Re-Visiting Gen Ed and the Mission of the University: 21st Century Pedagogy in the Pacific___
With the trend toward greater careerism and the increasing stress on students to focus on majors, minors (and often dual majors) in order to become more employable, we need a more academically responsible general education program to keep both our students and our institutions centered on what’s important. (Dickeson)
The problem in Dickeson’s call to students and institutions to remember “what’s important” is the “what.” Although faculty are responsible for the curriculum, many faculty of various kinds today, who are trained in increasingly specific fields and disciplines, are ill-prepared to tackle the broad question of what a student should take away from a college education. Indeed, the curriculum in a general education program is important, but many today are more interested in and see as far more important the job that college graduates are trying to get. Some, perhaps many, see that job as the direct result of the college degree. Whereas job training used to prepare new employees for work, 21st century America is moving toward college as job training. Not long ago, however, a college education was seen as a way to individual growth and enlightenment. A liberal arts education was part of the path toward the American Dream. Some saw this as a system of class and privilege. In Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, Tressie McMillan Cottom makes the link between education and oppression clear.
The new economy produced major changes in how we work. The changes have created more inequality, especially for women, minorities, and minority women. Political, economic, and ideological forces, either affirmatively or by refusing to intervene, made credentials produced in the market and for the market the only feasible solutions for millions of people who were made vulnerable in the new economy. This is the new credentialism. It is new because it occurs primarily in the market, profits from status-group inequalities, and offers little by way of a discernible public good. (179-80)
As colleges struggle in today’s new economy, the increasing presence of business people in administrative roles pushes them toward new economy solutions and this new credentialism. For small colleges and universities in particular, the quick solution of credentials, badges, and professional development credit is attractive, albeit dangerous. While these questions of job training and values are somewhat abstract and theoretical, the demographics suggest a more real reason for change in higher education. Vimal Patel, in “Want to Revamp Your Curriculum? Here’s How to Avoid a Quagmire,” writes about Plymouth State University and their gen ed revision process as a specific response to the numbers of potential students.
A 16-percent drop in undergraduate enrollment over three years spooked administrators at the tuition-dependent regional public university. They also wanted to better prepare students for an increasingly interdisciplinary world, whether they went on to industry or to graduate school, says Donald L. Birx, who became president in 2015. (Patel)
The process of change today, and in particular, the revision of the core curriculum is grounded in the context of the public good and the very real need for institutions to address the changing student population. The conversation on the liberal arts is a global one, and one I hope to engage here. My contribution is ground in praxis, not theory. I am thus forgoing the forest to get right at the tree, one tree. Chaminade University of Honolulu is a small tuition-dependent university in the midst of the Pacific. This is how we are addressing the liberal arts and a revision of our general education curriculum.
The current core curriculum requirements at Chaminade University requires the completion of 59 to 62 credits culled from a rather large assortment of classes further divided into the following categories: basic skills, the humanities (the largest section), global awareness, behavioral science, social science, natural science, interdisciplinary, and upper division electives. In the fall of 2017, under the direction of the incoming President, and then at the charge of the Provost, the faculty was invited to revise and re-create a new Core Curriculum/General Education at Chaminade. The Provost described such a program as one that would be aligned with the mission of the University, with its Catholic and Hawaiian interests; maintain our commitment to the five core competencies as outlined by our accrediting body; and be measurable via Program Learning Outcomes that will include student-centered practices across disciplines. The Provost requested that the Faculty Senate review and agree upon such a structure by the end of the academic year, 2017-18, so that the administration could implement it in the fall of 2018. What follows is a quick overview of what that process looks like at a small University in Hawaii. Two broad questions drive this effort, and the first concerns the faculty and curricular revision. The second question is about how the faculty and the administration might work together to revise and strengthen academic offerings. In higher ed, such a process is called shared governance. I offer the following summation in hopes of contributing to the growing body of work on the liberal arts, the gen ed or core curriculum, and 21st century change in higher ed.
The process of a general education core curriculum revision began in August of 2017, under the guidance of the 2017-18 Faculty Senate President, with an invitation at a Faculty Senate meeting to review the gen ed curriculum. To help the Faculty Senate President at Chaminade, a Steering Committee of eight elected faculty meets monthly with her. Starting with and moving through the Faculty Senate President and Steering Committee allowed faculty themselves to search for programs and then share them. Faculty were encouraged to look at schools similar in size and mission, but there was no overarching guidance or direction. The Faculty Senate President invited faculty by electronic survey to express interest in and join an ad hoc gen ed committee. The Faculty Senate President sought representatives of each Division in an effort to include all faculty on the committee, even though the gen ed curriculum is not something faculty from all the Divisions teach. Based on the results of the survey, a “Gen Ed Ad Hoc Committee” of twenty faculty was established. Membership was shared via email in October of 2017. At this time, faculty began organically sharing readings of interest both in a Google Drive folder and by email. At the end of October, the administration brought in a colleague from another Marianist University to consult with faculty and share ideas. The Faculty Senate President also surveyed faculty via email in an attempt to define a CUH gen ed curriculum. Faculty were asked to complete the following sentence: “A Chaminade gen ed program…” The email attempt at definition led to a Google doc with a collection of the assorted responses. This collection of ideas around a Chaminade gen ed program was shared with the faculty at a Faculty Senate meeting in November, and in that same month, the Provost charged the faculty with revising the gen ed.
