Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A College By Any Other Name

Update: DE story, 2/14

Faculty and staff in the College of Liberal Arts (CoLA) received a memo from our Dean, Kimberly Kempf-Leonard, asking our views on a name change for our college. First let me applaud her for seeking staff & faculty input. Now I'll provide it, using the blog to amplify (if only a bit) my support of what I suspect will be a losing cause: Saving the Liberal Arts. (Apologies to the non-liberal artists among you, though I hope the following will be of some interest to those outside CoLA.)

The Dean's memo began with an accurate report that the CoLA retreat (which I attended) strongly recommended a name change. I will almost avoid calling attention to the fact that the most forceful recommendation coming from our day long retreat was a name change. The Dean's memo also accurately sketches problems with our current name: let me stipulate that most students--even most current students in CoLA, not to mention potential students--do indeed have very little idea of what the words "liberal" or "arts" mean in this context.  More on that later. 

In addition to being asked whether we support a name change, we're asked to order our preferences among all possible permutations of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, with the resulting acronyms. You can come up with the list on your own. I find the need to consider each and every possible arrangement a droll example of the academic obsession with pecking order. The only name I heard mentioned at the retreat was CHAS, presumably either as a sop to humanistic types with a lingering fondness for liberal arts, or simply on the ground of euphony, though no one pointed that Hass is German for hate. Other acronyms, if pronounceable, would produce things sounding like: Cash, which would at any rate have different connotations than Liberal Arts; Shah, which might help Arabic; Saw, appropriate in an era of budget cuts; Ash, what you have after cuts; and let us be sure to give full consideration to Ass.  Of course CoLA is silly in its own right (you've no doubt heard the old one about seeking corporate sponsorship for CoLA from Pepsi, with the resulting name change, the Pepsi CoLA).

Back to the recommendation from the retreat. A name change did win the poll for the best idea at the retreat. But I think we need to qualify this recommendation in two senses. The first is that there was almost no discussion of the pros and cons of a name change, for the simple reason that there was little discussion of any single topic. The retreat, as I suppose is usual for such things, was run on the principle that the more bullet points one generates, the more work has been done. So separate groups came up with their own bullet-points, generating easel after easel of short phrases. A selection process from among the bountiful yield of bullet-points did indeed show strong support for the name change. But while this support is broad it may not be terribly deep.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Graduation requirements change

[Be sure to check the comments for a clarification about the change.]

According to an email from the Chancellor sent out late Friday afternoon (and pasted at the end of this post), SIUC will now require graduates to complete only 42 hours in upper division classes (the old requirement was 60--out of the 120 minimum required).

I haven't done the research necessary to determine whether this lowering of our requirements for upper division courses is in keeping with our peers or not. Nor was I privy to the discussion about this change that took place in the Faculty Senate (which presumably took place before my election to that body). So I'm hoping for some informed comments. I did find it odd that the email came out at 4:43 on a Friday afternoon, the traditional time to hide things, and then, upon reflection, found it a bit odd that it came out at all. I at least had no idea of how many upper level hours were required for our undergraduates, so this one could have gone under the radar as far as I was concerned.

The question to ask, obviously, is whether or not lowering our formal graduation requirements will seriously undermine academics. It may not.  Student can now graduate with four fewer upper-level classes--but these classes will be replaced by lower level classes, of courses, classes which may be valuable in their own right. On the other hand, the change raises the specter of dumbing down the curriculum. It is in keeping with removing the requirement for a core interdisciplinary course (a 300 level offering) and replacing it with University College 101.

The Chancellor triumphs this move as one that will help us attract more transfers, but does not in her message say anything about any potential downsides--she does not say why it took "thorough and careful study" to reach this decision. She does, at the end, throw in a bit about continuing to ensure academic integrity of our degree programs. "Our degree programs" may be the key phrase here; perhaps the idea is that individual programs will need to safeguard academic integrity, as the university as a whole won't be doing it, at least to the same degree it had in the past. But just as SIUC faces competitive pressures with other potential hosts of transfer students, our academic programs vie with one another for students. So don't be shocked if you hear a Friday afternoon suggestion that your program reduce the number of upper-level offerings it requires.

The Chancellor's email is pasted after the break.