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The Role of Undergraduate Education in a Research University

22 March 1996

d.gif (1087 bytes)r. Elizabeth Kennan, past president of Mt. Holyoke College and a former faculty member at The Catholic University of America (history department / medieval and byzantine studies), spoke to the faculty of Catholic University about "The Role of Undergraduate Education in a Research University" on Friday, March 22, 1996.

Thank you very much. I'm delighted to be back at the university which gave me the best of my own education, and made me a medievalist in the true sense of the word. Fresh from graduate school I joined a distinguished group of scholars here in all the medieval disciplines from canon law to Coptic studies, and I struggled to swim in their company. Indeed, the origins of the programs that Father Wippel [ed. note: The Rev. Monsignor John F. Wippel, academic vice president, who gave opening remarks] referred to earlier were no more grand than a heartfelt desire to welcome others, young scholars like myself, perhaps as narrowly trained in a single specialty, to the community of knowledge which always exists here in potentia, and at our best, or at your best now, in actu. This is a great university. Its dimensions, sadly, are mostly known by those who have been privileged to live or to work here. A university made great not only by the achievements of individual scholars, but also by the genuine sense of mutuality deriving in large part from the Catholic tradition and the Catholic reality of the institution.

This is, in its origin, of course, a graduate university. The significance of that fact is still seen in the topography of faculty work loads. Over 45% of your time is spent in graduate education. But through the years the university's undergraduate commitment has caught up with its founding mission, and now the balance is slightly tipped in that direction. Almost 55% of your resources are expended there. For you, for the faculty, this presents an acutely difficult requirement: to balance your efforts between the search and the kind of teaching at the graduate level which is embedded in research, and teaching at an undergraduate level, which has been intellectually more declarative, but emotionally more exhausting.

The temptation is always present for those of us whose initial calling may have been to scholarship itself to ask why we should devote now more than half of our time to undergraduate teaching and whether the rewards for the institution are so great as to justify its claims on us in this regard. You would expect me, as one who left here to go to an undergraduate institution, to speak for those claims. And I shall. There are, of course, all the reasons you would expect to hear from a retired administrator. Undergraduate education, when done efficiently and well, can provide for larger potential for tuition income than graduate education, law school excluded at the moment. The first half of the decade of the 1990s would seem to belie that assertion as we all, including Catholic University, saw the effects of the shrinking pool of the 18- year-old cohort each year with the consequent diminution of our own enrollments. Competition among us as institutions for students led to price discounting in the form of financial aid and further eroded our tuition income. In the same period, as we are all very well aware, certain of the professional school experienced growth nationwide. Most notably, of course, again, the law schools, and these became engines of growth within the universities.

The trend, of course, is reversing now. And while no one is predicting a collapse or even a serious erosion of law school enrollment, the demographic basis for steadily increasing undergraduate enrollment is present and is likely to be the most positive growth factor among universities over the next 5 to 10 years. But, there is beyond this "argument from mannon" a mission to undergraduate education, which the Catholic University of America can hardly turn its back upon. It is, baldly put, an obligation to form our next generations in the full moral as well as intellectual scope of that term. Not only is education in this country largely secular, as it must be given our Constitution, it has also in the past two generations been largely stripped of all emotions of value. The bitter political divisions of the Bush era painted our valueless universities in morbid colors, but did little to rectify the situation. Only institutions in which a value system is embedded by definition can work effectively to reassert the timeless value of formation. Catholic University can do this. A few others can do so as well, and the nation is in great need of your work. But, even if we concede the importance of undergraduate education and the commitment of this institution to it, the dilemma of the faculty of constant balance between graduate and undergraduate teaching still informs our lives, your lives, here. Indeed it is made far more uncomfortable at this moment by the technological changes which have affected our modes of study and communication in the past 15 years. And, by the educational changes at other levels of the school system which affect the needs and expectations of our students. I suspect that this is the reason you have begun this admirable series of faculty seminars and faculty meetings, in order collectively to sort out your options and move in your best tradition towards an adjusted definition of your work together. You will need to accommodate the new realities, but still retain the treasure embedded in that very balance between graduate and undergraduate teaching, between discovery and declaration, which has characterized that dichotomy.

