Starting an Undergraduate PPE Program

If You Are Thinking About Starting an Undergraduate Program
Michael Munger
Duke University

Making The Case

PPE is a well-recognized and growing movement in research and education.  For background, see (resources, including my piece on “PPE Overview”).  Feel free to use the language found there freely, as it is in the public domain for just this use.

If you are considering starting a PPE program, think first about the likely reaction from the various stakeholders from whom you will need cooperation, and the even larger group from whom you will need permission.

There are four groups to think about:

1.  Students

You need to do a lot of work in advance to motivate some answers. to some basic questions.

a. Why PPE?  Why these three disciplines, and not some others?  

b.  What is the educational purpose, at your institution, of establishing a PPE Program?

c. What will be the credit format of the new program?

  • Stand-alone major: A separate Bachelor of Arts degree, administered by a department or director
  • “Second” major: A separate Bachelor’s degree, but only available if the student also takes a primary major
  • Certificate: An interdisciplinary credential or recognition, based on six courses (give or take) and taken as additional work, supplementing a major
  • Minor: A six-course credential, housed within a major, and constituting an interdisciplinary specialization within that major

It may seem like a lot of trouble to be able to have to figure out what the form of the credential will be in advance, but the way that you propose the program will have a big impact on its future.  Majors are usually associated with departments, while certificates can be free-standing.  If you find that your work is successful, you may want to change the form of the credential after a few years, only to find that "we can't get there from here!"  A number of programs have started small, and have later found that their growth and vitality were a problem for the format that the founders had chosen.  Give it some thought, and ask people, before you choose an organizational path.

2.  Departments representing the three cognate disciplines, and their faculty

One of the problems many people face is that they try to do things on their own.  If you want to start a PPE program, make sure you have consulted the department chairs in Philosophy, Political Science, and Economics informally, letting them all know that you are thinking about doing this and asking for their advice and input.  It’s better to meet in person, even if you don’t know them, because you are asking them to make a bet on you and your proposal later.

Use the information in the “PPE Overview” document, and gather more specific information about PPE, before you approach the administrators.  Make sure you can explain the substantive educational purpose clearly, and be enthusiastic.  Many times the leader is more important than the proposal, because administrators don’t want to start a new program and then have to follow through on commitments made by someone who turned out to be unable to carry out their commitments.

Still, look for people teaching “PPE style” courses, and approach them.  It would be very helpful if you can identify at least one tenure-track faculty member in each department, so that there is an anchor in each department, and an advocate for the program in department meetings.

This is particularly true for the Philosophy and Political Science components.  It is useful to have someone from Economics who supports the program, but there are several “core” Economics courses (Intermediate Micro, Macro, Regulatory Policy, Public Choice) that articulate with PPE requirements without modification.  As long as you have the permission of the instructors, and department head, to have these courses “count” for PPE that may be enough.  But if there are no tenured or tenure-track faculty in Philosophy or Political Science who want to be active in PPE you may want to reconsider whether this program can work.

Remember, you need to be able to cover the introductory course, the capstone course, and other required courses every year.  And you need to be able to cover them even if someone gets sick, or goes on leave, or takes another job.  You need to have a plan to cover the courses so students can finish the credential, or you are asking administrators to create an “unfunded mandate” just on trust.  And they don’t like doing that.

If (as usually happens) you are yourself in one of the three cognate departments, make sure your own chair is enthusiastic, or at least willing, before you talk to anyone else.  Your chair is going to want to know:

  1. How much will it affect enrollments? How many students will be in the program to begin with, and how many will be in the program when it matures, if it is successful?
  2. How many classes will it be necessary to staff, and how often?
  3. What are the requirements for "team teaching," and how will team-taught classes be counted toward teaching loads?
  4. What are the administrative requirements, and who will do this work?

You can’t answer these questions yourself, without help, but you can show that you have anticipated the questions.  The team-teaching element is important, so give it some thought.  Most people have not taught PPE-style integrative courses before.  The best way to get them up to speed is to have them team-teach for three years, with someone from a different department.  The first year, you may both think, "Really?  You think THAT?  THAT counts for an argument, in [other discipline]?" But very quickly your faculty will be able to do it on their own, and teach a much more nuanced and problematized version of the integrative courses.

