Efforts to make colleges turn profit carry high social cost

Efforts to make colleges turn a profit sometimes comes with a high social cost.

While there are justifications for curtailing wasteful spending in higher education, efforts to slash the budget by eliminating core educational programs are bound to invite public criticism.

In a controversial move, presumably meant to cut costs, the recently appointed Director of the School of Public Affairs, Patria de Lancer Julnes, recently eliminated yet another faculty position from the Political Science program at Penn State Harrisburg.

By cutting the program down to just two professors the administration leaves Penn State Harrisburg with one of the smallest political science faculty in the commonwealth. Still worse, with one of the remaining professors on partial leave, it seems likely that this latest cut is but a prelude to the ultimate closure of Penn State’s once esteemed political science program.

Normally routine staffing changes at a state affiliated university wouldn’t make headlines.

However, as a recent article in the Lancaster New Era pointed out, the decision to abandon civics education has serious consequences.

In an era when political debate all too often degenerates into reciting empty slogans or childish name-calling, society is in desperate need of citizens who learn the value of free speech, civil debate and representative government.

Whereas students sometimes acquire these concepts in other courses, Political Science faculty are uniquely qualified to strengthen these democratic values.

Accordingly, students learn to engage in a substantive rather than a superficial debate of politics and policy.

In short, they emerge as better citizens.

I’ve seen firsthand the value of Harrisburg’s Political Science program.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many of their Political Science and Public Policy graduates, who consistently demonstrate an exceptional mix of enthusiasm, skill, and maturity.

Trained in a minimally ideological environment (since the 1970s the Harrisburg public policy program has include both liberal and conservative faculty), students gain a balanced view of politics.

Most importantly, the faculty emphasize respect and civility in political discourse, something too often missing from contemporary policy debates.

The decision to dismantle the Political Science program is not part of a regional trend. Over the last five years, as Harrisburg has scaled back its program, other colleges have invested more in civics education.

Compare Penn State Harrisburg’s two full time faculty to Lebanon Valley College (3 faculty), Elizabethtown College (5 faculty), Millersville University (7 faculty), Franklin and Marshall College (10 faculty), Gettysburg College (10 faculty) and Dickinson College (14 faculty). Indeed, the Political Science Program faculty at Harrisburg now considerably smaller than the neighboring Penn State branch campuses at Altoona (4 faculty) and Behrend (6 faculty).

Sadly, the decision to abandon political science appears to signals a much more disturbing trend where administrators seek to pare-down programs that aren’t financially lucrative. Perhaps owing to what graduates tell me are exceedingly demanding courses, the major has always been a small, but elite program averaging 30-50 majors.

Rather than water-down the curriculum (which in includes policy analysis, constitutional law, and advanced statistics) the faculty continue to challenge students believing that difficult work prepares students for professional success.

A revenue model that insists on more students, larger class sizes, and few full time faculty probably makes the college more profitable, as evidence by the construction of Penn State Harrisburg’s elaborate new buildings.

As a land grant institution, Penn State has obligations to the community that involve more than raising money for campus beatification.

Dismantling the Political Science program at the heart of the state capitol is a tragic mistake that says something about the university’s educational priorities.

Investing in programs like Political Science is not about reaping large financial rewards.

It’s about helping students get the most of their education, and preparing them for the demands of citizenship.

Fitzgerald is president of Penn Strategies, an economic development firm located in Harrisburg.