You are in good company. There is not a college or university of the first tier, that I know of, which is not now reassessing curriculum and teaching modes to adjust to the extraordinary changes both in our market and in our modality.

The Coalition on Financing Higher Education (COFHE), with the University of Pennsylvania's lead, has begun an major series of exploratory seminars on the transformation of the university in the electronic age. The Mellon Foundation, as this institution knows well, has long been preparing us for curricular change by a series of funding initiatives to support new combinations in the curriculum. The National Science Foundation has just over the past two years launched a set of projects nationwide to remodel the teaching of college calculus in ways intended to transform teaching subsequently in the life sciences, and now the Pew Foundation this summer will announce the first Pew leadership awards designed to honor monetarily those institutions which have been most successful in the intricate task of thorough going curricular reform and renewal.

Members of this faculty have already been involved in utilizing electronic tools in curriculum development as well as in scholarly research. A number of your schools and departments have pages on the Web, a few of you have published electronically, and many of you use hypertext or other software in classroom instruction. The Department of Modern Languages has a multi- media center and there are four smart classrooms and plans to create more. And the fiber optic network, I understand Brother Patrick is growing, as we speak.

Change is coming by individual initiative and the university is working to keep pace with it. What we are addressing here, and what I would like to address with you this afternoon, however, is change of an entirely other magnitude. If this university is to function effectively and efficiently in the competition of the next century, I think your students are to do so. There must be some commonality of planning, not only in the expenditure of resources for the new technology but also in its deployment. And in intellectual commitments which give coherence to that deployment.

We are speaking now than nothing less of a transformation of the university in this country. In the face of that we must think and act together -- not quickly, but concertedly.

When faced by the possibility of change on this order, it is very difficult to know where to begin the discussion, and very tempting to be guided by homegrown exemplars. But it is crucial to establish a university-wide vantage point and to see the utility of individual initiatives from an institutional perspective. To do so, it is useful to focus initially not on electronic advancement but on student experience, and among them -- first of all, among those of undergraduates. I say this not only because of the moral weight or the financial imperatives of undergraduate education, but because for these students there is a real commonality of experience and it is possible to make meaningful change on the broadest possible scale in their curriculum. It is also true that they, the undergraduates themselves, by virtue of their earlier experience, are drivers of technological change.

There is an enormous literature, most of it in the popular press, which describes the technical wizardry of the very young and increasingly of the adolescent. A literature which would urge us to provide every form of mediation, from smart classrooms to receiver farms for the enhancement of learning.

Colleges and universities which have handled these matters best, however, have not begun with software upgrades, but with studies of their own student retention rates and of the elements in education at their universities which create an enduring undergraduate experience. Surprisingly, such examination brings us quickly not to the undergraduate's technical expectations but to her or his desire for the university to aid in the often wretched transformation of life from late adolescence to adulthood.

The retention studies with which I am familiar -- and none of the good ones are published -- find that students transfer for a myriad of apparently insubstantial reasons. They don't like the locale, the social life is abysmal (that's one that women's colleges hear, usually), they need to be closer to their parents, or occasionally they admit that they want to pursue a course of study that their matriculating university doesn't have. But, of those students who explore the option of transfer the ones who decide to persist in their studies at their original school usually do so because they either found that they were able to explore and express their individual concerns within its curriculum in an independent manner, or they were given individual mentoring by members of the faculty who permitted them to experience individual growth that was deeply satisfying. It short, the conditions of secondary education and perhaps of society at large, has intensified the age-old desire of undergraduates for individual faculty attention -- something that breaks our hearts when we are trying to figure out how to spend our time across the myriad of responsibilities that we have.

But it appears often that these conditions have sharpened the students' sense of their own need to improve their self expression, both to know their own minds and to articulate their thoughts to others. Astonishingly, every study that I've seen in the last five years shows that students want to learn to write. It's no surprise, therefore, that the rash of curricular revisions that have gone on in the past 10 years have yielded 2 principal forms of experimentation.

The first has been the creation of courses multi-team taught, often extending over two semesters which provide an overarching intellectual theme of great power and which are taught in a combination of lectures and very small seminar-like faculty-led sections. The second is the introduction in various forms of a program of writing across the curriculum, in which the burdens of English 101 or its variants are shared among faculty in both the arts and the sciences who coordinate their efforts closely to see that the principles of prosody and rhetoric are taught, monitored and largely achieved in many disciplinary courses at the introductory level.

