting the meetings would be rotated among the units with faculty in the discipline. Costs for the meetings would be shared by all units on an equitable basis.  For efficiency in the use of travel funds, meetings could be “breakout” sessions of wider disciplinary meetings. Technology such as video conferencing would be used as appropriate to minimize expense and travel time.

Recommendation 4

The administration report back to the Senate within two years on progress that has been made regarding implementation of these recommendations, including a summary of how many disciplinary communities exist, how often they meet, and how many courses have been reviewed by the communities.


  • Aurand, Harold
  • Babu, Jogesh
  • Boyle, James
  • Brown, Claudia
  • Cusumano, Joseph
  • Egolf, Roger, Chair
  • Funk, Raymond
  • Harte, Federico
  • Healy, Michael
  • Lasher, William
  • Lopez, Hector
  • McMillan, Steven
  • Novikov, Alexei
  • Petrilla, Rosemarie, Vice Chair
  • Rowland, Nicholas
  • Ruggiero, Francesca
  • Schmiedekamp, Ann
  • Shurgalla,Richard
  • Subramanian, Rajarajan
  • Thomas, Darryl
  • Wagner, Johanna
  • Welsh, Nancy
  • Wenner, William
  • Zomorodi, Naseem