Philosophy of Undergraduate Experience drafted, open to suggestions

Srivatsan Uchani, Staff Reporter

One of the most important ways in which universities around the country maintain their competitiveness and quality is by constantly reevaluating the needs and experiences of their students. In line with this goal, Case Western Reserve University is currently in the midst of an in-depth, two-year investigation of student life on campus.

The initiative, which is slated to conclude in 2018, is headed by a special committee known as the Commission on the Undergraduate Experience (CUE), comprised of members handpicked by CWRU provost William “Bud” Baeslack. One main step towards accomplishing the goal of CUE is to create a unified “philosophy of the undergraduate experience” for CWRU, codified on the CUE’s website, which would theoretically define the nature of all major aspects of campus life going forward, including educational requirements and residential arrangements for all students.

“This is a very comprehensive project that will strive to identify specific initiatives that can advance many aspects of undergraduate education and student life,” said Baeslack.

“Two very important areas are the undergraduate educational experience, including SAGES and advising and mentoring,” he added, elaborating that “an important goal will be to determine how we can most effectively integrate the student learning and student life experiences.”

Baeslack stressed the significance of CUE and explained that “the last time the university undertook a review of this scope was in 2000-01. That review initiated curricular advances such as SAGES and increased opportunities for undergraduate research and experiential learning.”

Given the magnitude and ambition of this endeavor and the impact that it could have on university life, CUE has been very particular about incorporating the views and suggestions of the wider campus community, including students as well as faculty members and support staff. The project is still in its rudimentary stages, but CUE is convinced of the importance of both student and faculty participation in its development.

To this end, a variety of open forums have been held on campus throughout the year, at which campus members were given the opportunity to air their views about how to improve the overall undergraduate experience.

According to Dr. Kimberly Emmons, associate professor of English and chair of CUE, students have made many helpful suggestions and comments at the forums.

“We held open forums last March, and students there offered some very important insights about what is great and what is challenging at CWRU,” she said.

However, administrators have so far declined to cite specific examples of such contributions, or to go into more details about the particular changes they are considering. When pressed for specifics, they point to the official CUE website, which lists “[developing] a philosophy and approach for advancing CWRU’s undergraduate experience” and “[exploring] how CWRU’s residential environment could better … provide a more intellectually vibrant experience for … students” as among the chief objectives of its project.

“At this point in the process, it is difficult to predict all of the changes,” said Baeslack. “Based on the comprehensive nature of the initiative, they will be many and significant, perhaps not unlike the differences between [the year] 2000 and today.”

Notwithstanding the lack of particulars, students on campus who were asked about their responses to the initiative gave generally positive responses to its overall goals, although they also voiced a few reservations about certain aspects of its implementation.

“I think improvement never hurts,” said a fourth-year marketing major, who spoke on condition of anonymity, about the importance of CUE’s investigation. “I’m kind of a proponent of the idea that more information is never a bad thing. So as long as it’s not taking up resources from other urgent initiatives, then I don’t see why not. I think that having a larger student voice in the overall vision for the university is definitely a positive.”

With regards to the proposed university-wide “common philosophy,” her response was more measured. “I think a philosophy that’s vague, such as helping prepare students to be informed global citizens and be citizens in their intended career, that’s great…. [But] I think if you start getting too specific, then you’re going to start excluding minority [majors].”

Asked whether she agreed with one of CUE’s most salient ideas—a common set of generalized education courses that would be mandatory for all students to take, regardless of major—she was again somewhat cautious. “I think that it’s not necessarily a poor idea, but I also would be wary of diluting the more specialized programs that we offer. For example, I’ll be graduating early and if I had to take a semester’s worth of courses that were unrelated to my intended career path, I don’t know how possible that would be.”  

Another student, a fourth-year nursing major who also asked to remain anonymous, felt that CUE’s work was relevant and timely.

“I agree that [the initiative addresses] something that needs to be looked at,” she said. “As a [nursing student], I feel like a lot of my problems with SAGES and the [current] general education requirements [are because] they don’t fit into my nursing schedule.”

She, like many other students, was also a bit uneasy about the proposed mandatory general education requirements, saying, “I think I’d like them better if [they were] more individualized by major.”

“I would have preferred to take more English courses over the SAGES courses that we had to take and I think that maybe everyone should have [some exposure] to general English and math courses. But I don’t think the sciences should be generalized, because everyone has their own major requirements,” she said.

Students were not alone in voicing misgivings about the nature of the hypothetical generalized education requirements.

Dr. Peter Knox, professor of Classics at CWRU and a faculty member who attended one of the fall open forums this year, adamantly opposed “generalizing” the curriculum. The professor is a relative newcomer to the university—he has only been here for a year and a half.

“[The general education curriculum] looks great on paper,” said Dr. Knox, “it really does.”

“But it doesn’t work,” he continued. “To me, the idea that we can cut across all the disciplinary differences on campus and come up with a common denominator that is meaningful to our students … it just seems completely out of the realm of the achievable.”

Anne Borchert, assistant vice president of Corporate Relations and Strategic Projects who also attended the forum, contributed her insight on designing a more generalized curriculum from her experience working with industries.

“From alumni and corporations, [I find] that they value CWRU for its interdisciplinary ability,” said Borchert. “However companies find that [the university] is not demonstrating its ‘team ability.’ Corporations have great interest in and willingness to work with students from [various backgrounds, such as] the humanities.”

This is precisely the point that Emmons wanted to stress.

“I [am afraid of students] being siloed and feeling ‘locked’ in their majors,” she explained. Emmons said she was concerned that students at CWRU do not really receive the experience of being in a “comprehensive research university” because of the nature of the current general requirements, such as SAGES.

“I wonder if there is value in having a common type of course early in the first semester of the first year, as far as giving students an appreciation and respect for the breadth of what happens here goes,” said Emmons.

When all’s said and done, it is apparent that administrators continue to feel strongly that CUE’s mission of articulating and implementing a general undergraduate philosophy at CWRU will ultimately prove to be a necessary and fruitful undertaking.

Although The Observer did not get a response from the official e-mail address that the CUE’s website recommended students with questions contact, Baeslack directly described the expected benefit of the project on behalf of CUE.

“This is an extremely important initiative that will in many ways determine the future of the undergraduate experience at CWRU for the next two decades,” he said. “I strongly encourage all members of the campus community to actively engage and participate as the initiative continues forward.”