It would seem, on the face of it, that both these experimental ventures would disproportionately rely on faculty in the arts and the social sciences. Here traditionally has been the greatest stress upon writing, and here collaboration on a given intellectual theme would seem most feasible.

But this is not the case. The very first interdepartmental, and indeed multi-divisional course adopted in the 1980s at Mount Holyoke was entitled "Quantitative Reasoning." It was based upon the premise that certain mathematical principles of analysis -- including but not privileging statistics -- were necessary tools not only for research in a variety of disciplines but for the exercise of ordinary citizenship in a world of expert testimony.

Quantitative Reasoning drew and still draws its faculty from mathematics, physical sciences, economics, psychology, the life sciences, history, English, and art history. Faculty participating have occasionally been given relief time from their other courses to plan the syllabus and periodically to renew it and to participate in faculty seminars that would bring their own mathematical procedures into harmony. The sense of team effort in an admittedly arduous undertaking, has spread to the students and the course has become a major focus of the first two years of the college. Similarly, writing across the curriculum has successfully recruited faculty from a number of introductory sciences courses. Laboratory reports in those courses are considered as pieces of writing as well as reports of experimentation and there is considerable faculty-student interaction on form as well as substance -- an interaction made more effective now by the use of electronic mail for exchanging drafts and criticisms.

Renssaeler Polytechnic Institute in a well-publicized initiation has restructured its introductory sciences courses taught on CD-Roms and electronic mail to replace lectures, centering student work on laboratories and supplementing that experience with faculty tutorials. This has meant a radical realignment of the use of faculty time at the introductory level, but probably not an increase in the overall faculty commitment while the design phase is completed. For the students it has been an extremely rich experience with opportunity to pursue individual interests within structured context and to benefit from very close faculty contact. When such an experience is compared to the traditionally lecture and laboratory setting, the transformation is notable.

The arresting fact about this and to a lesser extent the other curricular redesigns that I've touched upon, is that such courses no longer present undergraduate teaching in the declarative mode. They must, of course, profess for the discipline and its techniques must be mastered. But the role of technology has been to assume the burden of explanation, or in the case of language instruction, of iteration, permitting students to revisit the argument or the exercise at will. Faculty-student interchange now focuses on the student's processes or his or her written work. What is more, electronic communication between students and faculty at a time when the big project is developing makes the teacher's comments more timely and also reduces contact hours, making faculty more efficient. Undergraduate teaching and undergraduate experience can in this setting cease to be purely declarative or largely declarative in the first two years and begin to approach at a much earlier point somewhat more closely the graduate pattern. And, with Fr. Wippel's permission, I'd like to touch on graduate education itself since we're talking today about some of the radical changes in our universities and their curricula.

As for graduate education itself we're now poised at the edge of change which I would be foolhardy to predict. Those of you in Greek in Latin will be familiar with the experiments in the last few years at the University of Pennsylvania, which began when a graduate course on Boethius was opened, free of charge, on the Internet. Members of the class on-site were required to summarize each class for the web site. The syllabi and the text were shared on the Net in full and the course bulletin board included all members equally. Enrollment in the first year was 400 people worldwide. It's interesting to note, however, that in the subsequent when Penn decided experimentally to charge for Net involvement, in the same course, electronic participation dropped to 4. Nonetheless, the Boethian course, together with myriad examples of laboratory collaboration involving very distant sites and dispersed participants give an inkling of the possibilities which may reshape graduate education in the future. At the very least Internet involvement and distant participation in experiments can make frontier research and training available to significant numbers of students who would not previously have been admitted to a given graduate program.

On the other side of the coin, the possibility of idiosyncratic interaction with students on the Net, not to mention the opening of video and data integrated telephony, may have the effect of weakening the ties of faculty to their home universities, raising acute questions of intellectual property. Who, for example owns the syllabi we prepare? We, ourselves or the university which pays us to create and teach our courses?

