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February 6, 2014

Provost rules on grad programs

Provost Patricia E. Beeson has announced her decision on three graduate programs in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences whose futures have been uncertain since admissions were suspended nearly two years ago.

Graduate programs in religious studies will close and suspensions will continue — but only for a limited time — in German and classics.

Although recommendations by the Dietrich school and the University Council on Graduate Study (UCGS) diverged on religious studies and German, Beeson chose to accept Dietrich school proposals for the futures of all three graduate departments.

She delivered the news to Dietrich school Dean N. John Cooper and the affected department chairs before issuing a Jan. 30 memo outlining her decisions.

The letter was sent to administrators and to representatives and members of the University-wide groups involved in the review process. It is posted at

The Dietrich school plans have been a source of controversy on several fronts. The proposals drew scrutiny from the University Senate and the Pitt chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) amid faculty concerns that shared-governance processes were neglected in the decision-making, a contention that University administrators dispute.

Other faculty decried the cuts in humanities programs as detrimental to the University’s educational mission, with numerous Dietrich school faculty joining English faculty member Marianne Novy in petitioning the provost to rescind the suspensions. (See Oct. 24 University Times.)


Citing budget constraints, Dietrich school administrators imposed an immediate halt to admissions to all three graduate programs in April 2012 (see April 19, 2012, University Times), later revising the plan to call for ending the MA and PhD programs in religious studies in 2022 and indefinitely suspending admissions to the MA and PhD programs in classics and German. (See June 13 University Times.)

UCGS, which makes recommendations to the provost on graduate program proposals, in a closed session in October narrowly supported the Dietrich school proposal to suspend classics graduate admissions.

The sharply divided council rejected the other two Dietrich school proposals, opposing termination of religious studies graduate programs and suspension of graduate admissions in German. (See Oct. 24 University Times.)

“There absolutely was no consensus on UCGS,” said UCGS chair Alberta Sbragia, noting the votes all were almost evenly split.

Some viewed the indefinite suspensions as a slow means of terminating German and classics graduate programs through atrophy. Beeson has given the Dietrich school a May 1, 2016, deadline to submit a proposal to lift the suspension or to close the German graduate program and set a May 1, 2018, deadline for a proposal to lift the suspension or close the classics graduate program.

Beeson stated: “This timeframe should be sufficient for the school to pursue opportunities that have emerged through discussions over the past 18 months for the faculty in these departments to be engaged in innovative interdisciplinary graduate programs.” The longer timeframe for classics “is intended to provide sufficient time to rebuild the faculty to a level that will enable it to continue exploring its role in interdisciplinary graduate education while advancing its undergraduate mission.”

Classics department chair Mark D. Possanza said the department had seven faculty members prior to a series of three faculty retirements since 2012, with another expected this year. One new faculty member joined the department last year and searches for new faculty are planned. However, the department is expected to remain at its current level of five full-time regular faculty unless a change, such as a surge in enrollment, occurs, Possanza said.

The provost’s decision “brings to an end a long, contentious and painful episode” in the Dietrich school and “sends a clear message: It’s time to move forward; there is no going back,” Possanza said, noting that the issues at hand extend beyond the three affected departments.

“It is important to remind ourselves that the serious and divisive issues involved in the suspensions and termination are not specific to these three graduate programs but are matters of concern to all members of the University community, whether they are willing to admit it or not: reallocation of resources, statistical profiles of success and failure, national rankings, the marketability of knowledge and discovery, and competition unrestrained by cooperation — these issues remain very much alive and more and more challenge us to think outside the self-assured boundaries of planning documents. Let’s hope that in response to the provost’s decision we can find constructive ways to build the University’s future,” he said.

John B. Lyon, German department chair, and Linda Penkower, who plans to resume chairing the religious studies department April 30 following a sabbatical this term, told the University Times that their departments disagree with the provost’s decision and rationale, pointing to the UCGS vote as well as to the faculty opposition to the original suspensions, as evidenced by Novy’s petition.

Penkower said the religious studies department was disappointed by the provost’s decision not to give it the same opportunity to build upon and strengthen its cooperative PhD program in religion as has been afforded graduate programs in classics and German, although religious studies scored highest among the three programs on all but one of the benchmarks the Dietrich school used in making its proposals.

Religious studies is seeking to collaborate with other departments and senior administrators on a proposal for a multidisciplinary graduate program that would include concentrations in the study of religion, Penkower said. Informal discussions are underway with faculty, but no formal proposals have been presented to school committees.

Lyon said his department welcomes the provost’s statement of support for “innovative approaches to graduate study.” Plans have been in the works for more than a year for an interdisciplinary European cultural studies program and a preliminary proposal has been floated within the Dietrich school.

“We are moving forward,” he said, adding that a formal proposal could be ready by the end of the term. It could take a year for the proposal to pass through Dietrich school and UCGS reviews, but Lyon said the provost’s 2016 deadline could be met.


Novy, a Faculty Assembly representative of the humanities faculty, noted that UCGS, whose vote wasn’t specifically mentioned in Beeson’s letter, was the only committee that allowed chairs of the targeted departments and other Dietrich school faculty outside the committee to comment prior to its vote.

“In the hour allotted for comments, only one faculty member defended the recommendation and close to 20 criticized it,” Novy said. “Subsequently, 100 members of the Dietrich school and a few from other Pitt schools and the Greensburg campus signed a petition to rescind the decision to terminate and suspend.”

Novy told the University Times, “This is a sad decision for our University. There is no real financial exigency but a choice of priorities.”


