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Strategic Planning and Development Issues for Polish Colleges and Universities: A View from America

Miroslaw Skibniewski

American and Polish institutions of higher learning are to a large extent a reflection of the history and characteristics of the two respective societies. The history of American higher education dates back to the establishment of the Harvard College in 1636. Eight of the oldest American colleges and universities: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale were established in the early to mid-1700s. In the 1930s, a New York Herald Tribune writer coined the term 'Ivy League' in reference to these schools. Among other old institutions, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point dates back to 1803, while the oldest civilian technical university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was founded in 1824. There are approximately 6,600 institutions of post-secondary education in the United States, including 3,500 four-year institutions granting baccalaureate and 1,200 institutions granting graduate degrees.

The oldest Polish institution of higher learning, the Jagiellonian University, was set up in 1364. Among its claims to fame is not only its antiquity but also the fact that it was the Alma Mater and place of work of Nicholas Copernicus. The Zamosc Academy (Akademia Zamojska), was created in the early 16th century. Other Polish universities and polytechnics date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The Catholic University of Lublin was established in 1918. Many new institutions and branch campuses were created after World War II. In an attempt to make the Polish academic system similar to that of the Soviet Union, the post-war period also brought an unprecedented reorganization of all existing Polish universities. This resulted in the creation of specialized colleges for medical sciences, agriculture, and economics. In Soviet-occupied Poland, the Polish Ministry of National Defense ran military colleges granting degrees in engineering, medicine, and the sciences. The early 1990s saw the establishment and rapid growth of private academic institutions in business management, economics and information technology.

The rankings and reputation within the American system of higher education are not widely understood or appreciated in the Polish academic community. Nor is it well understood that there is no governmental body in the United States equivalent to the Polish Ministry of Education that oversees all colleges and universities, both public and private. It is likewise poorly understood that American colleges and universities are self-regulated through a number of accreditation bodies with cross-state territorial jurisdiction; however, accreditation of an institution or program is not a prerequisite to the conduct of education or research.

The Carnegie Foundation for Education classifies U.S. institutions of higher education according to their size, the degrees they award, and other criteria. The Carnegie Foundation categories include 'Research Universities I,' 'Research Universities II,' 'Doctoral Universities I,' 'Doctoral Universities II,' 'Master's (Comprehensive) Universities and Colleges I,' 'Master's (Comprehensive) Universities and Colleges II,' 'Baccalaureate (Liberal Arts) Colleges I,' and 'Baccalaureate Colleges II.' In addition, universities and colleges can be divided into private and state-owned. Among state universities, some are referred to as 'land grant universities.' This designation means that the institution was created on the basis of legislative acts by the federal government: Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, Hatch Act of 1887 and Smith-Lever Act of 1914. As such, land-grant universities are charged with educating the general population of their states in the fields contributing to the local and national economies. Most sustain highly competitive sports teams attracting national visibility and substantial funding from alumni and fans of the institution.

Polish academic institutions have never conducted outcomes assessment of their teaching efforts, nor have they followed up on the fates of their alumni.

Private universities have been created by acts of wealthy and influential individuals, religious groups, or corporate entities. Their level of excellence varies widely. Princeton, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford and Cal Tech are at the top, but their precise rankings change yearly. There are Catholic universities, such as Notre Dame and Georgetown, Protestant universities such as SMU or Oral Roberts, and Jewish universities such as Yeshiva. Membership in a particular denomination is normally not a prerequisite to student admission or faculty employment at these institutions.

Each branch of the military operates its own military academy and offers undergraduate academic programs along with basic military training. The Army operates the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY: the monument to Tadeusz Kosciuszko stands prominently in the center square of the Academy. The Navy has the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD and the Air Force, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO.

A large American university encompasses virtually all academic fields of study and research. Thus, unlike in Poland, an engineering college (politechnika), a medical college (akademia medyczna) or an agricultural college (akademia rolnicza) are integral parts of a university.

