Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, January 23, 2018

New proposal would reshape school identity

The University College, a proposal that intends to create a two-year program for incoming students to improve academic and cultural life at AU, is still in the process of gathering feedback from the community, including launching a Web site and conducting student focus groups.

The University College, which is intended to reshape the University's identity and help attract the best and brightest students to AU by increasing the connection between students and faculty, may include limiting classes to about 20 students, decreasing the number of adjunct faculty and restricting evening-block classes to incoming students.

"It will make a difference for every single student admitted to the University, and ultimately will craft strong and memorable bonds with students and faculty, bonds that will go beyond the classroom." said Nanette Levinson, the University College project team's chairwoman.

Enhancing the experience for first- and second-year students at AU reflects a nationwide trend within universities to encourage academic debate both in and outside of the classroom and to help students succeed during the first year, which is the most vulnerable time for a college student.

John Gardner, founder and former director of the National Resource Center for the First Year Experience at the University of South Carolina, said that while the first-year experience movement started more than two decades ago, it only recently became widespread among the higher education community.

Two years ago, U.S. News and World Report, which is known for its higher education rankings, added a ranking for first-year experience programs, which Gardner believes reflects the importance of first-year experience programs.

AU has used South Carolina's Resource Center, as well as other institutions' programs, to gather information and ideas for the University College, Levinson said.

"We are looking everywhere, we've got a notebook filled to the gill," she said. "Most excellent colleges offer some programs for their freshmen and some for their sophomores."

This includes schools students may apply to or choose over AU, said Nathan Price, special assistant to the Provost, who sits on the project team. Benchmarking other University's first- or second-year programs has led to ideas more than practices, he said.

"Every institution is different, and you need to focus on your own strengths and values and knit those together in a unique way," Price said. "There is no cookie-cutter model."

Stanford University and the University of Michigan are among the schools AU is looking to for their second-year programs, Price said. Other schools include Boston College, Lee University and University of Maryland-College Park, according to the University College Proposal.

"It's a major change in the way we do academic business," said General Education Program Director Haig Mardirosian, who sits on the committee. "The ideas are modeled after many other programs on other campuses."

AU's version, which is still in the works, is meant to further "cultivate the identity of AU," Price said, and would consist of a two-year program for freshmen and sophomores that is integrated with campus life.

Two years ago, AU President Benjamin Ladner summarized the goals of the University College in one point of his 15-Point Plan, which outlined his vision of the future of AU. Since then, a project team, composed of 21 members including students, staff and faculty, has been working on a proposal, and in November it released a report with general ideas on what the University College might look like.

Last Friday, the team met to discuss what community input has said of the report - which is more of a rough idea, than an actual implementation plan - and to discuss the next step.

This includes gathering more student feedback, which the project team is doing in ways such as launching a Web site (www.american.edu/academics/provost/UCPTreport.htm) and conducting focus growths through the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment. Levinson said community discussion, especially including students, is an extremely important part of the process.

The University College Proposal "needs to be fully vetted and critiqued and further modified by the community in order to gain the benefit of the many other good minds," Price said.

Junior Anthony DeAngelo, who sits on the committee, believes that not enough student input was gathered over the past few months and hopes that in the remaining few weeks students will weigh in on the University College proposal. The focus groups, Levinson said, is one way to do so.

By next fall, Price said, a second report will be released that will reflect the community's input and give a clearer idea of what the University College will look like, as its current vagueness has left many students, faculty and staff with questions.

"I personally feel strongly about the goal, which is to advance and enhance these kinds of bridges between living and learning, between the intellectual and the social experiences," said Price, who explained that the actual structure has yet to be hammered out. "I am more agnostic about the actual model for furthering that."

The University College will also be discussed again at the next meeting of the Faculty Senate, which is the governing body that represents the faculty and is open to the public. Academic departments have also been discussing the proposal in depth.

Many questions and concerns have arisen over the past few months, as the project team has gathered input about its November report, which outlines a handful of ways of the University College may be implemented. As a rough sketch, the proposal seeks to suggest ideas rather than answer questions, Price said.

"I've heard a lot of questions myself, these are necessary questions," Mardirosian said. "I don't have a sense of the overall picture of it."

The proposal was discussed at the March 3 meeting of the Faculty Senate, and while there were many questions about the proposal, the overall goal to strengthen the AU identity and encourage learning inside and out of the class was received well, according to minutes from the meeting. One of the questions raised, however, was how the relationship between the General Education Program and the University College would play out. Another is, simply, what would make students want to participate?

With no deadline on the horizon, and no details hammered out yet, Price is reluctant to estimates a time when the University College would be implemented, but suggested 2006 at the earliest. A pilot program, he said, would be launched before the University adapted it on a school-wide level.

"Nothing is set in stone as of yet, the ideas that have been put forth need to be developed more and need to be further thought out," DeAngelo said.

One of the proposals includes a freshman seminar class, where students would choose a general education class as a four-credit seminar, and students in those classes would live in clusters in the residence halls along with an upper-classman advisor that would link the classroom discussions to more informal debates and activities on and off campus.

However, clustering students together in residence halls by academic class rather than by random selection or through choice, has come under some criticism from student leaders. Levinson said the resident hall component of the proposal has been brought to the project team as the greatest concern.

The Student Confederation, AU's student government, has come out strongly against the student-life aspect of the University College proposal, saying it will limit students' freedom of choice.

Junior Nick Terzulli, the outgoing SC president, said that the proposed microcosms of students would disrupt student life and result in a "forced academic community."

"If students wanted to go to a small, romantic liberal arts college, they wouldn't have come to AU," Terzulli said. "In doing this, AU might loose its shaky identity," which he said relies heavily on AU's ties to D.C. and its growing international reputation, both in international students and in programs to study abroad.

Terzulli also came out strongly against the idea of creating traditions through the University College, saying that "traditions cannot be created, they are something that happen and reinforced over time."

DeAngelo agreed, saying "the ability to choose where you live your first year is taken away from you definitely infringes on the students' rights to choose"


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