Although the Gen Ed Ad Hoc Committee had only been roughly (digitally) assembled, and had not yet met in person, the direction of the work so far was led by the Faculty Senate President, who serves for one academic year, and the Steering Committee (of eight). The gen ed definitions and criteria were shared with the faculty as a whole in December, and, at the Spring Faculty Retreat in January, faculty from the committee shared gen ed programs they found to be good models for the University. As this work was beginning that fall, but before the committee had even gathered in the flesh, there were a number of difficult and troubling email exchanges amongst faculty. These acrimonious email exchanges were destructive to the tone and the environment, making it a difficult start for what will be a lengthy, collaborative, and arduous process. A revision to the general education curriculum asks faculty from different fields and divisions to collectively craft a curriculum that most effectively serves the student as a whole. The student at completion, unfortunately, is often forgotten in light of major and minor requirements, what faculty see to be necessary depending on their own expertise and training, and the money allocated, paid to, and for disciplines that are now in competition with one another. These factors are part of what makes this process a difficult one for faculty to complete.
The Gen Ed Ad Hoc Committee met for the first time as a body in February, 2018, and used this first gathering to develop committee protocols and share readings. The Committee voted to have a single chair, the Faculty Senate President at the time, who had been leading the way with the help of the Steering Committee. The Committee agreed to meet on a monthly basis, in two hour blocks, for the remainder of the semester. No response to the Provost’s charge was discussed. The Committee met again in March, April, and May. Across these three months during the spring semester, attendance at committee meetings was generally around twelve to sixteen faculty members. A number of items were discussed and the Catholic identity of the University was often among them. The Marianist characteristics were agreed upon as the learning outcomes that met the mission. In addition, Hawaiian and Pacific values were discussed as an essential component of the mission. At the meeting in May, a letter in response to the Provost was outlined, as were plans for several three-hour meetings to be scheduled during the summer. Although there are online courses running during the summer, faculty in large part are not on campus. Attendance at these three summer meetings was, nevertheless, roughly twelve. It is important to note that there were small stipends paid to the twelve faculty who met and worked at those three summer meetings. Although the question of time and compensation was discussed, the faculty were ultimately unable to craft a request for time and compensation.
In June of 2018, the Gen Ed Committee responded to the charge from the Provost in a letter, setting forth four reasons for the gen ed revision:
- Enhance the quality of education that CUH students receive;
- Contribute to the further representation of CUH as a Marianist, liberal arts college;
- Contribute to an increase in enrollment; and
- Demonstrate to WSCUC that CUH continues to improve the Marianist/liberal arts agenda at CUH.
In closing, the acceptance stated: “We trust that our efforts will have the support of the Administration, and that the administration will give any suggested revisions to the general education requirements at CUH the most serious consideration for implementation.” The letter speaks to the need for shared governance more than it does the gen ed revision. The faculty who are doing this extra work without compensation, and with no release from teaching and service duties, do not want this work to go to waste. The two mentions of the Marianist tradition and the “liberal arts” serve to anchor this discussion of the general education within these two spaces. After meeting in June, July, and August, in three three-hour meetings, four rough models began to take shape, each led by a faculty member eager to contribute and share.
In the fall of 2018, the Gen Ed Committee met several times to narrow the models and prepare a pitch to the entire faculty via the Faculty Senate. Two meetings in September were devoted to exploring the ways by which the models worked together, or for similarities that might allow one model to be combined with another. The first proposed model was the adoption of the Interstate Passport model, an already established system that provides for smooth transitions from one college to another. The second model – “Skills, Values, and Diversity of Knowledge” – included a set of classes to address skills and values, and then required students to complete a minor outside of their major. The third model, “Themes,” reduced the credit requirement, established a set of courses to be completed as foundational, a second set grouped thematically, and a third stage culminating in a capstone project. Finally, the fourth model, “Civic Studies,” started with domains and outcomes that grouped into a larger framework of themes, also culminating in a capstone course. Albeit rough, each model was structured around basically three spaces or consecutive steps.
