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  good dose of science education, approach from the perspective of practical problems and technology, and some  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 orgtheory.net, 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).