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Restructuring to position College of Agricultural Sciences for strong future

Posted: March 17, 2011

A press release detailing the college restructuring process

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A restructuring of academic departments and extension programs now under way in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences will expand opportunities for students, take advantage of synergies among disciplines and position the college to better address current and emerging societal issues, according to the college's dean.

"Some students, alumni, external stakeholders and extension clientele who have heard about our restructuring have wondered what it means for them and the programs to which they're connected," said Bruce McPheron, who has served as dean since July 2009. "It's important for folks to understand that this process will only strengthen the college and enhance its ability to serve them better in the future."

Planning for the reorganization -- known as Ag Futures -- began more than a year ago. McPheron noted that the initiative, much like previous reviews periodically undertaken by the college, is designed to enable the college to offer programs that reflect emerging disciplines, to take advantage of growing synergies across traditional fields of study, and to realize efficiencies in educational and research activities.

The Ag Futures process was begun well before Penn State's university-wide Academic Program and Administrative Services Core Council in January presented the college with a series of recommendations for change. McPheron pointed out that because of the Ag Futures work accomplished over the past year, the College of Agricultural Sciences already was well positioned to address these recommendations quickly.

The Core Council had six general recommendations for the college: consolidate academic departments; address under-enrolled courses; participate in the university-wide reorganization of life sciences graduate programs; look for new revenue-generating opportunities; evaluate the college's land and animal holdings; and review and refocus Cooperative Extension programs.

"Five of those six already were well under way as part of the Ag Futures process," McPheron said. "We now are in the process of addressing the sixth -- the consolidation of academic departments from the current 12 to as few as six."

Six teams of college faculty and administrators were formed to develop independent proposals for how the college's academic departments might be consolidated. Those six proposals will be combined to form a preliminary draft plan, and McPheron will roll out the final plan in the coming months.

"Our primary goal is to strengthen our academic programs while becoming a more agile organization that can respond quickly to emerging issues and trends," he said. "To accomplish this, we likely will combine and refocus departments that house similar disciplines and share similar missions."

Students and prospective students need not worry that the departmental consolidation will cause a loss of quality or opportunities, according to McPheron. He said the college continually looks carefully at its majors, minors and options to ensure they provide the kind of education that will prepare students to enter today's careers, to address current and future issues, and to make contributions as global citizens.

"A new academic structure over time almost certainly will result in new undergraduate and graduate degree programs," he said. "Some low-enrollment programs may be phased out, and others may be merged to strengthen them and provide wider opportunities and more options within those majors. This is nothing new. As society evolves and demand fluctuates, majors have been dropped, revised or added in the past.

"It's extremely important to note, however, that regardless of the college structure moving forward, students currently enrolled in the college's majors will be able to complete their programs without interruption," he emphasized. "Any proposed new programs will follow all the established approval paths, including sign-off by the Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees."

Dovetailing with the Ag Futures initiative, Penn State Extension also has been in the midst of a restructuring designed to streamline program areas and improve delivery efficiency statewide. "The reorganization of academic departments affects Extension in the sense that many faculty members in these departments have extension responsibilities -- translating research results into educational information that can be disseminated across the state and beyond -- and are funded in part by extension dollars," McPheron said.

He stated that there currently are no plans to close any Penn State Extension county offices, although that could change depending on the outcome of state budget deliberations. "The college is evaluating various models for how Extension can best use scarce resources to maximize the return on public investment and effectively provide relevant programs for the state's citizens, businesses and communities," he said.

Although the college's restructuring is expected to lead to cost-savings in the long term, it was not motivated solely by budget challenges, said McPheron. "This reorganization would have taken place even if the economic environment had not deteriorated in recent years," he explained. "However, the fiscal situation facing the college, Penn State, and the state and federal governments will influence some of our priorities and decisions, and likely will narrow the college's focus."

The college has been taking steps to ensure that its programs are sustainable given the economic reality it faces. The college last June reduced its budget by 5 percent for fiscal year 2010-11, which resulted in the loss of about 40 positions, including 10 layoffs. Another 10 percent of the budget will be trimmed for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, but the scope of any related program cuts and job losses will not be known until the state adopts Penn State's 2011-12 appropriation.

"These steps are necessary, given several years of reduced or flat funding from the state and increased costs related to health benefits and state pension obligations," said McPheron.

The college relies on the agricultural research and extension lines in the university's state appropriation for more than half of its base operating funds. Base funding also comes from federal and county government allocations. No tuition dollars can be used to support ag research and extension.

For the last two fiscal years, the state has used federal stimulus funding to keep the college's ag research and extension appropriations flat at 2008-09 levels. However, those stimulus funds, which make up 6 percent of the college's state base funding, expire in June 2011. If these funds are not restored in the college's 2011-12 appropriation, this, combined with increased operating costs, will result in the college facing a two-year programmatic budget shortfall of almost $11 million.

"We understand that Pennsylvania and many other states are facing almost unprecedented fiscal challenges, and we are trying to do our part to help address them," McPheron said.

"We feel that with careful planning, a new structure and a keen focus on our core missions, the College of Agricultural Sciences will emerge as a stronger organization that is responsive and relevant to our students, to the employers that hire them, and to the greater needs of our society and world."