Beeson, in her letter, stressed that the Dietrich school and the University “remain committed to providing a broad-based liberal education including a strong presence of the humanities in the undergraduate programs” and that she and Dean Cooper remain committed to the undergraduate programs in the three affected departments.

Cooper declined the opportunity to comment for this story beyond stating via a Dietrich school spokesperson that he “fully supports the provost’s decision.”

Beeson acknowledged the difficult nature of the decision making, adding that it was not surprising that faculty are not unanimously supportive of the proposals for the graduate programs.

“These proposals have spurred discussion, particularly within the faculty of arts and sciences, of the value of graduate education and the humanities — both of which are core to the mission of any great university — and raised questions of the processes governing programmatic decisions of this sort,” she wrote.

“As I have considered the proposals, I have solicited input through the appropriate governance committees, discussed the proposals with the chairs of the affected departments and considered the advice from colleagues who have chosen to weigh in on these decisions.”

She said the initial April 2012 announcement that the programs were under review for possible closure prompted a year of discussions within the Dietrich school.

“The school’s governance committees reviewed the proposals in the context of the school’s ambitions and budget and endorsed the proposals,” Beeson stated, citing the Dietrich school graduate council’s endorsement and the subsequent approval by the Dietrich school council as well as the endorsement by the school’s planning and budgeting committee.

“It is important to recognize that the proposals grew out of the school’s planning process as the designated governance committees struggled with the question of how to allocate increasingly scarce resources in support of its programs,” Beeson wrote.

She cited Dietrich school planning documents that prioritize efforts with “the best opportunity to have a major national or international impact” and the decision to strategically target budget decisions rather than undertake across-the-board reallocations in the face of potential budget cuts.

“Graduate education was identified as a function in which resources could be reallocated to increase the overall impact of the (Dietrich) school’s programs,” Beeson stated.

Budget concerns

“These are very difficult times for universities and the real budgetary concerns that prompted these proposals are not likely to go away anytime soon,” Beeson cautioned, citing in her letter rising operating costs and declining federal and state support.

“As good stewards of the resources entrusted to us, we are responsible for continuously evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs,” Beeson wrote. “At the University of Pittsburgh, we remain committed to making such decisions in accordance with our established structure of shared governance and with the goal of further strengthening the University.”

Senate response

University Senate President Michael Spring told the University Times: “I had honestly hoped that Provost Beeson would find a way to lift the suspensions and closure. I do hope that a way will be found to lift the suspension of admissions to the graduate programs in German and classics as soon as is possible, hopefully well before the deadlines.”

Spring acknowledged the decisions were difficult. “We are living through a period where it is no longer possible to maintain our existing efforts and add new programs and initiatives. I fear the coming years will see more situations where, in light of stable or shrinking budgets, it is necessary to consider reallocation of funds to support new or targeted programs.”

Spring called for renewed attention on shared governance. “Given the times, it will be incredibly important that we refocus our attention on the pursuit of shared governance.

“As Provost Beeson noted, the review by the Senate budget policies committee (BPC) found the proper procedures had been followed in working through these issues.” (See Nov. 7 University Times.) “In particular, I am appreciative of Provost Beeson’s efforts to make sure every voice was heard.  My sense of our BPC review was that while the process was technically appropriate, there was, as is almost always the case, room for improvement. Some involved faculty felt that the early exchange of information and dialog was lacking,” Spring noted.

“I hope, in light of the contentious nature of this decision, the provost and the deans will redouble their efforts to engage faculty in early collegial discussion where all the involved parties can come to the conclusion that the decisions made, even when distasteful, are in the best interest of the institution. Ideally, shared governance is not simply the review of decisions and plans but active involvement in their formulation from the earliest stages.”

Pitt AAUP President Beverly Gaddy, a Pitt-Greensburg faculty member who also serves on the University Senate and co-chairs its BPC, said she is disappointed with the provost’s decision, but hopes the process will prompt more faculty to familiarize themselves with University and AAUP standards and participate more in shared governance.

“I appreciate the fact that Provost Beeson had a difficult decision regarding this matter, and she apparently gave it considerable attention, especially as the recommendations of the appropriate faculty bodies were mixed,” Gaddy told the University Times.

She said that the Pitt AAUP began monitoring the issue in April 2012, “when we were first alerted that the suspensions were announced prior to any consultation with the chairs of the affected departments and absent any discussion or approval of the school’s appropriate faculty-governance committees.” (See University Times letters May 17 and Dec. 6, 2012, and Nov. 21, 2013.)

“While the Dietrich school did bring the issue to appropriate committees after the fact, the concerns we noted in our letters regarding a lack of transparency, the unavailability of detailed budget information to the faculty, and the lack of adherence to other AAUP standards regarding the shared governance process in the Dietrich School, financial exigency, faculty responsibility for academic programs and other matters have not been fully addressed,” she said.

Gaddy said she also disagreed with BPC’s review, which determined that the program suspensions did not violate University planning and budget system guidelines, noting that she was among the dissenters in the committee’s vote.

BPC chair John J. Baker said the committee had not met since the provost’s decision was announced last week. He expects no further BPC action, saying the committee fulfilled its role through its October 2013 report.

Baker, a past-president of the Senate and of the Pitt AAUP, said he remains disappointed in the decision, “primarily because the shared governance processes used by the School of Arts and Sciences met only minimal standards, and fell far below AAUP best practices. Moreover, no departmental or school budget information was ever presented to justify the closings of these graduate programs.”

He told the University Times, “I give the provost credit for listening to both sides and have confidence in her; it may be the right decision, but I am disappointed with it and the way it was carried out.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow