STS Program at Penn State

As a member of the University Faculty Senate serving on the Faculty Affairs Committee here at Penn State during the 2011-2012 academic year, I got a first-row seat to witness the de-commissioning of the University’s STS program, which closed, formally, on July 01, 2012. This was a challenging thing to observe, given my commitments teaching STS courses to our engineering students; however, it seemed that no faculty push-back could reverse what was ultimately deemed an administrative dis-continuation of the program (which had considerable academic implications even if relatively little consultation with non-administrative faculty took place). A commonly heard comment was that Penn State was ending STS at the precise moment that Harvard initiated their program.

Be that as it may, I have often pondered why STS was de-institutionalized at Penn State … and so, when this landed on my desk, from a colleague and reformed STSer, Gary Weisel, I think I found a significant part of the story that I simply did not fully realize prior to reading it.


So, Lehigh University published a curricular newsletter for their STS program. This is the cover of this issue I am referring to, which documents (like a miniature case study) the history of the STS program at Penn State. Interestingly enough, the program was “low church”, and I think this contributed to its failure to fully embed in the University. Long time STSers, no doubt, you recognize that high-church/low-church distinction. For new comers, this harkens back to old discussion from 1992 by Juan Ilerbaig, which could be summarized nicely as the following:

… [programs] with a problem-centered, social activist bent (e.g., Penn State) and ones with a discipline-centered, scholarly bent [constitute] … as a Low Church-High Church distinction (see June 1992 Science Technology and Society Curriculum Newsletter “The Two STS Subcultures and the Sociological Revolution” pgs. 1-6)


The issue here reminds one of the contrast between high church (Roman Catholic) views of the religious life as a profession of it own versus the low church (Protestant) rejection of such religious specialization in the name of taking religion to the world, into all secular professions (see above image for source).

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the origins of the STS program at Penn State come from the fall of 1969 in the wake of student protest. The program has had, ever since, an enduring character of rebellion and resistance. At first, the program was going to have three components, a graduate minor, undergraduate course offerings, and “research and continuing education components” (see above). As it happens, then-President Walker granted only the course offerings to undergraduates, which constitutes the first step on a path toward the low church, or, put more plainly, a step toward advancing undergraduates and non-advanced degree seeking students and a step away from a department that produces top-quality research. During the 1978-1979 academic year, the program was evaluated and concluded that funding was too low, faculty typically volunteered to contribute the courses (and were not standing faculty), and that teaching and research were not well integrated (which, I assume, meant that the teaching mission took priority over the research mission of the program). However, Rustum Roy, who headed-up the program, pushed forward gaining some external funding (NSF) for the program and its educational initiatives. For Roy, the STS program was foremost about “technological literacy” which he saw as:

… a [1] good dose of science education, approach from the perspective of practical problems and technology, and some [2] critical awareness of the social interface.

This is somewhat perplexing for the university because the program aligned with pro-science and pro-engineering faculty, but also aligned with those faculty critical of science and engineering, which ultimately made of an uneasy relationship among faculty who generally taught STS voluntarily or as an overload. The STS newsletter called his program “bi-polar”, and loosely indicate that these unsettling relations did not bode well for the STS program in the historical context of the science wars. The program grew under Roy’s leadership, but, in 1989, when Roy retired, the STS program shifted its administrative home to the College of Engineering under the new direction of Carl Mitcham. External support for STS-oriented science education floundered (and this detail is unclear; either Mitcham did not pursue external funding, failed when he did pursue it, or whether or not the NSF grew tired of supporting STS educational endeavors.). Mitcham consolidated the program, and, upon external evaluation, the same set of concerns appears to have endured. The mission was:

… to broaden scientific and technological literacy outside the scientific and technical community, and … to deepen ethical, political, and social sensitivity within the scientific and technical community.

During the early 1990s, the program taught about 800 students per year, but “resisted creating an undergraduate major or graduate program.” At this time, the shift toward enhancing interdisciplinarity on many campuses across the U.S. was brewing, but interdiscipinarity and the joint-appointments they create for faculty did not embed well in the university setting (perhaps because of old entrenched reasons).

The entire analysis reminds me of Fabio Rojas‘s book about how black studies departments were similarly born of 1960s social/political protest. The programs that have sustained themselves over the years tended to be, to use the language we used above to describe STS programs, high church (i.e., academically-oriented research departments) rather than low church (i.e., student-oriented or community-oriented teaching departments).

The bottom-line: it appears that if you want to embed a department/program within the context of a large, research university, then even those departments born of radical social/political protest much make accommodations with the university in question by joining the research mission of the college. Whether or not universities are unresponsive to education-only or community-oriented programs is less clear to me, but in the case of STS, the programs that last may very well be the programs that publish.

Fabio writes for, a great blog about organizational studies. Also, on black studies, one of my top undergraduate students looked into the historical roots of the Black Studies program here at Penn State and recently presented his findings at the Eastern Psychological Association’s annual meeting. He pretty much found the same things described above; if research is not the first priority of the department, then it seems that the department is destined to struggle over the long run, even if it satisfies important demands from the student body (like enhanced course offerings in black history, for example).

5 thoughts on “STS Program at Penn State

  1. These are Jesse Ballenger’s comments from his blog “To Conquer Confusion”:

    “Thanks Nicholas – I appreciate your thoughts about the closure of the STS program at Penn State. I am not sure that I have anything to add to the exchange between you and Erich about the high church/low church distinction in STS – though I think it gets at the crucial problem of social relevance that has bedeviled intellectuals in the academy since the 60s. But here let me just say that I completely agree with Erich that at its closure, the Penn State STS program had thoroughly remade itself into a program focused on teaching and research in line with the main currents of STS as an interdisciplinary academic field, and the closure wiped out years of hard work by several of us laying foundation for an expanded program. Anyway, I was really glad to see your post. I hate to see all this vanish down the memory hole because I think there are important things to be learned from it. I may have some more to say about it at some point soon.”


  2. Jan and Erich, I have never actually heard a plain and honest reason for shutting down STS. As a member of Faculty Affairs committee, we saw much of the paperwork related to the shutdown, and, Erich, I saw those dates you speak of too and heard about the outstandingly odd decision to “hold off until after the holiday” comments. That said, I also heard ideas about how shutting down the program would create some savings in infrastructural set-up (i.e., fewer support staff, etc.). However, that always fell on deaf ears to me because everyone in the program already had “other” arrangements, and seemingly very little could be saved, which was, if I recall, one of the premier reasons for creating interdisciplinary programs, departments, and groupings is that they require no more infrastructural support than their home departments already give them! That said, I also wonder if the move to the College of Engineering was a weakened position for the program … I say this not knowing that it was or was not, but in the context of political policy, here is why: consider direct welfare in the US, when Clinton worked to transform the policy in the 1990s, he weakened welfare and data since then appears to show that Americans have never been more dissatisfied with the program (there are many possible explanations for this, of course, but once you weaken a program, then the program in need of reform appears even less effective after reform!) … and perhaps something akin to this shift happened at PSU. On the other hand, Erich, if you it was long-standing grudges, and you had a long-time front-seat view of the events, then I trust your read on these issues. Any chance you can tell us more about what constituted these seemingly Herculean grudges?


  3. Thanks both of you for sharing these details on Penn State´s STS program as they are typically unaccessible (or better: if accessible we lack the ability to put them in context) of “outsiders”. But I see some interesting parallels to developments here and I am just wondering if they are comparable or might even give us a direction for searching for answers.

    Given the history of STS (both versions, thanks Erich for trying to hold them apart, although I am not sure I totally agree, mainly because of the politics of that naming strategies in the 1980s) it seems that a large number of both high church and low church programs are, at least in their beginning, institutional arrangements either build around a network of scholars, sometimes even around one specific scholar that holds that network together or on the basis of a political initiative — for example to strengthen tech-literacy or teaching engineers their social responsibilities. The individual history of each program might show instances of strengthening by bringing high profile grants or contract based research projects in and by linking the department/center/unit to other academic programs or governmental or economic sponsors and thereby shaping a high church / low church profile.

    In the case I witnessed last year these strategies intermingled and in my humble opinion finally led to the cancelation of the program. It started as a network of scholars in the 1970s that used the opportunity of the late 60s/early 70s science/tech policy focus on the social effects of scientific and technological developments after the german technocracy debate in the end of the 60s (Schelsky and Habermas, if that rings an international bell) to institutionalize the program. At the summit of the departments career in the 1990s (when it even hosted the 4S/EASST in 1996) it was quite successful in positioning itself as a high church program (although also doing quite a lot of low church teaching and research). During the university reforms in 200x-13 two things happened (I think): a. the initial group of scholars were gone and a new generation took its place that maybe took the reputation of the institute as a high church center for granted and b. university reform policies even tried to do the institute a favor and tried to frame its importance as the place to carry out reflexive research on research done at the university but thereby framed it as a low church center. This created a tension that framed a number of decisions or non-decisions (on personnel, strategy and international positioning) that finally led to the cancellation of the program.

    The punchline of it would be this: maybe it is neither the initial orientation of a program towards academic honors or undergrad teaching, towards STS or ST&S that lets a program succeed or fail in the end, but the tension between both directions of research can create conditions for success or failure because each department has to find its place on the spectrum and maintain it. Does that make sense?


  4. Erich, thanks for the lengthy comment; it does clarify a few issues for me. The high-church/low-church distinction is a dated one, I agree with you on that issue. It was such a prominent description in the original piece that I cite that I just wanted to pass that along to readers given that the tone of the piece indicated that Penn State might be in trouble because of this difficult program identity. I did not know about the internal political divides you mention, but they do cast a particular light on the events and with the passing of Roy, I do understand that much of that good and hard work was lost after this sad event. Frankly, I was looking to see if there was a more general pattern at work, in my case, that programs doing high-quality research and landing large grants might be less susceptible to being cancelled, undermined, etc. as compared to programs with a plainly undergraduate educational mission. I meant it more like a hypothesis than a “full account,” but you don’t really hold me to the fire in your comment about that issue. During the 1980s, when Roy had a couple of relatively large NSF grants, the program was chirping along quite swimmingly from what I understand. The fact that the STS program rarely had faculty that were not directly under the department (i.e., there was no line item for years, and once there was the program was funded for only about 1/4 of their original asking budget), and the faculty that were standing tended to be in “other” departments, which leads to relatively high availability for administration to step-in and reduce the program (in this case, eliminate it). I’ll add more later on as a brew about this idea; however, in the meantime, is this the more general case of interdisciplinarity being more unstable at universities in general (if we begin to search for an answer that gets away from the particulars of this case)?


  5. Nicholas, thank you for the further investigation and discussion of the closure of the Penn State STS Program. You highlight, here, some of the bigger divisions within the field(s) of STS in your revisiting the distinction between high-church and low-church modalities of STS. I think a typically useful nemonic in this case is the difference between Science and Technology Studies, and Science, Technology, and Society — where the former is more concerned with formal studies of the production of scientific and technological fields of knowledge, and the latter distinction is mainly concerned with the co-construction of S&T and society, including politics, ethics, etc. Both are STS, of course. Nevertheless, the names of actual programs don’t reveal such a distinction. Cornell and MIT are Science Tech and Society, yet I would think of them as high-church in their approaches and RPI’s program, was more low-church in their approaches and education styles.

    What are my qualifications in saying these things? Well, I’ve been engaged in this material since 1990, where, as an undergrad, I encountered reconstructive approaches to scientific knowledge, including the most esoteric of sciences at that point, quantum mechanics. I encountered draft versions of Dick Sclove’s Democracy and Technology, the great works of Lewis Mumford, the anarchic theories of Paul Feyerabend, and Foucault’s technologies of the self. Again, this was as an undergrad, engaging the material at a college with no majors, so, it was a matter of following the material itself… I have to say, the field(s) of STS have become much more coherent and on top of its game. As you mentioned, Harvard is bringing their STS program online, just as Penn State was closing its own program.