American academics enjoy perhaps the best working conditions by comparison with their peers anywhere in the world. Access to library resources, computing facilities, government and private research sponsors are superb. Full time academic salaries in the U.S. are also among the highest, second only to those of Hong Kong and Singapore. All salaries are negotiated; with a few exceptions, there is no salary scale established by individual states. In research-intensive universities, faculty members are expected vigorously to pursue externally-sponsored research and publish widely in peer-reviewed journals. They are rewarded with lighter teaching loads. But there are many second-rate institutions where teaching loads are four or more courses per semester.

Academic Degrees, Faculty Appointments and Titles

Academic degrees offered by American universities range from Associate of Science or Arts degrees offered by two year institutions, Bachelor of Science or Arts offered by four year colleges and universities, Master of Science, Arts, or Engineering, to doctoral degrees. There is no Polish equivalent of the Associate degree, as these types of qualifications have been traditionally offered in Poland by either secondary technical schools (technikum) or by traditional post- secondary schools similar to American community colleges (szkola pomaturalna) outside of degree-granting colleges and universities. The Bachelor degree can be compared to 'absolutorium' or in some cases to the newly introduced 'licencjat' in Polish private institutions. The Master's degree can be regarded as equivalent to 'magister.'

The origins of the Doctor of Philosophy degree granted in the United States date back to the tradition of medieval European universities. Other doctoral degrees are also awarded by professional schools not requiring research activity; and these are regarded as terminal professional degrees, such as Doctor of Education (other areas include Law, the Arts, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Dentistry, and Pharmacy). In Poland, there is no tradition of granting professional doctorates as opposed to research-based doctorates. Nor does Poland have a tradition of additional licensing credentials administered by the licensing boards or by national accreditation bodies. In the United States, these credentials may or may not be readily transferable from state to state on the basis of reciprocity.

American universities use at least four academic titles: Lecturer, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor. A Lecturer can be compared to asystent or starszy asystent in Polish institutions; Assistant Professor, to adiunkt; Associate Professor, to the traditional docent-doktor habilitowany; and Professor to either profesor nadzwyczajny (in some cases profesor uczelniany) or profesor zwyczajny (belwederski). There is no American equivalent for the honorific title of 'profesor' granted by President of the Republic of Poland (hence the nickname, belwederski). All American professorial appointments, from Assistant Professor to Professor, enable their holders to pursue independent academic research, apply for external and internal grants, lead research teams, and conduct other self-initiated activities commensurate with the post of an academic. This is not the case for the Polish equivalents of the first two appointments.

Academic tenure, a lifetime employment contract is usually granted at the Associate Professor level. American professorial appointments are normally made in conjunction with one institution and full time joint appointments between two or more institutions are usually prohibited. The use of part-time or research-only appointments and titles such as "adjunct professor," "research professor, "research scientist" and their junior equivalents varies widely among colleges and universities and should be viewed in the context of historical relationships and current standard practice at a given institution. It is common in some institutions to endow (normally with external funds if available) some senior professorial appointments and designate them as named or distinguished professorships. This provides means of additional recognition of individual scholarly accomplishment and the visibility for the sponsor of the endowment. Equivalents to these arrangements are missing in Poland. On the other hand, it is a common occurrence for a profesor to hold two or more appointments at different institutions, usually for financial reasons.

Current Issues and Problems Facing American Academic Institutions

In America, universities are often sensitive to the annual rankings of academic institutions. The best known of such rankings are the U.S. News and World Report ranking and the Gourman Report. Similar trends are already in place in Poland, with annual rankings of Polish colleges and universities generated by several widely read popular magazines. While such rankings generate objections and disagreements, those who are ranked low are usually negatively impacted.

American colleges and universities have been engaged in a national discourse concerning the government- mandated affirmative action programs aimed at insuring a steady intake of racial and cultural minorities into the ranks of college students and faculty. Despite attempts by several states to abolish race-based criteria in college admissions, affirmative action programs appear to be well entrenched. The 'Americans with Disability Act' likewise requires special accommodations for disabled students and employees. There is no equivalent, at Polish universities, of these pro-active measures, partly because after World War II, Poland became one of the most ethnically undifferentiated states in Europe: about 95 percent of the population are of Polish nationality, and a similar percentage profess to be Catholic.

There is an acute shortage of young academics in their 20s and 30s holding or pursuing doctoral degrees, and little organized effort to attract non-Polish citizens to academic positions in Poland. There are also very few international students currently studying in Poland.

