Students & Parents | General Education

No room for backsliding on SUNY’s core curriculum

BUFFALO NEWS   |  April 26, 2009 by Anne D. Neal

In 1949, campus leaders met in Albany to launch the State University of New York by uniting 29 disparate colleges. This month, university leaders and scholars met again in the state capital to celebrate the 60th anniversary of what has now become the nation’s largest university system: SUNY’s 64 colleges and universities enroll nearly 440,000 students.

As we toast SUNY’s high standing and distinguished history, we should remember it was not always this way. Indeed, it was only a few years ago that students coming to SUNY were faced with a diffuse general education curriculum characterized by low standards and inconsistency.

As recently as 2003, students could graduate from most SUNY universities with glaring gaps in their knowledge of such core subjects as math, history and English composition. Binghamton, Buffalo State and New Paltz required all students to take phys ed—a requirement they could meet with courses on rock climbing, bowling and badminton—but did not require them to study math or literature. Fredonia’s requirements were so watered down that every course offered in natural science, math, arts, humanities and social science counted toward the core.

Today, SUNY can boast not only of its size, but of the rigor and depth of its core curriculum. Since the fall of 2000, all SUNY baccalaureate degree candidates have been required to complete a firmly defined core curriculum centered on natural and social sciences, mathematics, foreign languages, Western and world civilizations, American history, humanities and the arts, information management, critical thinking and communications.

SUNY now seeks to ensure that its students graduate with the foundational knowledge necessary to become informed citizens and effective workers who can make sense of an interconnected world.

Rather than leave it up to 18-year-old freshmen, still inexperienced in the ways of the world, to figure out what they need to know, the adults—in this case the board of trustees—exercised their judgment and identified critical areas for students to study. Students, of course, remain free to choose from an array of courses to fulfill their requirements and pursue their own interests through electives, but the basics are covered.

Since adopting the core, SUNY has seen rising enrollment and rising admissions standards, both clear signs of heightened academic quality and increased educational prestige, and both of which in turn benefit students.

Given these positive results, it’s no surprise that when the New York State Commission on Higher Education recently recommended sweeping changes to the SUNY system, the core curriculum was not on the list.

SUNY now has an honored place in the history of higher education reform: It’s a shining example of how a multi-campus state system can implement a coherent general education curriculum. Indeed, when SUNY adopted its core in the late ’90s, examples of similar statewide endeavors were nearly nonexistent. Just about the only comparable effort was in Texas, where a legislature-mandated core was established in 1999. By implementing a robust yet flexible core within a vast statewide system, SUNY helped set a new standard for public higher education. That said, there are some disturbing signs that should temper our celebration. The commendable freedom given to each campus to set requirements under the core has resulted in certain schools playing fast and loose with distribution requirements. Students can now fulfill their American history requirement by taking an English class in “American Environmental Literature” at Fredonia State or a linguistics class on “Language in Pluralistic America” at the University at Buffalo. There are also unresolved questions regarding transfer and implementation at the community college level.

There is no room for backsliding. SUNY’s strong general education gives its college graduates a competitive edge. While students in other states can graduate with a patchwork of narrow and often trendy courses, SUNY’s graduates benefit from a coherent and cohesive general education requirement.

The core remains one of SUNY’s crowning achievements and its adoption marked a historic moment for American higher education. As SUNY leaders and trustees celebrate the 60th anniversary, may it be a reminder that high standards require vigilance and leadership. Let us hope they make sure we can toast the core for many years to come.

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. She recently participated in a conference celebrating SUNY’s 60th anniversary.


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