    I say this all simply to indicate that I’ve been participating in this discussion going on my third decade now, and to provide some substance to the fact that I think, however, the distinction you lay out here between high church and low church does not play out for any other academic STS program. Every single program has had to struggle to prove its relevance, and, for the biggest programs, had to defend its very existence at points. (I know it was no easy or straightforward task for Jassanoff to keep things afloat at Harvard… its taken a lot of convincing.) As well, there are strong low-church programs, such at RPI’s STS program, which began a few years after Penn State’s and is also distinctly low-church in its approach. (Got my PhD there in STS in 2006.) Anyhow, I don’t think this distinction really holds up, even in the current literature. Almost all STS work now needs to be grounded in high-church theory and research, but mainly working on issues of relevance to policy, politics, society, etc. When I use and apply theory into research and output… I make no such distinction. I also think, as a distinction, it reflects how programs were, but not how they are now, and certainly not what PSU’s STS program was about in its (then) current form.

    You mention the lack of an undergraduate major. We in the program had been working on an undergraduate major proposal from 2006 through late 2010, and it was scheduled to be launched in the Fall of 2011. It was, of course, early January of 2011 when the faculty were told about the closure of the program. We were strongly encouraged throughout the process of creating this major, and had no indication that our four years of work were not wanted or appreciated.

    As well, the program was split between the College of Engineering, and the College of Liberal Arts. Those in the College of Engineering were only EVER hired as fixed-term renewables. There was absolutely no changing that. All faculty in Liberal Arts were tenure track. While this created some tensions, it did more to split the work loads in a rather uneven manner. Those in Engineering ended up working more on the undergrad major and some of the other service based issues, while those in Liberal Arts ended up being given leeway to work more on their research, since they were tenure track. This would not have been a problem, had the undergrad major actually launched and the program would have been stabilized. All of this work though, four years by my colleague and over two years by myself and much good work by others, all went down the drain. Work that could have been spent doing research and publishing.

    In terms of student protests carrying the day… well, other than some very nice written work by some of the top students in our program and through the honor’s college, students were not able to get themselves together to protest on any scale that matters. On the other hand, I’m not sure that would even be possible considering the rather dis-aggregated nature of the student population, who can only seem to protest when they are drunk and about things like football coaches… not athletic departments. Its a sad truth, but college campus since those protests in the sixties, have been rebuilding and redesigning campuses to prevent, or at least be able to control, such large gatherings. In the time leading up to and after the Occupy protests, there was not really even a peep here at University Park. So, any real hope for students to change anything significant these days went out with those political times (60s-early 70s).

    Anyhow, let me get to the punchline here… the real real reason why the program was closed. I am not going to get into the long and messy details of how the program emerged, or how it was perceived over time, or the fact that the rather formal program we had rebuilt no longer resembled the nascent scrappy and tenacious program it once was. No, I think it all came down to grudges. The founder of the program, Rustum Roy had passed away on August 10th 2010. The official decision to close the program was made, I think, on October 10th 2010. (If that’s not the exact date, it’s somewhere very near there.) Faculty were not told until January of 2011, pretty much right after the job market closed for that year. (They said they didn’t tell us until later because THEY didn’t want to give us a depressing holiday season… even though that time could have been used to both launch further protest and to be able to get out job apps.) So, I very much disagree with the reason the program was essentially taken out behind the shed and shot in the back of the head was the distinction and playing out between high church and low church. I just think you need to look for the weak social link in this case to find your answer.

    I hope this helps to clarify things a bit. I only offer my perspective on things here, and am not suggesting a “truth” to all of this, if there is one. The faculty who were directly effected haven’t spoken much about this, mainly because they were scrambling to figure out their next gig. But, I’m sure there’s a lot more info out there.


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