A different dilemma involves the question of academic tenure and part-time teaching faculty on university campuses. There is a growing trend, especially in urban-based institutions, to increase part-time teaching staff at the expense of full-time faculty. Faculty unions, such as the American Association of University Professors, are naturally resisting this trend, as well as any attempts to curtail the extent of academic tenure and various freedoms. Another issue is the impact of multimedia and networking technologies on current instructional delivery modes. The Internet and associated technologies created opportunities to modify traditional classroom teaching. A new brand of educational institutions has emerged: the so- called 'virtual university.' Major corporations operate their own 'corporate universities' catering to their own employees. These new institutions may or may not have a physical campus, classrooms, and laboratories. The impact of virtual universities and Internet-based delivery of coursework has already begun to affect some of the private colleges in Poland, particularly through their linkages to foreign-based institutions and their consortia such as the Midwestern University Consortium for International Activities (MUCIA).

Many universities, including Purdue, Stanford, MIT, University of Michigan and University of Illinois try to commercialize new technologies being developed in university laboratories. Professors are encouraged to lend their scientific or technical expertise to a joint startup of a company with professional business managers, but they are also asked to remain active in teaching and research at the university. Major universities have created entire research parks and business incubator facilities to help newly created 'high-tech' startup firms grow. Similar industrial research parks are now being constructed with the help of several academic institutions and participation from American and other international firms operating in Poland, particularly in the Kraków area.

Current Problems of Polish Academic Institutions

In contrast, the general culture at Polish public colleges and universities has been traditionally centered on self- preservation within the existing system rather than on excellence in student learning or faculty development. This has been particularly true in the second half of the twentieth century. In Soviet-occupied Poland, financial resources for all academic institutions were controlled and distributed by the central government ministry responsible for the operation of higher education. In the case of public institutions, this is true to this day. There is a dire need for new funding of public colleges and universities; some of these institutions are opening new campuses in small towns, as do private colleges in the same locations, with hopes of attracting new income from student tuition. There is also a gradually increasing dependence on large, politically controlled academic development programs financed and administered by the European Community. Many Polish institutions find it difficult to compete for funding within these programs due to their elaborate application and participation procedures to which Polish academics are not accustomed.

There is anecdotal evidence that at least a portion of central government resources intended for scientific research is distributed in a manner similar to the distribution of political 'pork' funding by the U.S. Congress. Currently, all research funding provided by the Polish central government is administered through the Committee for Scientific Research (Komitet Badan Naukowych). This funding is subject to competition by research universities, basic research institutes operated by the Polish Academy of Sciences, and applied research institutions reporting to various government ministries. KBN does not employ international independent reviewers for research proposals being submitted for funding. It is, however, in the process of creating an international database of research experts with Polish roots in various scientific disciplines.

It is difficult to make direct comparisons between the population attending and graduating from college in the United States and Poland. Aggregate data on American institutions often include, in addition to four-year programs, also two-year programs not offered at Polish institutions. Most Polish colleges and universities offer direct-entry master's degree programs requiring nine to ten semesters of study. Only such programs are reported in official statistics related to higher education in Poland. This has been changing in the 1990s with the emergence of private colleges and gradual re- introduction of optional four-year degree programs at public colleges and universities. Efforts are underway to introduce a credit-based system for course offerings and partial transferability of coursework between comparable institutions in Poland and abroad.

Historically speaking, the Polish system of higher education has been elitist, but nominally, state universities charge no tuition and are open to all citizens. Student retention at Polish institutions of higher learning has never been a concern to their administrators, and graduation rates have been unusually low by American standards. Some Polish institutions pride themselves on their low retention rates as evidence of their demanding curricula. Additionally, there is a relative lack of in-depth knowledge among Polish academic administrators about the academic standing and overall reputation of the multitude of foreign institutions, including those in the United States. As a result of this lack of relevant knowledge and a desire to rapidly expand international linkages for Polish academic programs, a number of ad hoc exchange agreements have been forged between some of the top rated Polish institutions and third or fourth-tier institutions in the United States or Europe. Due to circumstances created in Soviet-occupied Poland, there is still a tendency among academic administrators to enter into international linkages and exchange agreements at the institutional levels, rather than fostering of the potentially more beneficial one-on-one linkages between individual professors and their research programs.