3.  Other departments, and also programs that “compete” for students

“Interdisciplinary” programs are buzzwords on college campuses.  PPE is a ready-made interdisciplinary program, and you may be surprised at how interested people in other departments will be in participating.

Provided, of course, that the program is not a substantial additional burden on them, or their departments.  In many cases, there will be “off the shelf” courses already being taught in other departments, courses that will articulate with a PPE program with very small changes.  Once you have thought about the structure you want to propose you can say how these courses will fit. On the other hand, it may turn out that the structure you have in mind does not match what other people want.  So you may need to be flexible.  

The other thing to anticipate is the reaction of other programs.  Your college’s “Curriculum Committee” is going to want to know if there is a gap in course or degree offerings.  And “Yes, because we don’t have a PPE Program!” is not a good answer.  Are there other programs, either within departments or operating across disciplines, that will be affected if a PPE Program is founded and run?  If so, make sure you contact the directors of or faculty in that program.  It is a very bad idea to have the first information about your program reaching the ears of possible competitors because a formal proposal has been submitted.  Faculty will object, and protect their “turf,” just on principle if they have not been consulted.  But if you do contact other faculty in advance, they can likely be converted from opponents to advocates.

In the interests of assuring full disclosure, you might consider having a “PPE Information Session,” where you serve coffee and pastries and invite faculty.  Just distributing an announcement and giving everyone a chance to comment can defuse negative reactions, and you may also find that there are many good ideas, and potentially interested faculty you may not have thought of.

4.  Administration

Here’s something you need to know about administrators:  for the most part, they really like “bright shiny objects” that they can claim credit for.  There is nothing wrong with that, but you should anticipate that one or more administrators is going to make the PPE Program a personal project or goal.  You are likely to lose control of parts of the process, and that’s okay.  The point is not to fight, but to win.  Here are four considerations that are important for dealing with administrators.

Focus on Undergrads:  Often faculty want time off from teaching, or higher salaries, or better parking. Having a faculty member who wants to create a new interdisciplinary program that focuses on undergraduates means that you are already a much more interesting meeting than a lot of what that administrator is going to do that day.  Use that:  you are doing something because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s part of the college’s mission. 

Limited Resources Required: To the extent that the PPE Program can be run mostly with existing resources, without needing new staff or faculty lines, is a big selling point for the administration.

Finding Support: You need to realize that administrators have a hard job:  they are constantly traveling doing fundraising from alumni.  It helps to be able to talk about new “bright shiny objects,” especially if they relate to undergraduates.  Having a PPE program will impress alumni, and give administrators something to work with.  Now, don’t necessarily expect the administrators to raise money for the PPE Program; that’s up to you.  But you can feel free to claim credit for the fact that having a PPE Program will help with general fundraising.

Admissions:  Admissions is a complicated problem.  Almost every college would love to have more very qualified students who will pay full tuition, or close to it.  One of the things that’s interesting about the constituency for PPE is that prospective students tend to sophisticated about educational choices.  And many of them are international students, who generally pay full tuition.  Students often look for “PPE” using a search engine, and then apply to schools based on where PPE is available.  If your school is small, and is having trouble with top students who are not from your state or region, PPE can be a great help.  The interesting thing is that the numbers don’t have to be very large.  The revenue implications of ten extra international students can be significant; the quality implications of ten extra highly qualified applicants who otherwise might not consider applying can be powerful.

Final Words

Notice I haven’t said much about the actual content of your proposal, or the way you might go about fund-raising to support the program itself.  That’s because there is no “one size fits all” approach that works.  You need to fit the PPE Program to the interests of your own faculty and students.  And you need to search out alumni, or other kinds of foundation donors, who are interested in supporting you.

But if you have followed the advice in this short “how to” guide you won’t have to do these things by yourself.  PPE will help you meet faculty collaborators, and enthusiastic students, who are interested in reconnecting with some of the great works, and the timeless questions, at the center of a liberal education.

PPE is the synergistic intersection of three disciplines