What does the University of Arkansas want? Does it want to continue its transformation into a great university or will it settle for the lowest common denominator?
In many regards, UA is poised to become a truly great public university. It has been attracting leading scholars from across the country, building state-of-the-art laboratories, establishing a nationally-recognized Department of Education Reform, and positioning its Institute on Aging as a leader in age-related treatments.
How then are we to explain the university’s intention to do away with its stellar core curriculum—a core that lies at the heart of educational excellence and has received national attention for its depth and rigor?
Under a plan endorsed by Chancellor G. David Gearhart, the current 66 hours of general education requirements at the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences would be brought down—or more precisely, dumbed down—to 35.
“What we’re trying to do in the state is get more students with baccalaureate degrees,” says Chancellor Gearhart. In a sense, it’s hard to find fault with such a commendable aim. Fewer than 20 percent of Arkansans 25 or older have a bachelors’ degree and only West Virginia has fewer four-year college grads.
Degrees, however, are not just manufactured on an assembly line. You don’t simply crank a lever to boost production. College degrees are earned and testify that students have received a well-rounded and excellent education—the type of education that imparts a love of learning and prepares graduates to become effective workers and informed citizens. What really matters is what went into acquiring the degree—otherwise it’s just another piece of paper. In its rush to graduate more students, the University of Arkansas seems to have forgotten this.
Under the proposed curricular overhaul, the foreign language requirement would be altogether eliminated. The math requirements would be halved. And the science requirement—a must in the 21st century if there ever were one—would remain, but in a thinned out version.
Such changes would in effect eviscerate a curriculum that has made national headlines for its breadth and comprehensiveness. Indeed, when the American Council of Trustees and Alumni surveyed leading universities from across the country for our college-guide website, WhatWillTheyLearn.com, we were surprised to find just how many allow students to graduate with a thin and patchy education. The University of Arkansas was one of the real stand-outs—it earned top marks for ensuring a reasoned and thorough general education for its undergraduates.
The proposed changes would also shortchange students by permitting them to graduate with troubling gaps in their education and do a severe disservice to the state, which needs more quality college grads. Employers highly prize competency in a foreign language, as foreign language is the gateway to global communication and true multicultural understanding. Surveys also indicate that employers are urgently in search of college graduates with strong quantitative skills—skills that are dependably acquired and honed through solid math and science classes.
The major impetus for this extreme curricular make-over is ostensibly the adoption by the State Legislature of the Roger Phillips Transfer Policy Act. The act quite laudably aims to eliminate obstacles to the transfer of credit for two-year college graduates who go on to continue their studies at a four-year institution. But the act only applies to transfer students. There are, therefore, excellent ways to comply with the legislation without gutting the core curriculum for all students.
In the interest of excellence and high standards, it is imperative that UA abandon this well-intentioned, yet profoundly misguided effort. While improving graduation rates and ensuring seamless transfers are important objectives, dumbing down the entire curriculum is no way to achieve them.
Arkansas has a chance to have a great university. Wouldn’t it be sad if it chose instead to have a mediocre one?
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent nonprofit dedicated to academic freedom, academic excellence and accountability in higher education.