Before we race to conclusions, however, we have the stabilizing results of Penn's first experiment with Boethius before us. When Internet participation was free the response was overwhelming; when it was priced (whether it was fairly priced we do not know because the market has not yet been defined) the demand is marginal. What would happen if Penn were to grant degrees on the basis of Internet enrollment, is, of course, unknown. The only conclusion we can make at the moment is that we surely shall know in time.

So whether we know as a result of controlled experimentation and observation, or because events overtake us is up to us. And it is up to us, right now.

Early in 1997, the University of Pennsylvania, with the encouragement of COFHE and its member institutions, will hold the first symposium on higher education in the information age. Participation will be limited to 100, including university teams, CEOs from the communications industry, foundation and public policy leaders -- and that will be all. Modeling the future, onsite participation is already over-enrolled. But access to the Penn symposium through its web site will be free to all throughout the process. The symposium will focus on how emerging technology, and especially the communications media, will affect institutions of higher education not on the question we were initially addressing today -- how technology can be used by colleges and universities in instruction. Strategic concerns will be the central issue and among the topics identified are the effects of the new media on the residential nature of institutions, on the campus community, on people's involvement with the institution; the question I raised a moment ago of intellectual property rights; the effects, as we touched on earlier on pedagogy, research, information storage and retrieval; the financial implications within five years of a modified form of distance learning; the effects on our tuition income; the effects on the cost of running an institution; and the assessment of cost-benefit relationships in investments technology for the university and its various divisions. Admissions, certifications, are going to absolutely crucial, and credentialing. Potential new markets and demands on higher education, and partnerships and competition with non-academic institutions.

Affecting first graduate education where residential experience is not a particular concern, these possibilities have transformed distance enrollment, will potentially also take their toll on undergraduate instruction. Universities which already have low retention rates are likely to be particularly vulnerable to the siphoning off of their students by Internet enrollment or some other form of competition. This possibility already is already causing considerable concern COHFE institutions where the average graduation rate after four years is 80% and after 6 years is 90%. to compete in a market place where degrees might be granted via electronic connection to such universities or their proxies cobbled together by commercial enterprise will require that the rest of us examine the quality of our undergraduate education and the value of our residential experience, now.

We must ensure that we offer the highest and most expert standards of teaching and that we meet the real needs of students both to gain expertise and to negotiate the passage to full adulthood, assured of the capacity to participate in both professional and civic life, if we do not meet those standards at this moment -- and none of us does -- we have a span of years immediately before us in which we can redesign our work and bring both renewed energy and purpose to our enterprise.

That task is challenging, but it is not overwhelming. The structures for vastly more effective undergraduate courses now exist and soon will be made widely available through the Pew Memorial trust. The individual design of such courses, their intellectual definition and their pedagogic emphasis must, of course, be unique to every university and to each faculty concerned. And the effort to bring such courses into being, even then models of the structure are provided is considerable it almost always requires collaboration among faculty from more than two or three departments. It requires the hammering out of common questions and methodologies and the indispensable investment of faculty time in faculty seminars where new definitions and new combinations of subject matter can be worked out and shared.

We are all specialists, now. The great days of universal scholars has largely passed, even in this university. And we need to educate one another in order to make our own understanding more comprehensive and our questions more penetrating.

So writing across the curriculum a professional support system is absolutely necessary. Faculty know how to write and we all teach our students by our own standards. But there are shortcuts, there are more effective techniques and there is a profession of those who can sharpen our skills and also who can work in remedial ways with students who have deeper writing problems than we can cope with in introductory disciplinary courses.

Funds must be found -- and they can be found -- for such enterprises. Somewhat late in the day for a Pew or a Mellon Foundation or a national endowment to underwrite the effort. But when one's donors -- and, I daresay, one's bishops -- understand the implications of these changes for the future of the whole university enterprise they can be expected to find the funds to enable the necessary ground breaking work to go on. Our task, as faculty members, is to get on with the task at hand. We cannot wait until funding is provided. The future vitality and viability of our universities is at stake as is the state of our own intellectual ventures. We are the ones who have the most to gain and the most to lose.

Annamarie DeCarlo
Director of Media Relations
The Catholic University of America
tel 202-319-5600
fax 202-319-4400
email: decarlo@cua.edu


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Revised: 27 October 1997

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