Opportunities and Imperatives for Change
After surveying the literature and speaking with hundreds of participants in multiple conversations, we believe this is a kairotic moment for undertaking revisions to the general education curriculum at CSB/SJU.
Presidential Leadership for Liberal Arts Education
First, the colleges have two relatively new presidents who have both affirmed their commitment to liberal arts education. In his 2013 State of the University address, Michael Hemesath stated: "The irony of critiques of the liberal arts is that the very changes in the world that might seem to argue for more specialized training--new technologies, previously unknown industries, competition from abroad--actually remind us that the ability to adapt to change in an unpredictable future and to learn new things are among the most important skills we can impart to students, and that is exactly what a great liberal arts education does." And in her inaugural address on September 21, 2014, Mary Hinton proclaimed: "At Saint Ben's we are educating for transformation. We are educating for leadership. We are educating for communities. We are educating global citizens for the democracy here in the United States and leaders equipped to face multiple and complex challenges around the world. We educate students who have a passion for service so that the education that we provide them is then utilized, by them, to empower and lift up their communities. We are unabashedly a liberal arts institution and we commit to illuminating that path." Our presidents are emerging leaders in the national conversation on the value of a liberal arts education, and we need to be confident that our general education curriculum is providing students with the best liberal arts experience available. Implementing innovative reforms could position CSB and SJU as leaders in liberal arts education and curriculum design.
Strategic Directions 2020
Second, our institutions have just completed a strategic plan for 2020, with the revision of the Common Curriculum as a key component. Approved by the CSB and SJU Board of Trustees in May 2015, SD2020 calls for the liberal arts experience at our colleges to be "characterized by an innovative and integrative curriculum that provides our students with the knowledge, skills, experiences and values to meet their professional and personal goals and shape their civic identity." SD2020 identifies the redesign of our general education program as a critical strategic priority. The plan states: "Develop a new Common Curriculum that is purposeful, sequential, integrative, and cumulative across four years. The new Common Curriculum will more intentionally link departmental and general education. The liberal arts will be foundational to all majors and minors."
Further, SD2020 calls upon faculty to create "interdisciplinary concentrations" that will "leverage our unique academic strengths and distinctions (e.g. our global focus or environmental programs) to broaden opportunities and credentials for students." As we describe later in this report, thematic course clusters can be part of a general education redesign proposal that facilitates integrative and reflective thinking on the part of our students.
A third reason for implementing changes to the Common Curriculum is the HLC Reaccreditation process. Every decade, CSB and SJU engage in a self-study and prepare reports to support continued institutional accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. The process for renewal of accreditation has begun, with a draft document due May 2016, the revised assurance document completed by August 2017, and a site visit by an HLC evaluation team during fall 2017.
In the report of the Comprehensive Evaluation Visit to St. John's University in 2008 for the Higher Learning Commission, the reviewers pointed out: "The new Common Curriculum has learning outcomes, but a review of them, confirmed by interviews, suggests that many are too broad to measure effectively. Individual courses in the program have participated in assessment, but the team found that the process for assessing general education as a whole to be only in nascent stages" (p. 5) The reviewers obviously came to a similar judgment in its CSB report, since the two institutions share a joint academic curriculum.
As we explain later in this report, a redesign of the general education program can include a worthwhile assessment protocol, with student learning outcomes documented through rubrics and e-portfolios (We explain rubrics and e-portfolios in Part B). While we won't be able to implement all of these potential changes prior to the next site visit, a general education revision plan will demonstrate significant progress on this issue.
SJU Learning Commons
While curricular redesign should not be compelled by infrastructure projects, the construction of a Learning Commons does offer another reason for implementing changes to the Common Curriculum now. According to the institution's own promotional materials, the SJU Learning Commons "is designed for the kind of learning and teaching essential to preparing our students for their future. This exciting building combines flexible classrooms, the latest technology and a variety of informal social learning spaces. It will provide faculty and students with the environment and the tools to fully engage in collaborative learning and innovative thinking." As we argue later in this report, the general education program at CSB/SJU requires both a director and a "home base." It is critical to make progress on general education reform at the same time the new Learning Commons is constructed, so that any new general education program can be included in the planning.
The Expectations of Employers
Despite skeptical general public discourse about the value of a liberal arts degree, employers recognize the value of a liberal arts education. Since high-impact practices are often embedded in general education curricula, another reason to revise the Common Curriculum is the value that an updated curriculum will provide graduates as they assume their roles as employees and citizens in a global society. In his article, "General Education Reform Process: A National and International Perspective," Terrel L. Rhodes points out that "the needs denoted by employers and business leaders for broadly educated graduates competent in applying their learning to real world problems, has sharpened interest in organization and delivery of general education" (2010, p. 240).
Faculty may be understandably nervous when the business community frames the value of a general education curriculum with economic interests in mind. Yet, the evidence demonstrates that prospective employers value both practical skills and the habits of mind that make graduates of liberal arts colleges intellectually curious and able to adapt to changing environments. In surveys conducted by Hart Research Associates for the AAC&U, employers indicate that colleges need to enhance their focus in the following areas: 1) written and oral communication, 2) critical thinking and analytical reasoning, 3) the application of knowledge and skills in real-world settings, 4) complex problem solving and analysis, 5) ethical decision making, 6) teamwork skills, 7) innovation and creativity, and 8) concepts and developments in science and technology (Rhodes 2010, p. 3). In recent surveys, 93 percent of employers believe that "critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving abilities are more important than a potential employee's undergraduate major" ("The LEAP Challenge," 19), and nine of ten of those surveyed say it is important to hire college graduates who demonstrate intercultural skills, ethical judgment and clarity, and the capacity to learn new ideas and concepts (Hart Research Associates, 2013). (For additional data on employer attitudes, see Appendix L.)
Paul L. Gaston sums it up this way: "Never before has there been so great a need for learned and adaptable citizens capable of taking apart and understanding complex problems, of identifying reliability and authority among the many sources of information, of appreciating the quantitative realities that may lie beneath the surface, of thinking creatively about solutions, of communicating to others the emerging results of their work, and of working with others to bring solutions to practice. In short, what general education can offer is what all students need to live in a complex global society" (emphasis in original, 2010, p. 10).
Although it has been less than ten years since CSB/SJU last revised its general education curriculum, the previous reforms did not originate from the grassroots and the process was not based on best practices as documented in the literature. As our institutions emerge as leaders in liberal arts education in the 21st Century, it is imperative that we address general education reform for the sake of our students.