Worcester Polytechnic Institute

A Planning Program for Worcester Polytechnic Institute: The Future of Two Towers - Part Four: A Plan


A. Introduction

Within an institution of higher education the responsibility and authority for institutional policy and operation varies widely among trustees, administration, faculty, and students depending upon the particular facet of governance considered. Generally the administrative structure of colleges or universities is the responsibility of the boards of trustees and presidents with their administrative officers. It is necessary then that the faculty exercise a strong advisory role regarding the administrative structure to insure that this structure promotes rather than stifles the educational goals of the college. It follows that the description of the educational plan presented in this report must include a discussion of its relationship with the administrative organization of WPI.

B. Multidisciplinary Problems and Organizational Structure

Two observations are critical to the subsequent discussion. First, the Plan emphasizes a problem-focused education stressing the necessary interleaving of human values with an increasingly technological culture. Second, WPI is currently organized in terms of traditional academic disciplines such as physics, English, and chemical engineering.

These two statements have important implications. The problems of a technological society are by definition multidisciplinary when viewed from the reference plane of academic departmental structure. The problems of air pollution are not encompassed by a department of chemistry, or chemical engineering, or sociology. As many advances in mass transportation are made in the electronics laboratory as are made in civil engineering practice. Magnetohydrodynamic research does not fit easily within either mechanical engineering or electrical engineering. The listing could be endless. One must ask then whether it is possible for a multidisciplinary educational program to flourish within a college that is organized administratively to coincide with traditional disciplines. While it is fully recognized that particular disciplines bring important knowledge to a multidisciplinary situation, the approach and solution to these problems require a different type of effort.

Unfortunately the discussion of this question is emotionally charged. Strong disciplinary, departmental, and professional orientations are present at all colleges. It is hoped that the reader will recognize that the Plan considers multidisciplinary education in addition to education within the academic disciplines.

The view is commonly advanced that problem-focused education is quite feasible within the traditional disciplinary or departmental structure. Objections to this view are as quickly raised. A number of reports and studies are available which address the question of administrative organization within the academic community. Bennis (1) feels that a rigid hierarchical organization is contrary to present and future educational trends. He compares effective leadership to the pin connecting the members of a moving and changing unit rather than as a boss-employee relationship. Townsend (2) strongly urges the abolishment of organizational charts, advancing the view that they are counterproductive. Burr, Mortenson, and Yerazunis (3) describe the organizational matrix concept of RPI. This matrix of inter-meshing departmental and interdisciplinary faculty groups is designed to provide flexibility for the educational program. Arrowsmith (4) suggests that the disciplinary guild has killed the possibility of a larger intellectual community of scholars within the university. Cherniack and Steinhart (5) studied multidisciplinary programs in more than thirty universities in order to determine the capacity of the American university to support large-scale multidisciplinary education and research concerning environmental quality.

It is possible to extract two principles that are essential, it would seem, to the success of an educational effort. In order for a particular educational program to succeed, the following features must be present:

1. The faculty reward structure, including salary, appointments and promotions, must be based upon the goals of the educational program.

2. The student curricular and degree requirements must encourage rather than hinder student participation in the program.

Although these principles do not guarantee success, an educational program not supported by them will be ineffective.

C. Recommendations Concerning WPI Administrative Structure

The Planning Committee endorse the two principles presented above. They underlie the thought that led to the type of administrative structure outlined in The Future of Two Towers, Part III. The Planning Committee strongly urge recognition of these principles by the President and the Board of Trustees in providing an organizational structure to implement the Plan.

The first of the stated principles relates to faculty contributions. The second principle applies to student academic participation. The Plan provides for multidisciplinary activities by students and faculty as well as for traditional disciplinary contributions. If in implementing the Plan the organization of the College would remain such that the faculty reward system would be based primarily on activities within traditional academic disciplines or professional departments, then multidisciplinary education would receive low faculty priority. If the student's degree would be based on satisfying discipline requirements, then student participation in multidisciplinary educational patterns would be only superficial. On the other hand the organization administering the Plan should not stifle discipline-oriented faculty and student efforts. The best planned educational program of the type described here could not succeed unless the administrative structure would support the flexibility of this program. The Planning Committee make the following recommendations:

1. The organization of the academic program should be separated into two basic units, Academic Resources and Program Operations. These units should each be administrated by a Dean, both Deans reporting to the Academic Vice-President.

The Academic Resources area should be made up of faculty groupings, the library, the computation center, the coordinator of consortium instruction, and the coordinator for special programs and continuing education. The faculty group chairmen, under the Dean of Academic Resources, would have primary responsibility for the development of faculty. They should be appointed with the advice and consent of the faculty concerned for renewable terms of specified length.

The area of Program Operations should include the IS/P, Study, and Course operation of the College. Faculty from the Academic Resources area would support the functions of the Program Operations area. Coordinators, reporting to the Dean of Program Operations, should integrate the needs of the IS/P, Study, and Study-Conferences.

A graduate program should be incorporated within the same organizational pattern but with the addition of a coordinator of graduate studies to serve special program needs of graduate efforts. He should report to the Dean of Program Operations.

2. There is a critical need for meaningful interaction among science, engineering, and humanities faculty and students. Any administrative unit that would be formed should not hinder this interaction.

3. Faculty groupings must be flexible enough to develop capabilities in areas where perhaps only one faculty member with a particular disciplinary interest would be on the campus.

The interaction between the academic program and the Council of Advisors is considered in Chapter IX.

In summary, the Planning Committee believe that adoption of these broad recommendations concerning administrative structure is essential to the Plan. They could be integrated with the Faculty government outlined in the CONSTITUTION OF THE WPI FACULTY.


(1) Bennis, W. G., "Organic Populism", Psychology Today, Vol. 3, Feb. 1970, p. 48.

(2) Townsend, R., "Up the Organization", Harper's Magazine, Vol. 240, March 1970, p. 73.

(3) Burr, A. A., Mortenson, K. E., and Yerazunis, S., "A Two-Dimensional Plan for Engineering Education", Engineering Education, Vol. 60, Dec. 1969, p. 289.

(4) Arrowsmith, W., "Idea of a New University", The Center Magazine, Vol. 3, March 1970, p. 47.

(5) Cherniack, S., and Steinhart S., "The Universities and Environmental Quality, Commitment to Problem-Focused Education, A Report to the President's Environmental Quality Control Council, Office of Science and Technology."

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Last modified: Fri Mar 5 15:28:11 EST 1999