Trustees | General Education

W&M curriculum change debated

School will emphasize integrative classes starting in fall 2015
RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH   |  February 10, 2014 by Karin Kapsidelis

The College of William and Mary plans to launch a new general education curriculum that has put the nation’s second-oldest college in an ideological crossfire about what students should be learning.

W&M, which last revised its Arts & Sciences curriculum in 1993, will pilot some of the courses next fall and phase in the new requirements over four years beginning with the entering class in fall 2015.

“What Thomas Jefferson studied at William and Mary in the early 1760s is not what students study today,” W&M Provost Michael R. Halleran said as he briefed the board of visitors Thursday on changes the faculty approved by a slim margin in December.

But opponents also invoke Jefferson’s name to argue the new curriculum lacks a broad-based education grounded in fundamentals necessary for civic knowledge.

Halleran said curriculums change over time. Students arrive today “with different preparation than did students 20 years ago,” he said.

The new College Curriculum, or COLL as is called, adopts an interdisciplinary, integrative approach to how core courses are taught that will link content over four years across three major study areas, he said.

Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses taken in high school no longer will satisfy COLL’s core requirements, although they still would count toward electives and some required courses that vary by department.

They also may count as electives allowed in COLL’s three “knowledge domains” of social sciences, natural sciences, and arts and humanities.

Halleran said COLL, which covers only a quarter of the 120 credits necessary for an undergraduate degree, will create “true college-level, W&M courses.”

Instead of a course focusing solely on Greek tragedy, for example, a student would study fifth-century Athens from the perspectives of art, religion, literature and anthropology, Halleran said.

An alumni group called The Society for the College has denounced the changes as further gutting a curriculum it already sees as weak.

Andrew R. McRoberts, the president of the society, said the integrative approach assumes students arrive at W&M already well-grounded in the basics of general education subject areas.

“You really need to master a topic before you start applying it in an interdisciplinary way,” he said.

The opponents, who are pressing the board to step in, have the backing of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni—the same group that spoke out in support of the University of Virginia’s board in its unsuccessful effort to remove the president in 2012.

The council criticizes universities for what it sees as restrictions on free speech and regularly issues reports on curriculums it says de-emphasize fundamentals, including those of W&M, U.Va. and the University of Richmond.

Michael Poliakoff, the vice president of policy for the council, said W&M’s COLL repackages a curriculum that already neglects “such fundamental requirements like a dedicated English composition class or a requirement in American history and government.”

“The alma mater of Thomas Jefferson, for heaven’s sake, doesn’t have that kind of foundational course in American history and government,” he said.

In his presentation to the board, Halleran countered such criticism, denying that the curriculum would be less rigorous or de-emphasize writing, and arguing that COLL’s emphasis on integration “should make it more intellectually demanding.”

But he acknowledged all the ramifications of the changes are not yet known, and tweaks might be necessary as the curriculum is rolled out after the pilot year.

Halleran estimated it will cost about $150,000 a year to implement during the transition and an additional $700,000 annually by fiscal 2019, primarily to cover the expanded research component that will be required of all undergraduates.

COLL was adopted by the Arts & Sciences faculty by a vote of 101-83 after a yearlong process. Opponents and supporters offer point-counterpoint arguments about whether the timing of the vote during exams in December was fair, and on what will be lost or gained by the changes.

Paul Sheldon Davies, a professor of philosophy who voted against COLL, said the curriculum will reduce seven course content areas to “three very general and in some cases rather nebulous” categories.

“It’s not altogether clear what’s being ruled in and what’s being ruled out,” he said.

The provost’s description of the changes to the board dodged “the real criticism,” he said in a follow-up email. “Even if it were true that courses in the new curriculum would be more rigorous—and it is not true—it nonetheless does not address the criticism that the college no longer has any real general requirements.”

But John D. Griffin, the dean of undergraduate studies and a biology professor, said COLL moves students away from the random “check-off list” approach—“You take a course of English, you take a course in history”—to complete core requirements.

“Now you’ll be taking courses that look beyond just the foundations of their disciplines. That’s what is new,” he said. Foundational courses remain as electives but “they’re just not part of what we want the common experience to be.”

Griffin said many of W&M’s peers are adopting similar curriculums, including Harvard—the nation’s oldest college.

The faculty’s decision has been endorsed by Halleran, W&M President W. Taylor Reveley III, Rector Todd Stottlemyer and Vice Rector Robert E. Scott.

At the board meeting, Scott emphasized the curriculum was the purview of the faculty.

The new curriculum does not cover the three-quarters of courses students take for their majors and won’t affect current students.

Students initially expressed concerns about whether COLL would limit the flexibility of when general education courses are taken, said Chase B. Koontz, the student assembly president and representative on the board.

But he said that was clarified and COLL isn’t expected to cause major changes to when courses are taken after the freshman year.
Koontz, a senior, said students were glad that the freshman seminar that focuses on a single topic remains.

He thinks the changes will allow “a deeper dive into the coursework” while adding opportunities for research.

Critics say the curriculum will enable professors to offer narrow courses focused in their areas of interest at the expense of broad-based survey courses that provide the fundamentals.

But Koontz said he doesn’t think that’s much of a criticism.

“If you’re in a course with a professor who is highly engaged … and can take you along on a journey through a subject they’ve spent a good portion of their career engulfed in,” he said, “as a student that sounds pretty appealing.”


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