Student retention at Polish institutions of higher learning has never been a concern to their administrators, and graduation rates have been unusually low by American standards.

Polish academic institutions have never conducted outcomes assessment of their teaching efforts, nor have they followed up on the fates of their alumni (outcomes assessment initiatives are still a relative novelty even in U.S. academic institutions). No Polish institution of higher learning has ever kept a database on its alumni. These databases must now be built from scratch for fundraising and other purposes. In line with the tradition originating in Germany, there is a longstanding requirement for senior academic staff to obtain a Higher Doctorate (the so called habilitacja), the granting of which is a prerequisite to being considered for full professorship. Habilitacja is granted only upon a recommendation from a national committee (Centralna Komisja Kwalifikacyjna). The official explanation for this requirement is quality control, but in reality habilitacja has often failed to become such a measure. As one evidence of this failure, perhaps also related to the lack of sufficient visibility of Poland's domestic research activities on the international scene, is the fact that no holder of the Polish habilitacja has ever received a Nobel Prize in any scientific discipline.

The academic staff in Polish institutions has been traditionally hierarchical with little freedom or resources for scientific inquiry afforded to younger academics. Only senior members of the faculty can submit grant proposals to KBN as principal investigators, and to direct their own research teams. Younger academics are compelled to work for the senior professors without freedom to pursue their own research projects. In addition, owing to housing problems and a lack of tradition of workforce mobility, virtually all senior staff in major public universities are graduates of the same institution, causing a in-breeding problem. Faculty members elect presidents of public institutions to short terms in office, and only from the ranks of full professors at the same institution. Under these circumstances, the power and flexibility of presidents to make unpopular decisions are limited.

Full professors receive their prestigious honorific titles for life from the President of Poland upon recommendation from the CKK. In addition to senior faculty, these titles are awarded to individuals from publicly supported research institutions. The title of profesor is transferable between all Polish institutions and retained by the individual even if he or she leaves academia. An average age of an individual being promoted to that rank is higher than in America. Despite their prestige in Poland, some senior academics have never worked outside their own institution and have little knowledge of cutting-edge research abroad. The years of isolation from the West, poor knowledge of English and poor record of publications in internationally peer-reviewed journals are all legacies of Soviet-occupied Poland. For these and other reasons, the past composition of and judgments rendered by the CKK have been frequently subject to controversy. There is little evidence that this practice is about to change. In addition, the quality of undergraduate teaching has traditionally had almost no impact on promotion in academic ranks.

There is an acute shortage of young academics in their 20s and 30s holding or pursuing doctoral degrees, and little organized effort to attract non-Polish citizens to academic positions in Poland and to retain them in these positions. There are also very few international students currently studying in Poland. The Ministry of Higher Education accredited very few private institutions to grant doctoral degrees. Over the last twenty years, salaries of young academics in public institutions have been below poverty levels, forcing the best and the brightest to seek employment outside of academe. Joint appointments in public and private institutions are common, and they dilute effectiveness at both places of employment.

In the 1990s in Poland, a competition has developed between public and private colleges for students and quality faculty. Naturally, the entrenched senior faculty in public institutions want to preserve their privileges and avoid competition. Due to the current lack of comprehensive law governing the operation of institutions of higher learning, private colleges are perceived as having unfair advantage in their freedom to impose market level tuition and pay much larger salaries to the top quality faculty they wish to attract. On the other hand, there is a perceived advantage for faculty in all institutions able to teach, research and consult in fields in high demand by the Polish economy, such as banking, business management, and law. A disadvantage in research and consulting is experienced by faculty in such areas as basic sciences and engineering, due to the preference of international employers for new technologies originating in their home countries.

Some suggestions for Polish academia

There exists evidence of a renewed strife for excellence in teaching, research and service at Polish colleges and universities. Much of it can be attributed to the entrepreneurial efforts of faculty. Many Polish high schools have a long tradition of academic excellence and superior performance. Public high school standards in Poland have been usually superior to those in most Western countries including the United States. Admission to public universities has been very competitive. Despite financial problems, the graduates of Polish schools and universities compare well with their peers from other countries in academic preparation and achievement. Polish-educated scientists and engineers work and achieve remarkable successes at major universities, research organizations and industrial corporations around the world.

