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State of the University Address, 2005

SEPTEMBER 9, 2005

Harvey Perlman, Chancellor

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

General Education Reform

Ten years ago, I was completing my year as Acting Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. Since that time we have had four different chancellors, we have welcomed approximately 650 new faculty to our campus, and we have implemented new entrance requirements for admission to the university. Ten years ago we also completed and implemented our general education program, known as the Comprehensive Education Program. Many individuals poured considerable effort and enthusiasm into its development and its concept and its early implementation elevated our undergraduate curriculum. While it did not meet all of the objectives hoped for, it did create opportunities for students to expand their horizons by taking a variety of disciplines and to work on skills thought critical for a life of learning.

However, it is now time to revisit this program. A liberal education is central to a learning environment that prepares students for success and leadership in their lives and their careers - one of our core values. During the last several years there has been considerable national conversation about how best to provide a liberal education and the University of Nebraska should benefit from that conversation.

Our existing program has never been comprehensively assessed to determine if it in fact is meeting our objectives. A curriculum that now embraces 2,300 courses, some accepted by some colleges but not by others, can neither be said to be "general" or to be one with easily identifiable goals and objectives. This complexity also is a barrier to students enrolling at the university, particularly students who seek to transfer here from other universities or from community or junior colleges.

The Academic Senate during the last two years has sought to reform the program at the margins. It was a good effort. At the initiative of Vice Chancellor Couture and Undergraduate Studies Dean Rita Kean, a small group of individuals, including the then-president of the Academic Senate attended a national conference and has given thought to how we might approach what would be a significant curricular change. They have developed a thoughtful and sensible proposal for moving forward.

The proposal suggests there are several key characteristics that a sound general education program should embody.
  1. it should be elegant, simple, and transparent to students, faculty, and advisers.
  2. it should have a clear objective -- one that is widely understood and is consistent with the mission and core values of the university
  3. it should be integrated with and reinforced within majors and should be constructed so that it satisfies the graduation requirements of all of the undergraduate colleges,
  4. it should accommodate the progress of the full range of undergraduate students who enter the university from different sources, at different times, and with different objectives.
  5. it should be seen to enhance - to add value - to the undergraduate experience.
To fashion a program with these characteristics, we must identify the specific learning outcomes that we believe essential and common for all undergraduates. We must establish a set of structural criteria for general education courses that assure their accessibility and acceptability. We must establish a framework and the initial set of courses and experiences that meet the structure and advance those learning outcomes, and, most important, we must establish and assign responsibilities for the ongoing management and assessment of general education.

This process will require the participation and engagement of representatives from across the campus. We have established a general planning team as well as a broadly representative advisory council. I am delighted that John Janovy Jr., the Paula and D.B. Varner Professor of Biological Sciences, will chair this effort. Wide consultation with students, faculty and other groups will be a part of the process. We will need forbearance and understanding. I do not underestimate the difficulty of curricular change. I would, in fact, not launch this process unless I thought it was critical to the further advancement of the university - both to enhance the quality and coherence of the education we provide for undergraduates and to enhance the recruitment and retention through graduation of a student body that matches our goals and aspirations as a university.

We will not, in the end, have a perfect proposal. But, as Gen. George Patton almost said: "A good plan, passionately executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week." The issue of general education has been debated since universities were established. From conversations with Socrates to the Great Books program of Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago to our own version, in the end, not everyone will be 100 percent satisfied with the outcome. But I believe there is ample ground to improve upon what we have. If we can develop an acceptable initial program with management and assessment support, our program can evolve overtime, not as in the past by accretion and accident, but by thoughtful and cohesive refinement. This effort will not be regarded as successful until it is adopted in every undergraduate college.

The time frame here is ambitious but we need to get this done. We must set as our goal to have a program that can be adopted in the Spring of 2007 with a staged implementation beginning with the class that enters the university in the Fall of 2007. We are counting on faculty to take a thoughtful and active interest in this process from the outset so that we can achieve this goal with adequate opportunity for reflection and approval.

