Penn's changes to Fels Institute worry alumni

David Thornburgh, president and CEO of Committee of Seventy and former executive director of the Fels Institute, is concerned about the changes Penn is making to the program.

The Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania for more than 80 years has prided itself on preparing students for public-service positions and making those already working in those jobs better.

Its alumni include Philadelphia City Council members Cherelle Parker and Kenyatta Johnson, State House Majority Leader Dave Reed, and Greg Rost, Penn’s senior vice president and chief of staff. Former Gov. Ed Rendell, Philadelphia U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, and Mayor Kenney are among the frontline policymakers who have taught there.

But was Fels on par with Penn’s Ivy League-quality education? Could it compete with prestigious counterparts such as Harvard’s Kennedy School?

Some at the university apparently didn’t think so.

What began with gradual changes four years ago escalated this week with the ouster of the institute’s executive director as part of a restructuring. The abrupt moves left some alumni and former staff members questioning the university’s commitment to the institute and worrying that the changes would not be for the better.

“Everyone who cares about the value of their degree and the heart of this program should be gravely concerned,” said a letter circulated by a former staff member this week.

Penn earlier this year signaled it had changes in store for the storied program — significant enough to pause admissions to its full-time master’s of public administration program for a year.

On Tuesday, executive director Nelson Lim’s position was eliminated, along with some other key posts, and the institute — which had operated largely on its own — was moved under Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies, which Penn said would “deepen and diversify its recruitment, registration and related administrative capacities.”

The Fels website had been overhauled less than 24 hours after the staff changes.

Founded in 1937, the institute enrolls about 60 students a year, roughly 30 in its full-time master’s of public administration program and about the same number in its executive master’s program for working professionals.

Some alumni and former staff members, proud of the institute, say that Fels rightly emphasizes the practical over theory and that having teachers who work in legislative offices and policy centers gives students the real-world connections and experience they need.

“What I heard concerns me and disturbs me,” said former Fels executive director David Thornburgh, who left in 2014 and now heads Committee of Seventy, which advocates for better government. “Fels is one of the nation’s most venerable programs for educating people for public service. Whatever their plans are, it doesn’t seem like this is going to be the same kind of program that it has been for the last 80-some years.”

Penn said it wants more of its full-time faculty to teach at the institute.

“The School of Arts and Sciences is committed to strengthening the role of Fels in educating and inspiring future public servants,” Steven J. Fluharty, dean of Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, said in an email to alumni and students this week. “One vital way to do that is to broaden the involvement of the school’s standing faculty more extensively in Fels teaching, in combination with the accomplished practitioners who bring real-world experience and insights to Fels classrooms.”

The overall intention, said Nora E. Lewis, vice dean of professional and liberal education, who now oversees the institute, is to improve it. The full-time master’s program will relaunch in fall 2019, she said.

“It is not going away,” Lewis said. “We value Fels, the history of Fels, and the impact it has had, particularly in Philadelphia. …We want to make Fels even better going forward.”

But T.J. Hurst, a 2014 alumnus who credited the program with helping him start his own business and navigate the city’s political infrastructure, said the program served him well, though he knew Penn faculty wanted it “more quantitative and academically focused” and competitive with schools such as Kennedy.

“The standing tenure faculty at the School of Arts and Sciences did not feel the program was rigorous enough and felt it was too practitioner-focused,” said Hurst, a managing partner at Jefferson’s List, which helps political campaigns find staff members. “And the alums loved that about it. I had a seminar with 12 students that [then] Councilman Kenney taught, and I found that very valuable.”

Hurst wrote a letter to Penn earlier this year, signed by more than 250 alumni, expressing concern about the pause in admissions for the master’s program.

“That was quite shocking to alumni for one of the oldest institutes of government in the country,” Hurst said.

But he met with Penn officials at that time and some of his concerns were eased, he said. This week’s upheaval reignited alumni worries, he said.

“I don’t understand it,” said Eric Weinberg, a 1996 Fels graduate, who taught there for 17 years until 2015 and who works in private equity in Philadelphia. “I think the university could do a better job of properly communicating it to alums. As an alum, we are all very interested in protecting the reputation and brand that the Fels Institute has come to enjoy.”

Under the restructuring, the institute will no longer have an executive director, Lewis said. Two faculty members will take over as directors of the master’s program and executive master’s program and look to bring in more full-time faculty to teach, Lewis said.

“We don’t want to lose anything,” she said. “We want to add.”