General Education

BGSU considers future of general education

A group of faculty gathered in the Bowen-Thompson Student Union Feb. 11 to hear the results of a review of the University’s general education program and to begin the discussion about possible next steps. The resulting conversation revealed that, in the eyes of faculty, general education cannot be considered in isolation but must be part of the total picture of undergraduate education and, indeed, the University’s very identity.

Drs. Richard Keeling and Richard Hersh of Keeling and Associates presented findings from their study of the program’s curriculum, policy and requirements, and from intensive interviews conducted with faculty, staff and students during a visit in January. The study was commissioned by the Office of Academic Affairs and centered on three big questions:

  • Does the general education program at BGSU require serious institutional review?
  • Is this an appropriate time for such a review? Are there special opportunities in the current context?
  • If a review is to be done, what might be the best ways of proceeding to assure useful and positive outcomes?
The context in which the questions are being asked includes such factors as the recent appointment of President Carol Cartwright; the search to fill the provost position on a long-term basis; several interim deans; differing opinions about the role of Arts and Sciences in general education; a decline in enrollment and retention, and “a conflict between aspirations and resources,” expected to last another couple of years and maybe longer. These factors tended to figure in responses both pro and con to the first and second questions, Hersh said.

To the question of whether a review is needed, a strong preponderance of participants said yes—with the notable exception of the College of Musical Arts. Those who felt the program needed revamping cited not just “institutional cycle,” but their perception of problems with coherence of the program, confusion about its purposes, requirements and results; and with students’ perception that the courses were simply to be gotten through and not a core part of their education.

The students’ responses “exactly paralleled the faculty’s on this question,” Hersh noted.
For those faculty and staff who said no, it tended to be because they did not see any need for change and felt general education was working.

There was more diversity of opinion on the second question, that of timing, but again, the same reasons were cited by those for and against the review. The current economic problems, other major processes under way, turnover in top administrative positions and the loss of faculty positions were among the factors respondents offered as reasons both pro and con.

“Most people looked at this cluster and said this is the ideal time,” Hersh said. Some felt that faculty taking ownership of general education and thereby defining the character of Bowling Green more clearly would “make the provost search more interesting and BGSU more appealing to candidates,” Hersh related. Others felt some of the above issues should be resolved before tackling general education, while yet others felt the University had been waiting too long already.

In terms of prioritizing activities and stewardship of resources, faculty raised the question of the strategic planning initiative now under way and the mandate from the University System of Ohio that institutions define themselves and their centers of excellence. With these “fundamental types of core urgencies” at work, can BGSU undertake to redesign its general education program at the same time, they asked.

That point led directly to the expression that general education cannot, in fact, be a separate entity from the rest of the curriculum but is in itself a defining characteristic of any institution and the foundation for all majors. It should thus be folded into both the strategic planning process and the identification of BGSU’s centers of excellence, many in the room agreed.

“If general education is the soul of an institution, it must express some core beliefs of the faculty,” Hersh said. And if it is such a powerful form of curriculum and pedagogy, perhaps it should be a four-year program rather than two. Addressing a commonly expressed criticism of general education, he said, “If students perceive it to be busy work, with low standards, not tested for rigor, and they see no results in their learning, more damage than good can be done.”

However, creating a more rigorous curriculum—with, for example, more writing across all disciplines—would involve a good deal more work for all faculty. That question would have to be examined and possibly decisions made about what to eliminate.

“The faculty have to structure this or it won’t happen,” Hersh said.

As to the kind of process that should be utilized if the University does decide to conduct a review and revision, there was general agreement that it must be extremely transparent. Concern was expressed about “unintended consequences” of a review process and that assurances be given that potential consequences, either academic or financial, will be communicated and given serious consideration.

All respondents agreed that the process must also be one in which everyone can have a true part.

It also must have support from the upper administration “in a material way,” Hersh asserted, adding that in the team’s conversations with President Cartwright, they found her to be committed to the process.

Conversely, the administration would need commitment from faculty that it is willing to persevere through the process, which is time-consuming, and to embrace any eventual plan, Hersh said.

Hersh and Keeling recommended that there be a “slightly disruptive innovation in leadership.” This would entail a strong steering committee, a “process observer” who would monitor and report objectively on progress, and working groups who would create core models. A Web site should be created and updated frequently with authentic and transparent reports on activities, they suggested.

They strongly recommend that institutions hold retreats during which the faculty would have time to “really do what it does best—think,” Hersh said. Recommendations resulting from these extended meetings would then be taken up on campus. To be successful, Hersh said, “candor has to be the coin of the realm.”

Lastly, there has to be an element of fun, he added. Having plenty of time to engage in fruitful discussion creates energy, he said. But the overall timeline must be realistic: not so protracted that it drains energy nor so short as to be shallow.

The good news
On the plus side, in comparison with many other institutions engaged in a reexamination of their general education programs, Bowling Green has already accomplished significant and superior study and thinking on the topic. “There’s exceptional work here. The building blocks are in place,” Hersh noted. In its review of existing documents, the Keeling team reported, it found evidence of a “rich and sophisticated understanding of and commitment to a robust conception of outcomes-based general education. These documents effectively, and often eloquently, describe learning as holistic, transformative, integrative, engaging and developmental.”

If the University decides to proceed with the general education review, it must take stock of itself and what it already has in hand, celebrate what is good and weed out the rest, Hersh said.

“All good learning theory tells us that deep, true learning takes place in a state of psychological distress and disequilibrium. Within crisis there really is opportunity.”

Catherine Cardwell, interim vice provost for academic programs, said that review of the Keeling report will continue. Those who would like to comment or discuss it further should contact the provost’s office.
February 16, 2009