Purdue and the College of Technology Polytechnic Initiative

I’ve been asked quite a few times what I think about the big plan of the university to transition the College of Technology at Purdue to a Polytechnic Institute. The questions are what happens to the faculty, what happens to the students, and why would they be doing this. I’d like to handle the big questions first. The president of the university stated in his address to the university senate:

The college, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, will be transformed into the Purdue Polytechnic Institute to serve as an incubator that enables innovation and encourages risk-taking. The goal is to transform the undergraduate learning experience and speed innovation with business partners to move new technologies from the lab to the real world. – Mitch Daniels

Since they are sending letters to the students and discussions are starting to occur around the university I don’t feel I’m breaking any trusts. I am also saying these are my opinions and may contradict administrative leadership. Though most I’ve talked to support these ideas with some caveats I try and be honest about my perspective.

What happens to the students?

Likely nothing in the short term. Once a student enters a program of study there is a contract stating as long as they make satisfactory progress they should be allowed to finish. They may be taught by their current professors or other professors outside of their program. Remember things happen slowly in academia. Administrative structure is not guaranteed for anybody but getting an education is protected. In other programs around the nation when similar reorganizations happen the current faculty have closed out programs, other programs have offered the classes, and in some rare cases the programs were swapped to other universities (this actually happened to me as an undergrad). In general this is a big ho hum and students should not be concerned about their area of study at Purdue. There could also be great benefit to having something like this happen. It isn’t an all negative kind of thing.

What happens to the faculty?

Barring financial exigency likely nothing with caveats. Purdue at the Calumet campus moved to fire 7 faculty due to financial exigency, but backed off of that process recently. Having opened and closed a program within the Purdue system it is not happy nor fun to have faculty cease working at the university. Some faculty will remain within the new structure, some faculty will be moved to other academic programs (even different schools), and some faculty will leave for other opportunities. Contrary to popular opinions I’ve heard, this is quite normal. It is a good thing to shake up an academic structure that may stagnate. It is in my opinion only debatable about how you shake it up. I prefer the “do no harm” form of shake up. Some prefer the amputate until it stops bleeding form of shake up. I don’t know what we are currently looking at here at Purdue.

My concerns are that the number of faculty engineering is going to hire is almost exactly the same number as are in the College of Technology currently. Since the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (ICHE) says that Purdue is a “mature” institution growing the faculty in numbers is a low priority. That means 100 new faculty full time positions will likely be taken from somewhere else to populate the new engineering positions. It doesn’t have to happen that way, but if saving money and decreasing education costs is a primary goal then it is a likely output.

Why would they be doing this?

First up there is a competition for resources inside the university. In the College of Technology we are remarkably capable of getting grants and contracts. With a limited number of research professors we do more in grants and contracts than some rather large research universities. Many of the professors in Technology are thought leaders and research leaders in computer science, engineering, sociology, and other disciplines.  It is seen by many that a polytechnic structure might celebrate the significant diversity and be a stronger structure to build upon. A new structure might make the faculty better at getting resources and fundamentally allow for a better under graduate education structure within that diversity.

It isn’t all good. The word institute at  Purdue has a specific meaning. It refers to an administrative structure that does not have recurring funds and is “soft funded”. It also means a Purdue Polytechnic Institute is one of the one hundred and eleven institutes and centers on campus rather than the little over half dozen colleges.

The perception that we are talking about changing the college to an institute is challenged by the college leadership. The president Daniels has been very consistent on this point of changing the college, and the college leadership has been very specific on creation of a new entity within the college.  The two view points are not diametrically opposed, but they are very far apart.

Regardless this change can not currently be done in a vacuum. The public statements of the university president and the college dean are not aligned and words do matter.


I am concerned that this is the second big initiative in two years that looks to fundamentally change the College of Technology away from studying and researching the art and craft of doing work. I am not sure that the basic precept that we are pushing the art of craft forward is a bad thing. It is perceived by other groups on campus as being a bad thing.

I am very concerned that my faculty line will go from fully funded to soft money. I am very concerned that the structure will divert college resources from my area to new areas. This is already happening with the reduction in teaching assistant resources and capital budgets.  I am very concerned that the college leadership and university leadership are talking past each other. This is not a recipe for “warm fuzzy”.

Though I happen to like working with computer science programs the collective (and some specific individuals) on our campus refers to the College of Technology as vocational training. In academic parlance that is a significant insult. In the competition for resources you end up with academic structural battles. There is pressure to innovate out of the Technology structure and show the balance of effort as different than other venues. I don’t know that this new structure will fix the underlying fight between department level entities for grants and contracts.

If I was the university president I would look to make the barriers disappear.

My proposed “will never happen” solution

In my little niche of information assurance and security I need access to the crypto wizards and computer science specialists. We actually work really well together when we are not fighting the administrative structures and significant perverse incentives imposed by administrative structure. I would like to see a college of security studies that had the courses and research programs from sciences, engineering and technology all under one roof. I would put the ROTC (military) studies courses within this structure. I would, given the magic wand for a few days, put the forensics programs from around the university within this new college structure. I would put an independent head in charge of the new college or school and have the associate deans seconded from the various participating colleges.

Such a structure would be one of the larger schools on campus and it would break down many of the administrative barriers. The absence of this structure does not stop me from working with some of my favorite people in engineering and computer science. What I don’t know is what I don’t know and I don’t know the people who might be interesting colleagues that I’ve never met.

What I’m going to do about it

The things I consider positive about being in a college of technology studies are not necessarily positives to the trustees of the university. When briefing the trustees previously I was told that things I thought were good were actually negatives. As a non-exhaustive list of  examples.

Good: The College of Technology takes students that couldn’t get into engineering and sciences.

Bad: Those students negatively impact the university scores in various ratings mechanisms (lower SAT scores, lower GRE scores, etc.)

Good: The College of Technology works closer to the innovations and commercialization loop.

Bad: That appears to be vocational and is not what an elite university wants to be associated with.

Good: Students leave the College of Technology ready to work in the private sector.

Bad: They are working not researching and being scientists or philosophers

Good: Students who are entered into the university and are unable to make it in engineering can move to the College of Technology

Bad: Those students should be flushed out of the system as they negatively impact rankings

I plan on biding my time and keeping my options open. I hold tenure, but if the administrative structure I am within is done away with then my program is forfeit. Unfortunately I have specific experience at Purdue with closing programs and moving faculty around within the University structure. I am not sure I want to go through a ISCP/CISIT/CIT type transition again. It was personally painful, it was emotionally draining, and to this day there are people who won’t speak to other people because of this situation.

I don’t know how a situation like the closing of programs and transferring of faculty at the college level rather than at the department level would actually effect me. I do know that already it is a distraction for the faculty. I do know that resources have been diverted from my program to other more strategic programs. For now I plan on keeping my options open and when somebody else offers me the job I have new balance to the weights to consider.


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