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September 26, 1996

Trustees' committee okays GSPIA program despite questions about proliferation of degrees at Pitt

The Board of Trustees' academic affairs/libraries committee Sept. 19 endorsed a new Master of Public Policy and Management program in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA).

The new program is designed for students with at least five years' experience as managers and public policy makers. "It is fully compatible with GSPIA's mission and is central to its strategic plan," Provost James Maher wrote in an Aug. 22 memo to Chancellor Mark Nordenberg.

"The MPPM program will be especially attractive to part-time students who are currently employed in government and nonprofit agencies in the Pittsburgh region," the provost wrote.

Maher and Nordenberg both have endorsed the proposal. So have the University Council on Graduate Study and the University Planning and Budgeting Committee.

But because it would be a new degree at Pitt, the program requires approval by the trustees. The full Board of Trustees is expected to consider the proposal at the board's next meeting on Oct. 24.

As an initial step, the board's academic affairs/libraries committee endorsed the new program by unanimous voice vote last week — but not before the proposal sparked a spirited discussion of degree proliferation, program accountability, and competition between Pitt and other universities, especially Carnegie Mellon.

Last January, the Board of Trustees endorsed a comprehensive state-of-the-University report written by a consulting team led by higher education expert James L. Fisher. One of the Fisher report's recommendations was that Pitt eliminate or downsize some of its 119 master's and 82 doctoral programs.

Degree proliferation, formerly a non-issue among Pitt trustees, suddenly became a sensitive one.

At last week's academic affairs/libraries committee meeting, special trustee Alfred Moye introduced a motion that would have required the trustees to review the new GSPIA program either three or five years after its inception. Under the "sunset provision" proposed by Moye, the trustees could have terminated the program if it wasn't meeting expectations.

"Unless we find some way of disciplining ourselves on a regular basis, we're never going to get out of this trap" of degree proliferation, Moye said.

Provost Maher and committee chairperson Martha Munsch, an alumni trustee, argued that the GSPIA proposal should be considered separately from the question of whether the trustees ought to require periodic reviews of Pitt degree programs.

Students would be far less likely to enroll in the new GSPIA program if they knew it might well disappear in three-to-five years, Munsch said.

Moye ultimately withdrew his motion. But he said the board needs reassurance that the new program is not simply an attempt to "shore up a declining GSPIA," where full-time enrollment grew from 217 to 296 between 1985 and 1995 but part-time enrollment declined from 125 to 80. Moye also suggested that the proposed GSPIA program would needlessly duplicate an existing public management program at Carnegie Mellon.

The written proposal for the new Pitt program acknowledges that GSPIA is facing strong, and increasing, competition from Carnegie Mellon's H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management for part-time students from the Pittsburgh area and for full-time students from abroad. GSPIA's enrollment of full-time foreign students declined from 93 to 73 between 1985 and 1995.

While GSPIA formerly dominated the local market in educating public sector professionals in the region, today the school has "clearly lost" its competitive edge, the proposal states.

Recently, Carnegie Mellon's Master of Public Management program began successfully targeting its recruitment efforts at governmental and nonprofit human service professionals, including employees of the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

The Carnegie Mellon program requires 36 credit hours and grants advance standing to mid-career professionals. In contrast, GSPIA wrongly maintains a "one size fits all" approach in all three of its existing degree programs, the GSPIA proposal states — that is, the school requires all of its students to take its basic core courses and complete 48 credit hours.

"Our peer institutions, regionally and nationally, recognized long ago that graduate-level degree programs should be tailored to the diverse needs and prior professional experience of their students," the proposal states.

Carnegie Mellon's Heinz School has gained a new edge over GSPIA by waiving 20 percent of tuition costs for City of Pittsburgh employees. The city already pays for 80 percent of its employees' tuition. Thus, city employees can attend the Heinz School for free, in effect.

Pitt has begun negotiating with city officials to match Carnegie Mellon's tuition incentive, GSPIA Associate Dean Kevin Kearns told the trustees.

Commonwealth trustee Ron Cowell, who said he supported Moye's motion in principle (and who, like Moye, participated in the committee meeting by speaker phone), questioned the wisdom of creating a new degree program partly to offset a recruiting factor that may be short-lived. The city, to cut costs, might well reduce or eliminate its employee tuition benefits in the next year or two, Cowell speculated.

Regarding competition with Carnegie Mellon, Maher noted that Pitt collaborates with its neighbor-across-the-hollow on various research projects and joint degree programs, and that CMU relies heavily on Pitt library collections. The two universities differ in size and mission, Maher said.

By creating the new GSPIA program, Pitt would not be trying to undercut Carnegie Mellon or duplicating its offerings — rather, Pitt would be offering its own, distinctive program in public policy and management, and then letting students choose which they prefer, the provost said.

GSPIA focus group studies indicate that some City of Pittsburgh employees have enrolled in the Carnegie Mellon program not because it was their preferred option, but because they could take it for free, Maher said.

GSPIA administrators hope to launch the Master of Public Policy and Management program in spring 1997. They project that enrollment will peak at 55 part-time and six full-time students by the program's fourth full year of operation.

Because the program would not begin until January 1997 and GSPIA would incur first-year expenses for planning and recruitment of students, it would run a $28,750 deficit during the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 1997. The Provost's office would advance that money to GSPIA, which would repay the loan the following year.

According to the proposal, the program would be self-sustaining after the current fiscal year, with projected surpluses of $108,719 in FY 1997-98 and $128,084 the year after that. GSPIA administrators called those projections conservative.

The new program would entail adding two new courses and hiring a program coordinator at a $30,000 annual salary plus fringe benefits. But the program would not require additional faculty, library or computer facilities, or classroom space, according to the proposal.

Maher told the trustees: "In offering this program, we are not adding to the faculty. We are simply making use of the fact that we have a wide variety of specialists here who can be put together in different and more interesting ways, much the way that the same alphabet can be used to write both King Lear and the King James version of the Bible." The provost noted that Pitt has eliminated five academic programs in the past year. He pledged that the administration will work more closely with the trustees in the future to evaluate degree programs.

"When we come to you with a proposal for a new degree, you are absolutely right to be skeptical if it looks like we are just proliferating degrees," Maher said. "You're asking all the right questions, but the answer in this case [the GSPIA proposal] is that this is not an expansion of the University." — Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 3

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