Many faculty in our colleges believe that undergraduate education is importantindeed as important as researchbut they do not think that othersfaculty, colleagues, chairs, deansshare that belief. It seems that we need to get out of the way and let the faculty deliver on their commitment to their mission as educators.
That is the challenge that LS&A Dean Edie N. Goldenberg offered the Univer-sity last week in her address on Undergraduate Education for Today and Tomorrow, which focused on the special role research universities can play in undergraduate education. Her presentation was one in the Presidential Lecture Series on Academic Values that commemorates the Universitys 175th anniversary.
Public has lost faith
Citing historical and current criticisms of higher education, Goldenberg said that the focus of the undergraduate experience should be on teaching students to learn to learn and providing them with the skills needed for a future workplace dramatically changed from that of today.
Complaints about higher education in the past century largely came from educators, Goldenberg noted, and that is appropriate. What is different today, she said, is that the criticisms come from outside the academy, echoing a loss of public confidence in virtually every profession in the country.
Citing the nearly 50 percent of general funds that come from tuition, mostly from undergraduate tuition, and regrettably low state support, Goldenberg observed that the justification for state support in the minds of most legislators and taxpayers is that we educate students, especially undergraduates. And, setting dollar issues aside for the moment, remember the force of public attitudes and consider whether our institution can flourish without such a focus. I do not think so.
Shaping a new workforce
New jobs in the 1990s and beyond likely will demand a college education and also will demand higher social and intellectual skills than those of todayability in reading, following instructions, thinking mathematically, reasoning, communicating clearly and dealing effectively with a demographically diverse set of co-workers.
What needs to be conveyed today more than ever before are an ability to learn how to learn and a commitment to learn for life.
Who better to convey that than a faculty that learns for a living, people who chose to pursue careers of learning?
The opportunities for learning are nearly limitless at a research university, Goldenberg stated, and the size and breadth of a research institution like the University of Michigan mean that many more areas of expertise are available to our students.
Universities, Goldenberg added, are learning communities and education is fundamental to our missionit is our core mission, it is what makes universities distinctive as institutions.
Redefining our focus
I believe that as we have taken on additional responsibilities and missions, we have progressively diverted our resources and energy until we have come perilously close to being hollow at our educational core. To restore this focus, Goldenberg said, does not mean that these other missionsof health care and technology transfer, of preservation and entertainmentare unimportant, but education is our core. I believe that every unit on this campusespecially every unit that receives general fundsshould make some meaningful contribution to undergraduate education.
Goldenberg noted that higher education has shifted from a homogeneous set of classical requirements to an elective system of secular education. Critics believe that the curriculum has become incoherent, socially irrelevant and devoid of shared student experience.
The dean does not join with those favoring a single required course for all as a remedy or, necessarily, a core curriculum, although it can have benefits.
Instead, she feels very comfortable in this liberal arts collegecharged with providing a high-quality liberal education rather than training for a relatively narrow range of work experienceswhere we provide no single course for every one of our students.
Steps already taken
Already supporting that approach in LS&A are theme semesters that invite students to take as many related courses as they wish, with faculty linking related courses through a cross-cutting thematic workshop, and interdisciplinary courses, such as the new one on global change that is supported by several LS&A departments, the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the College of Engineering.
Goldenberg also called for encouraging non-science majors to learn some science, and for an examination of the rigidity in some of our science and engineering majors [in order] to allow students to study humanities and social science and to participate in the creative arts and overseas study.
One of the great advantages of having the sciences, humanities and social sciences operating in close quarters under the roof of one liberal arts college is that we can promote broad exposure by our students to all of these areas, Goldenberg said.
Creating new collaborations
Students learn best when they are engaged and involved, when they cooperate with each other, and when their extracurricular activities reinforce their studies, Goldenberg explained. Nevertheless our primary mode of instruction is slow to change in ways that heighten involvement and encourage cooperation.
The Pilot Program, Residential College and the new 21st Century Program are three important points of collaboration in living-learning efforts already in place, and LS&A is just beginning work with the Office of Student Affairs to bring curricular and extracurricular programming together across the campus in ways that show similar potential for enhanced student learning.
Acknowledging that teaching and research are in competition at the U-M, Goldenberg said they neednt be.
Faculty at research institutions are often given the message that attention to students will hurt their research careers, their tenure and their salaries. Undervaluing education has entered our culture and our language. Teaching is something to be avoided. We teach our classes and then we get back to work.
This is not a new phenomenon, Goldenberg noted, adding that we are out to change this culture so that the many faculty who value their educational missions can feel supported rather than ridiculed.
This is being done by giving greater weight to education in our appointment, promotion and reward structure both for individuals and for departments. ... Our graduates and donors support this with enthusiasm as they write checks to permit more concrete recognition of outstanding education performance.