The academic staff in Polish institutions has been traditionally hierarchical with little freedom or resources for scientific inquiry afforded to younger academics.

With these assets in mind, the following possible steps are suggested for consideration and discussion among decisionmakers in order to generate future solutions to the existing problems.

Reorganize KBN and other state funding agencies. Publicize opportunities to apply at both public and private institutions. Provide matching funds from government and industry to those offered by private international sources such as the Batory Foundation sponsored by George Soros. Make Polish academic institutions less dependent on central programs operated by the European Community, but at the same time provide appropriate training for all faculty in application requirements and procedures. Consider appointing to KBN some senior academics (possibly of Polish background) from leading international research institutions. Require that all proposals, as well as final reports, be written, or at least summarized, in English. Add more transparency to the awarding of grants. Increase the number of elective offerings in academic curricula. Begin to emphasize distance-learning technologies and continuing education among working professionals. Forge links with private industry and corporate sponsors, particularly in the sciences and engineering. Develop new mechanisms for university outreach and service to all constituents. Encourage all colleges and universities to allocate resources to measure teaching and learning outcomes, and establish alumni databases and development programs. Consider the use of college athletics for institutional promotion in ways similar to those used at American universities. Work with national legislators to establish an income tax system promoting giving to academic institutions.

Abolish the tradition of inbreeding by introducing policies giving preference in faculty appointments to graduates of other institutions. Introduce sabbatical leaves at other institutions including industry. Work toward a future requirement for all academic staff to achieve and demonstrate fluency in English, and to publish in international journals. Establish a national program, similar to those of Taiwan and South Korea, to encourage young academics to obtain their doctorates at leading international universities and return to work in Poland.

Reconsider the requirement of habilitacja for promotion to full professorship. Promote to the rank of full professor younger individuals at the prime of their age, those who can excel in academic careers far beyond the time of their promotion. Develop national programs specifically targeting Polish expatriates with high levels of achievement in foreign academic institutions, particularly in the United States, Canada, Australia and Western Europe. Attract these individuals to the positions of senior leadership in Polish universities, the KBN, and the Ministry of Education. Such programs have been developed in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore.

Introduce a merit-based pay system for all academic ranks. Develop strategies for creating substantial institutional income-producing endowments. Introduce endowed faculty positions similar to those utilized in the United States. Increase efforts to recruit more international students into Polish colleges and universities. Last but not least, develop methods to increase faculty salaries and student aid packages

If implemented, the above recommendations should lessen the dependence of Polish academic institutions on the resources provided by Poland's central government and various European Community programs. Some of these recommendations can be acted upon with relatively few new resources required. A complete action plan to address the presented recommendations must be developed and acted upon jointly by presidents of all Polish colleges and universities, both public and private. This effort is very much needed at this time.


Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, 1994,

Chronicle of Higher Education,

Critical Comparisons of American Colleges and Universities: Index to Institutions in the Critical Comparisons Database. Memex Press Inc., 1997,

Division of Science Resources Studies, National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C.

Gourman, Jack. "Report of Graduate Programs: a Rating of Graduate and Professional Programs in American and International Universities," 8th Edition. Princeton Review (September 1997). ISBN 0679783741.

The European Report on Science and Technology Indicators (Brussels: European Commission, 1994).

"International Cooperation in Higher Education," Proceedings of the Conference organized by the Jagiellonian University International Cooperation Center and Central/East European Fulbright Center (Przegorzaly/Kraków, January 2000). In Polish.

Nowak, A.S., Szerszen, M.M., "Research Sabbaticals at American Universities," Engineering and Construction, No. 3(1997), pp. 125-128. The journal is published by the Polish Society of Civil Engineers and Technologists. In Polish.

"Research at Central and East European Universities," Proceedings of an international conference organized by the Jagiellonian University International Relations Office (Kraków, June 1997).

Ringel, R.L., "A Perspective on University Based Research: The Next Ten Years," a paper given at the University of California-Davis Fall Conference on the Changing Culture of Academic Research, September 1999,

U.S. News and World Report College Rankings 2000,

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Last updated 04/19/01