April 4, 2005
Arizona State University wants to make wholesale changes to the curriculum established for undergraduates in the late 1980s, in particular to general studies courses praised for broadening minds but disliked by students who say they are irrelevant to their majors.
The effort is still in the early stages, but could result in a fundamental shift in the knowledge and skills gained from a university education, proponents say.
The discussion is part of ASU President Michael Crow’s push to transform ASU into what he calls the "New American University."
Changing a university’s curriculum is often controversial. It can erupt into full-blown controversies, as Stanford University discovered in the 1980s when faculty members voted to replace a number of books considered part of the Western Canon with books focusing on ethnicity and gender. The university was widely vilified, including in letters to the university and in the editorial pages of national newspapers.
Harvard also began a curriculum review last year, directed by university President Lawrence Summers, that has been the subject of much debate.
In December, Milton Glick, ASU’s executive vice president and provost, created an 18-member task force comprised mostly of faculty members, to do a comprehensive review of the undergraduate curriculum at ASU’s three campuses.
The group, called the Task Force on the Curriculum of the New American University, is led by two professors, including well-known English professor Ron Carlson.
The task force is focusing on what the ideal ASU student should know upon graduation.
The proposed curriculum changes would apply to students enrolled in four-year programs, leading to bachelor’s degrees. Students must complete advanced courses and general studies courses, which represent about 25 percent of an undergraduate’s degree.
The instruction centers on foundational knowledge in subjects such as English, literature, mathematics and science. Advanced courses offer specialized knowledge geared to a specific major.
A major complaint about general studies courses is that their content is static and often unrelated to majors, particularly for more specialized science and technology degrees.
The task force hasn’t talked yet about specific changes. But some early ideas include adding interdisciplinary classes and continuing them over four years until graduation. Now, general studies are clustered in the first two years.
Carlson said the task force continues to debate how to make undergraduate education more meaningful. The opinions have been widespread, he said. One educator on the task force asked if they could keep things simple, while another indicated curriculum overhaul was long overdue, adding that he didn’t want to teach spelling to physics students, he said.
"Education is not about comfort," Carlson said. "It’s not to give them (students) a good job. It’s about giving them enough info for them to begin to think about what is a good job."
"We are possibly the largest university grappling with this," said Nancy Gutierrez, ASU’s vice provost. She said she only knows of small liberal-arts colleges that attempted something similar.
ASU last revised the undergraduate curriculum in the late 1990s.
The task force is expected to make a recommendation in May to two other ASU faculty groups. A final decision is expected by fall on the curriculum revision.