The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Competence, like truth, beauty and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder."... ...Laurence J. Peter.

Commentary of the Day - February 15, 2003:  Judith, Say It Isn't So!

A story by Jeffrey Selingo in last week's Chronicle of Higher Education piqued the Irascible Professor's interest for a few reasons.  First, Selingo's article described a relatively new "executive doctorate" program in higher education, the aim of which is to produce new college presidents in record time.  Second, the program is located at the University of Pennsylvania, the institution where the IP took his Ph.D. more than three decades ago.  Third, the program, which promises an Ed.D. degree in higher education in two years and is aimed at people who already are working in university or college administration, promises not to interfere with the candidate's day job.

Since all of this sounded better than sliced bread, the IP decided to take a closer look at the program.  What he found out confirms his suspicions that this is another example of education lite, but in contrast to some of the other faux doctorate programs out there, which are merely pricey, this one comes with an extraordinary tuition bill.  Anyone considering taking this quick road to the top job at a college or university campus  better have very deep pockets or some very rich relatives.  The current cost for the two-year program is about $$87,000.  (The program's web site is careful to point out that fellowships are not available.)

So what does the college prexy wannabe get for his or her $87,000?  First the candidate is relieved of the pressures of actually attending a university and taking those boring graduate classes, preliminary exams, and the like.  Instead, most of the instruction is done via email and conference call.  Once a month for 20 months program participants meet at a luxury hotel on Penn's campus, where they are guaranteed nothing less than first-class accommodations and facilities, while they gather to brainstorm on case study assignments.  Gosh, at $14,333 per semester one would hope that the participants would be treated like the high level executives they obviously are.  We wouldn't want them to have to live in the dorms like other students, and we certainly wouldn't want them to have to grab lunch at the present-day equivalent of Smoky Joe's or Kelly and Cohen's.  Although, if they did they might actually learn something about how a university works.

Second, the students in the program are pretty much guaranteed a painless path to the dissertation.  Instead of completing a couple of years of graduate coursework, suffering through preliminary exams, and then spending another few years mucking about in the lab or library carrying out the research needed for a legitimate thesis, these high level administrator types are guided through the thesis from day one by an attentive staff of experts.  In the end they produce dissertations on such important topics as: path to the presidency at research intensive and research extensive institutions; analysis of central costs in revenue center budget model at University of Southern California and peer institutions; analysis of transformation of three colleges to being "hot" and implications for change at Greensboro College; and balance of business activities in creating a "college town" environment at Penn and the University of Chicago....  Well, you get the picture.  These folks aren't doing rocket science.  They aren't even investigating issues such as teaching, learning, or scholarship that might be central to the mission of a college or university.

On reflection that makes good sense, because most of the folks enrolled in the program don't have academic backgrounds.  Instead, they come from the ranks of administrators who carry out support functions at colleges and universities -- of some 37 participants currently listed as being in the program, only six work in academic administration.

And speaking of that $14,333 per semester, those of you who are quick with a calculator will note that at that rate it takes about six semesters, not four, to reach the $87,000 level.  It's not clear how that squares with the notion that it only takes two years to obtain the degree.  But, perhaps the two-year number is a bit of puffery.  Perhaps, its two years of conference calls, and weekends in Philly, and another year to write up the dissertation.

Clearly, this program is right in line with the current trend in higher education.  More and more frequently college and university presidents are chosen for their presumed "managerial skills" rather than for their academic achievements.  Many have compiled decent records in administrative posts that clearly are important for the operation of colleges and universities.  These include areas such as student services, enrollment management, advancement, financial management, and general administrative services.  Few would deny that these functions are important to the successful operation of a college or university campus; but, most of the people who occupy positions in these areas have no extensive teaching or research experience.

That brings us to our lead for this commentary.  The current president of the University of Pennsylvania is Judith Rodin.  Dr. Rodin has had her share of critics, but nevertheless, she generally is considered to be one of the top university presidents in the country.  She didn't get there by taking a quickie Ed.D. degree in "higher education.  Instead, she followed the traditional route.  She earned degrees through the Ph.D. in a serious academic discipline (psychology), she gained tenure in an academic department (Yale's psychology department), and she established a reputation for respectable scholarship before she began to climb the administrative ladder at Yale.  Clearly, this combination of academic and administrative experience was what the trustees at Penn were looking for when they hired her to be Penn's president.

Given Penn's own standards for the choice of presidents, one has to wonder if the "Executive Doctorate" program received much scrutiny by President Rodin prior to its approval.

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