When General Education requirements occupy half of your curriculum, it is time to consider reform. This task is never easy and the process is often quite lengthy. My question as a relatively new Dean was: “Does it have to be this way?” With new ideas and enthusiasm, I followed our president’s unveiling of a new strategic vision and direction with a call to reexamine General Education and consider curriculum reform.
Faculty can debate major curricular change at length without reaching consensus. Previously at our institution, a faculty working group developed a plan over the summer that was then critiqued and promptly rejected when faculty returned to campus. My goal was to establish a timeline and a set of guiding principles to facilitate the process. I offer the following as a potential way to overcome some of the typical barriers to General Education reform specifically and significant institutional change more generally.
First, as a political scientist, I was aware of two political elements of curriculum reform. Just like all structures, the General Education framework first sets up the “rules of the game” that provide incentives and constraints for, in this case, departments, professors, and students. Our old curriculum valued breadth and sought to compensate for the relatively small size of our departments by requiring more than our current resources (i.e., tenure and tenure-track faculty) could support. Part of this was because it was developed when the University had a slightly larger faculty and anticipated future increases. Another part of it, however, was symbolic. General Education requirements signal value, and all areas had lobbied to find a place in General Education. Over time, requirements (all worthy on their own) dominated the curriculum.
Second, as with the determination of any rule, constructing General Education requirements mobilizes special interests. The previous process used to get consensus on General Education had empowered special interests. To promote equity and attempt to keep the size of the curriculum manageable, each of four areas (Natural Sciences, Fine Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities) was allotted two distribution requirements. As a result of this decentralized process, there was great variation in the requirements. The Sciences required a science with a lab and a math course; the Fine Arts developed a lecture and a performance requirement; the Social Sciences dictated two courses from different disciplines; and the Humanities supported any two courses in its area. We also required two fitness and recreation courses and fourth-semester proficiency in a foreign language. As we added Intercultural Perspectives (IP) and Social Justice (SJ) tags, the choices became more limited. Then, we placed a pathway interdisciplinary program on top of all these requirements, completely tying the hands of our students. If you wanted students in your class, you tagged it as IP or SJ and participated in the pathway program. The requirements made sense to faculty, but the purpose of the requirements was unclear to students.
So, how do you go about implementing change? Many faculty wanted to focus on the latest addition—the pathway program. With the president’s announcement of a new strategic vision and direction, I pushed to reconsider all requirements in hopes of creating a more unified curriculum in line with our focus on making connections across disciplines. This process drew on insights gained from understanding that rules impact resource distribution and mobilize special interest.
The first step was to establish a set of guiding principles on which faculty could agree in the abstract. Our curriculum committee spent the spring semester listening to faculty and refining these principles. In the end, the guiding principles included:
- Focus on shared general education learning outcomes
- Promote student agency
- Simplify requirements to encourage flexibility and exploration
- Encourage faculty involvement in and commitment to General Education
- Be resource sensitive
- Support the University’s mission, core values, vision, and strategic direction
- Meet accreditation requirements for General Education
Faculty leadership of the curriculum is appropriate and essential. The guiding principles allowed space for faculty to create something new in a way that also supported University priorities. Such guiding principles can be an effective way to promote shared governance in the curriculum reform process. The University cannot offer a curriculum it does not have the resources to support. The guiding principles also centered on the students—the key part of the equation that often gets lost in larger debates. As Dean, I felt that I could support any faculty plan in line with these guiding principles. With everyone (more or less) on the same page, creativity could flourish.
The last best practice from our process is the development of multiple proposals. Summer is a good time to do concentrated work, but without broad faculty input proposals often fail to gain widespread support. To provide faculty options and promote innovation, we provided stipends to a set of faculty and convened a summer working group charged with developing at least three distinct proposals that fostered exploration and breadth through general education. After five days, this group proposed three models—a distribution model, a pathway model, and the concentration model, a truly out of the box idea. These exploration and breadth models were presented at the fall faculty conference in small group settings that allowed for questions and discussion.
Based on feedback received, model revision started. One idea that emerged was to standardize certain features across models so that someone was not attracted to one model or another based on a particular requirement. The foreign language and fitness and recreation (FRA) requirements were considered and voted on first, then plugged into each exploration and breadth model. It was also decided that all models should include a social justice requirement.
To honor the guiding principle regarding resources, the strategic planning and budget committee did a resource assessment of the language requirement, the fitness and recreation requirement, and the exploration and breadth models. For example, the committee reported that a four-semester language requirement resulted in fourteen adjunct sections, but a three-semester language requirement could be serviced with only one adjunct section. Such forecasting allowed faculty to make data-driven decisions.
In the course of ten months, we passed a three-semester language requirement, a two-course fitness and recreation requirement, and the distribution exploration and breadth model with six required courses in six different disciplines across four areas. Two months later we changed the last element of our curriculum (the pathway program that had been added most recently) to a less prescriptive, optional program. We then shifted to training advisors on how to present the new catalog option to students.
In reducing General Education, all areas ended up having fewer requirements and our students benefited from greater flexibility—one of the original guiding principles. As we advised in spring 2017, 822 of our 967 returning students chose to change catalogs. This level of buy-in from the students confirmed that the faculty had created a curriculum that appealed to our students. We truly have a flexible General Education program that promotes student agency, makes connections, and can be supported with current resources—all of which are priorities found in our guiding principles.