The intent at this point was for the Committee to develop a single model to present to the faculty, but the problem of selecting one proved challenging. Aside from the “Passport” model, the other three all reduced the number of credits in the core curriculum. Both the “Themes” and “Civic Studies” models included groupings (foundations, domains, themes) that ultimately led to capstone courses emphasizing interdisciplinarity, as well as a gen ed committee that would be developed to oversee and implement the program on a regular basis. In October of 2018, the Committee met to review the four models and select one to present to the faculty. The “Skills, Values, and Breadth of Knowledge” model was voted to be presented to the faculty for discussion later that month. This model sidestepped the core curriculum in large part by asking students to complete a minor outside of their major.
In that same month, October of 2018, the Gen Ed Committee held a faculty town hall meeting to present and discuss the “Skills, Values, and Breadth of Knowledge” model. At this point, the model was up for discussion across all divisions of the university. The divisions discussed the model amongst themselves, and a small AAUP chapter requested to speak with members of the Committee so as to better understand the implications of adoption of the model. Changing the gen ed now meant a reduction of classes, which caused many to fear for their jobs. Faculty also expressed concern over which classes would continue to be included, or how classes would be selected to be included in the new gen ed curriculum. In November, the Committee surveyed the faculty with regard to “Skills, Values, and Breadth of Knowledge” via Google forms. Faculty expressed both praise and concern, but largely questions about the model. Notably, this model did not include outcomes or a narrative that explained the gen ed curriculum. Just like the model already in place, it was a collection of classes (now smaller in credit size and as yet to be determined) without an organizing structure and narrative. More importantly, the model equated a minor outside of the student’s major as the gen ed curriculum. While this suggests the possibility of greater breadth of study, it also further compartmentalized a student’s study into now two foci: that of the major, and that of the minor. What would be lost in such a move is the interdisciplinary work that would be accomplished through the capstone project of the “Themes and Civic Studies” models.
In December, 2018, the Committee met with an open invitation to all faculty to address growing concerns over both the process and the content. Those faculty members who attended but were not a part of the committee requested to be allowed to vote, and the Committee voted not to allow them to vote. The Committee then revised the “Skills, Values, and Breadth of Knowledge” model to no longer require a minor, now calling it “Skills, Foundations, and Values.” This new model, building off of the “Themes and Civic Studies” models, took on a capstone course and a gen ed committee to oversee and run it. The Committee also voted to use the framework of the Interstate Passport model as a way to situate Chaminade easily amidst other colleges already using that model. This will mean the revised gen ed to be something that will eventually fit within that template.
At the Spring Faculty Retreat, in January of 2019, the Committee presented the “Skills, Foundations, and Values” model to the faculty. The Committee began by sharing the goals of the revision, offering something slightly more streamlined than the four-pronged purpose articulated in the letter sent to the Provost in June of 2018: “1) to reduce the number of required gen ed credits and 2) to improve the value of a liberal arts education at Chaminade.” The Chair of the Committee, now no longer the Faculty Senate President, introduced the model and summed up the work done by the Committee over the previous 18 months. A panel of Committee members then shared their thoughts on the model and process. Although the model provides a kind of structure, there are no learning outcomes, nor is there a narrative that explains what organizes or drives the set of classes offered under “skills” and “values.” These first two groupings would occur in the first and second years, and a new capstone course is now to be offered in the third and fourth years. The proposed model would reduce the number of credit hours by roughly 17 credits, which is a reduction of some five or six classes, which is the first of the now two reasons for revision. The second purpose, however, to improve the value of the liberal arts education at Chaminade, is not clearly addressed.
While connected to skills based on core competency assessment and values outlined by "Characteristics of a Marianist Education," the collection of courses remains much like the current model. What is different is the capstone course and the possibilities for interdisciplinary work. Another key difference is the creation of an ongoing gen ed committee of faculty who will oversee and maintain the gen ed program. This committee is also a space of contention, for many have concerns about who gets to serve here, what their responsibilities will entail, what this means for faculty compensation and benefits, and what sort of power such positions will have. The University already uses "Characteristics of a Marianist Education" and the core competencies (written communication, critical thinking, information literacy, oral communication, and quantitative reasoning), so these are not new pieces of the mission.
