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If you have done any one of the following: read last week’s issue of the Towers, attended the Student Town Hall meeting three weeks ago, or meticulously combed through your inbox and read emails about dean search committees and candidate interviews, you know that WPI has begun its search for its three academic deans.
WPI is undergoing some noteworthy changes in the structure of its academic departments. In place of the fourteen departments currently in place, with each department head reporting to the Provost, the new structure consists of all the departments separated into three clusters: Engineering, Arts & Sciences, and Business. Department heads will then report to their respective deans, and the three deans will report to the Provost.
This change has been loosely discussed for the last fifteen years, but talks escalated in the last five years with the arrival of President Berkey. Coming from an institution that included deans in the administrative structure, he replanted the idea and initiated greater dialogue among the faculty.
Kristin Wobbe, Associate Dean for the First-Year Experience and Department Head for Chemistry asserts, “When the faculty began to see the advantages [of introducing academic deans], everything came through.” Earlier this year, the dean searches were finally set in motion.
The faculty did have some initial concerns, because deans are generally heads of “schools” – for example, the School of Engineering. There are certain associations with the term, such as separate admissions standards and difficulty in changing majors between schools.
However, WPI is not changing its structure in this traditional sense. Management, which is one department as of now, will indeed be renamed as the School of Business, with a dean instead of a department head. That will not be the case for the Arts & Sciences or Engineering, precisely because “the term ‘school’ implies characteristics such as different admissions standards for different school that will not apply to WPI,” says Provost John Orr.
All undergraduate admissions requirements will remain uniform, and students can still change majors with the same ease that they always have. WPI remains committed to its philosophy of flexibility and student responsibility, and will not change a feature of its education so central to its values.
The faculty was also convinced that the deans would not bring a change in the currently uniform tenure process. As Arthur Heinricher, Dean of Undergraduate Studies, explains, “WPI faculty like our system with a single university-wide committee reviewing all cases. It helps to keep the faculty as ‘one.’”
So how is this relevant to us as students – is there a reason behind this structural shift or is it purely semantics? Primarily, we are bringing in deans because there is “a range of activities that we are unable to accomplish effectively at present. Deans will be involved internally to coordinate new programs across departments – both academic and research – and externally in fundraising and increasing WPI’s visibility,” claims Provost Orr.
WPI boasts some strong interdisciplinary programs, such as Interactive Media & Game Development (IMGD), Robotics Engineering (RBE), and Environmental Studies (ES). However, all three of these are young and must be further developed, strengthened, and “nurtured,” says Dean Heinricher. This is where the new deans would step in.
Right now, the department heads and the Provost have enough on their plates without this added responsibility. With the deans as an intermediate between the Provost and the department heads, they can facilitate communication across different departments, expand existing programs, and develop new ones. Some new programs that are being discussed at the moment are Architectural Engineering, Biophysics, and Learning Sciences (a mix of Computer Science and Psychology).
The deans are expected to make WPI more visible nationally and globally. According to Provost Orr, “Deans are the face of American universities, and we tend to be rather invisible because we don’t have them.” Let’s face it: how many times have you told your friends that you go to WPI and blank looks cross their faces? WPI may be well-recognized in the Northeast, but its visibility decreases greatly once you venture away from New England.
That is a fault in the current system in place. The Provost has challenging job in being responsible for the entirety of WPI’s academic and research programs. In fact, not until they were looking for a new Provost about three years ago did the search committee realize that perhaps the job description was too demanding due to WPI’s immense growth in recent years.
WPI does not receive enough recognition for its accomplishments because of the current structure and the lack of academic deans. To the average WPI student, the Major Qualifying Project (MQP) is just another acronym we toss around and a graduation requirement we must complete. Ground-breaking research and even patents result from some of these projects, yet not many people know about them.
Another example: when deans from all of the United States have conferences to discuss the future of engineering education and how it must be changed for the twenty-first century, “we aren’t at the table, because we don’t have a Dean of Engineering,” declares President Dennis Berkey.
Moreover, the deans will fundraise and collaborate more with corporations and foundations. The fundraised money will be used for facilities and equipment, further renovation around campus, and additional scholarships. With the task of coordinating with each of the department heads falling to the deans, the Provost will have more time for execute his responsibilities, and the deans will have the opportunity to work with smaller groups and engage in efficient strategic planning. Though you can view this as a change in structure, Dean Heinricher encourages students to view this as “growth.”
So come July 1, 2010, you can expect to have three new deans on campus. President Berkey sums it up well in saying, “Creating the new dean positions brings new academic leadership to WPI. It gives the faculty more time to develop new ideas and encourage collaboration.” Indeed it will. And hopefully, with enhanced external visibility, in a few years a WPI degree will have even greater value than it does now.