The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA
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Rochester's Better Blueprint

With substantial fanfare last April, the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates issued a report titled "Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities." Issued under the auspices of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the report can only be described as exceedingly negative in its assessment of the way collegiate education is handled in the nation's premier research universities.

The Boyer Commission, by the way, is named for Ernest Boyer, a tireless advocate for undergraduate education, who died in 1995. Upon hearing very shortly before his death about Rochester's Renaissance Plan to improve the arts, sciences, and engineering programs, Boyer called it a bold move and "an important development."

Many of the criticisms in the report bearing his name are not new (which, of course, does not make them any less sharp, if true). Basically, they boil down to the notion that faculties (and administrators) at research universities have become so invested in research and graduate studies that undergraduates are simply not being given the attention and programs they need (and, inferentially, could get at places other than research universities). The report concludes (although without any relevant financial data to back up the assertion) that "the students paying the tuition get . . . less than their money's worth."

I am profoundly disappointed in the report, its sweeping accusations, and its broad, often caustic, conclusions.

First, it is fundamentally flawed by assuming that these purported problems reside only within research universities. If research universities fail in the ways described by the authors, so do liberal arts colleges. I cite a few (of many) such examples in the report:

(1) "The 'general education' requirements are now near extinction at many research universities; what has survived is often more influenced by internal university politics than educational philosophies. The freshman experience needs to be an intellectually integrated one, so that the student will not learn to think of the academic program as a set of disparate and unconnected requirements."

This statement is as true (or not) for liberal arts colleges as it is for research universities. More important, the implicit longing for a core of "general education" requirements is itself highly debatable. There is much to be said for freedom of choice, as well--freedom for the student to pick fields and discover interests within a coherent framework that adheres to the liberal-arts ideal of "breadth" and "depth." (More on this in a moment.)

(2) "A supportive atmosphere for adjustment to university life can be created by block scheduling cohorts of freshmen into two or three courses during their first semester or year."

Again, this statement is unrelated to research universities; it would be equally true (or not) for residential liberal arts colleges. This idea works only if one buys into the authors' curricular vision of an integrated first year in which all students take the same "general education" courses. There is another vision evident at Rochester--the freedom for talented students to discover and pursue their own interests across the disciplines, from their first year here. To the extent one values a student's right to choose the areas in which he or she will study, the idea of "block scheduling cohorts of freshmen" simply will not work.

(3) "[S]ome others [of the instructors] may be tenured drones who deliver set lectures from yellowed notes, making no effort to engage the bored minds of the students in front of them."

Again, there is no attempt to establish that this is more likely to be true at a research university than at a liberal arts college, and it is far from the norm at either type of institution. Indeed, I would suggest that a faculty member who values research (and hence keeping up with a field)--whether at a university or at a college--is less likely to be a "tenured drone" than one who is at an institution where such skills are less highly prized.

I could go on with other examples, but I believe my point is clear; the commission's report is itself fundamentally flawed.

Second, the report evidences no understanding of a place like the University of Rochester. The basic thesis of the Boyer Commission report could not have been written by anyone who had watched events here over recent years.

To start with our core educational mission, and the curriculum: As I have written in a previous column, the recently enacted Rochester curriculum, with the concept of "clusters," brilliantly captures the essence of the ideals undergirding a liberal arts curriculum and the concept that the college years are about "learning how to learn, for life."

The curriculum works this way: A Rochester student decides on a major in one of the three branches of learning--the humanities; the social sciences; and the natural sciences and engineering. Within each of the other two branches, the student chooses and completes a cluster of three related courses that, among many choices offered, is best matched to his or her own intellectual interests. The word "related" is key. Unlike traditional distribution requirements or general education requirements, it requires students to gain some intellectual mastery in that cluster; they can't simply take one introductory course and call it quits. (The major and clusters constitute about one-half of the courseload; electives make up the other half.)

This, in my view, is substantially more compelling than general education requirements and block scheduling. Even if others disagree, our curriculum--the result of three years of faculty study and discussion --cannot be dismissed under any stretch of the imagination as a failure of a research university.

Nor have we turned over undergraduate education to graduate students and adjunct faculty. While, of course, we use both (primarily in laboratory or writing sections ancillary to another class), the vast majority of our courses are taught by tenured, or tenure-track, faculty. Thus, our students do see our "world-famous professors" and have ample opportunities to "tast[e] genuine research." We understand the compelling force of this, not just to our students while here, but to their lifetime experiences.

Our attentions have not been solely limited to the curricular side of affairs. Recognizing that a part of the special nature of the collegiate years is about the "place"--and the experience that occurs outside the classroom as well--we have been engaged in a wholesale reexamination of the residential experience.

Our decision in 1995 to reduce the undergraduate population from 4,500 to 3,600 was designed to ensure that the River Campus could comfortably and invitingly accommodate all those who live and study there, and thus reemphasize the special features of the collegiate years. Recently announced plans to renovate the sports and recreation facilities (described elsewhere in this magazine) come from the same impulse.

To be sure, there is a continuing need to focus on and to improve undergraduate education, not just at other institutions, but here as well.

But the point is that undergraduates, never forgotten at Rochester, are in fact central to our vision of the future. We indeed are in the process of reshaping undergraduate education at Rochester for the 21st century--with attention to the academic and the extracurricular. We are determined to have the entire undergraduate experience take maximum advantage of its setting within a small, national research university, which are attributes that clearly define our special advantages. We believe we can achieve the best of the liberal-arts-college world and the research-university-world--and continue to make major strides in that direction.

I invite you to campus to explore our undergraduate program. Ernest Boyer understood, better than the commission named for him, about the centrality of undergraduate education here at Rochester. Our campus is the best evidence I can think of to prove that the concept of a robust, exciting collegiate program within a national research university is far from an oxymoron.

Thomas H. Jackson

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