The response to the model led to eight additional meetings of the Faculty Senate to address a series of motions generated in response to the model, before a vote to accept or refuse that same model. Those eight meetings took place across a little over two months, and the motions discussed and voted on allowed for new and exciting possibilities, revealed lots of personality conflicts, as well as some moves that seem contrary to the purpose as a whole. For example, confusion over a capstone project and the gen ed curriculum, seemingly equating the two as equals, resulted in the passing of a motion that will allow Departments with a pre-existing capstone project exemption from the gen ed capstone project. Indeed, many Departments already have capstone projects, which means the Departments that choose exemption could effectively reduce the gen ed capstone courses to very few, if any. If implemented, those faculty members who teach these gen ed courses will be facing a significant drop in students at a university already struggling with numbers. What will happen to these classes and to those faculty, as well as the students who will graduate without these experiences, must be anticipated and answered. Several motions attempted to bring the learning outcomes and narrative back into the model, only two of which were tabled and relegated to the Steering Committee. At the last meeting, an attempt was made to require a ⅔ majority vote on the proposed model, and this motion was defeated. This move meant that a smaller number of faculty would have a greater say in a curriculum revision that may well have no impact on them. As the discussion continued, the motion was called to question, and that discussion was cut short. The vote was offered electronically, and the faculty voted to adopt the proposed model.
The new gen ed curriculum is comprised of 44 or 45 total credits. In the first two years, under the notion of “skills” or “educational foundations,” students will take a series of courses equaling 22 or 23 credits. The first is a one-credit “life skills and college success” course: CUH 100. A collection of courses are then offered to address “writing,” “quantitative skills,” “oral communication,” “critical thinking,” and “knowledge of beauty and creativity.” In the third and fourth years, students will earn 19 credits by taking courses grouped around: the “Catholic Intellectual Tradition”; “education for formation in faith”; “integral (holistic) education/global awareness”; “education in the family spirit”; “education for service, justice, and peace”; and “education for adaptation and change.” The curriculum culminates in a single, three-credit capstone course to be taken in the third or fourth year, as a core curriculum, integrative experience. This could be interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary in nature.
The Faculty Senate meetings and the motions as a whole reveal the complexity, dangers, and rewards to a body of some 90 faculty members in conversation with each other. As a couple of faculty suggested in the last meeting before the vote, what the Gen Ed Committee is proposing as a model is a structure. The model is a structure (or system?) that still does not have learning outcomes, or a narrative that explains, holds together, or makes meaning of the aforementioned outcomes as a cohesive whole. It lacks curriculum. Yet what it does craft is an as-yet-to-be-assembled gen ed committee of faculty who will oversee the gen ed curriculum implementation. How long such a committee lasts; who serves; what powers such a group might have; what this service does in relation to other service responsibilities, teaching loads, pay and compensation...none of this has been decided yet. At a university where there are questions and concerns about compensation, tenure, and service responsibilities, it is imperative that faculty and administration work together to explore how and what this committee is and does.
There is still the possibility of the learning outcomes and the narrative that holds them together because of a tabled motion to have nine faculty do that work with a single course release for the fall semester, and delivery to the Faculty Retreat in January of 2020. A second motion was tabled that calls for both the outcomes and the criteria for acceptance into the gen ed via the new committee. A third motion that was tabled calls for the Faculty Senate to draft a resolution to be presented to the President, Provost, and Board of Regents guaranteeing a two-year period of no cancellation of classes due to low enrollment. These tabled motions should help the faculty move forward. The first two should translate into more curriculum, as well as clarity with regard to the committee and thus the process. That third tabled motion takes us back to the notion of shared governance and that letter drafted by the Committee in the summer of 2018 in response to the Provost’s charge. Shared governance asks faculty and administration to work together. The next step moves in that direction, even as it asks more from the faculty.
The gen ed revision was and is an enlightening experience. Our process, now almost two years in, is far from over. In addition to time, a revision like this requires collaboration, listening, communicating, critical thinking, and social skills - the very things the humanities crafts in its students. We have been fortunate in the leadership skills of our last and current Faculty Senate Presidents, both of whom have been positive forces for action and change. There are professional schools at Chaminade who see the gen ed revision as an opportunity to reduce the credits required and thus create more space for their own majors. There are faculty who are in no way involved in teaching in the gen ed, yet they are offered a voice as to what it should now include or be. There are faculty who have no interest in the revision, what it means, or how it works. There are those who want very much for the curriculum developed to be innovative and radically different than what it already is. At the same time, there are faculty who want to move forward simply because the process must go on, because faculty have been working on it for nearly two years now, and, regardless of the quality, something must be done. At stake is the future of the college, the mission, and what Chaminade students here in Hawaii will learn and become. The gen ed curriculum is the liberal arts tradition at Chaminade and thus how it is revised here determines the kind of education Chaminade delivers to all its students. In this tumultuous time for higher ed, Chaminade is not alone in this struggle for direction and focus. Sharing our process, which is still far from finished, I hope to expand this discussion and continue to move forward.
Cottom, Tressie McMillan. Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New
Economy. The New Press, 2017.