General Studies

We should also carefully consider whether it is time for this university to offer a degree in general studies. Many of our peer institutions have moved in this direction. Such a degree program would respond to the needs of many of our students who either purposefully seek a general education or want to keep their options open. We currently have too many students who remain in general studies unfocussed for too long in their academic career. We need to look at two complementary possibilities: first, encourage or indeed require that students make a choice sufficiently early in their careers to assure a reasonable prospect for graduation and second, open up the option of a degree in general studies, one that could provide more structure than we currently have to assure students receive the quality of educational experience we think necessary. There is, of course, a fine line here. We should applaud the curiosity of the student who enjoys grazing the offerings on our buffet of courses, but we do not serve well the student who never enjoys the satisfaction of eating a full meal, if for no other reason than the experience of doing so.

Teaching And Advising Initiative

I was very pleased last year to see the response from faculty to our initiative on teaching and advising. The University of Nebraska Foundation grants committee allocated almost $500,000 to this project last year. We have high expectations for the projects that we funded - all of which share a common purpose of further enhancing the undergraduate experience by enhancing student learning.

This year, the grants committee has allocated another $285,000 towards this effort. We have decided to place a special emphasis on improving and refining undergraduate advising. While some advising on campus is very good, we have other opportunities to help young people fashion their future. We should draw on our internal expertise as well as seeking outside advice in reviewing this important activity.

Interdisciplinary Structure

Across all missions, collaboration among disciplines is increasingly essential for success. The press of other issues delayed a proposal I made last year to examine the structure of the university as it supports or detracts from interdisciplinary work. We now have a task force in place to consider issues such as the management of joint appointments, the appropriateness of our current tenure clock to interdisciplinary work, and other features of our administration that might serve to make such activities more difficult. Much recently has been written on this subject including a very helpful book of best practices from the National Academy of Sciences.

During the course of our strategic planning efforts, it became clear that a process that focused on departments and colleges, presents challenges for interdisciplinary programs to achieve consideration or priority. As deans made formal presentations of their priorities to each other, several collaborative possibilities emerged. In addition to the deans themselves pursuing these opportunities, we have invited the Academic Planning Committee to review the unit strategic plans for the express purpose of identifying areas where we might capture the synergies of collaboration. We will also invite the APC to consider the broader question of how to assure our strategic planning process facilitates collaborative initiatives.

Communications

In each of the past state of the university addresses I have mentioned the need to bring more coherence and harmony to our efforts to communicate the strengths and accomplishments of the university to our external constituents. I challenged us to move toward a single voice that would be loud enough to compete with the single and effective voice that promotes our athletic programs. We all know that we have the content that needs to be heard. Across the university there are achievements of international significance and activities that enrich and promote the quality of life and economic progress in Nebraska and around the world. The accomplishments of individuals and units would not be achievable without the support of the university and the accumulated impact of these accomplishments is diminished unless connected to each other. To do this we must make clear both in the text of our publications and in their look and feel, that they are products of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

We have a single logo and tag line for the University of Nebraska system. For UNL we have adopted, within the framework of that logo, the Academic "N" as our official icon, and red as our distinctive color. Over the last year, working collaboratively with those responsible for communications in the various units, University Communications, under the direction of Meg Lauerman, has produced a design toolbox for publications that permits individual creativity within an overall look and feel for our publications and web pages. More than 180 individuals have been trained to use the toolbox. The Web continues to evolve through the coordinated efforts of the universitywide Web Developers Network. Those working on publications and web pages outside of the guidance of these forums do no favors to themselves or this university in our efforts to build a cohesive image as we present ourselves to the world.

I want to applaud the vast majority of you who have worked with us and are currently working within our framework to make our communications more uniform. You can see on a daily basis the results of your cooperation and good work. There remain, however, too many nonconforming publications that diminish the efforts of others. It is painful - yes painful - to see the number of Notre Dame green, Kansas blue, and Texas burnt orange publications that emanate from the University of Nebraska. Accordingly, I intend to take increasingly stronger measures to assure compliance with the guidelines so many of you have embraced. I will be honest. We do not have the personnel required to effectively screen publications prior to their distribution. However, beginning October 1, we will deal directly with units who are responsible for non-complying publications that come to our attention.

If I did not think this was so critical to our success I would not be inclined to state my feelings so strongly, but I know how really good this university is and I want an effective process in place to let others know as well.