University’s shortcomings addressed in final CUE report

Matt Hooke and Sophia Yakumithis

If it accomplishes its goal to “strengthen the overall value, reputation and desirability of [Case Western Reserve University’s] undergraduate experience,” the Provost’s Commission on the Undergraduate Experience (CUE) could transform the University into a more vibrant, enhanced learning environment. The broadly-worded recommendations might not draw clear enough lines to enforce the content outlined by the Commission, but have, nonetheless, sparked several campus initiatives.

CUE published its recommendations in a series of reports, the final report now available online with a CWRU login.

Organized in January 2016 and finalized this past May, the objective of the Commission’s report is to provide guidelines which will lead to a more cohesive undergraduate experience. CUE was composed of 20 members, a combination of faculty and students, who were selected by the Provost with input from the school and college deans.

New Provost Ben Vinson III will oversee each unit of CUE and continue the work of Provost W.A. “Bud” Baeslack III, who retired in July, but will not have absolute authority. In addition to Vinson, University faculty will hold primary responsibility over curriculum recommendations, ultimately through the Faculty Senate, as well as various committees and school-level faculty governance bodies.

Its Executive Summary states that CUE will address three major recommendations: “1. Create coherence and flexibility in the undergraduate curriculum, 2. Cultivate a diverse and thriving campus community with a comprehensive identity that capitalizes on our pragmatic character and 3. Align governance, administration and budget activities with the goals of the undergraduate experience.”

The University stated that “no single timeline” will apply to enforcing the recommendations.

According to fourth-year student and CUE member Prince Ghosh, the report is not intended to “get super specific,” but to provide a general framework for department heads and other school officials on how they can implement the various recommendations at their own discretion.

The Commission’s recommendations were drawn from various statistics which reveal a troubling six-year graduation rate at CWRU and a generally unenthusiastic undergraduate student body. Using data from the 2009 entering class, the six-year graduation rate was 81 percent versus a peer institution average of 92 percent, and “seniors’ overall satisfaction with CWRU undergraduate education” decreased from 80 percent to 76 percent between 2001 and 2016.

Ghosh believes these numbers are partly associated with the University’s rigid academic structure and rigor, and he thinks the new recommendations will address those problems.

“When you think back on your time at [college], you think back on your happiest memories and worst memories. For a lot of people at CWRU, there are a lot of bad memories of spending their time [studying] in KSL or at Wade or their room,” said Ghosh. “If we make sure students spend much of their time doing tangible work, we can push people toward a much better and happier place.”

Many of the ideas laid out in the first recommendation, “Curriculum,” are relatively vague and open for interpretation. One element, for instance, suggests an undergraduate-wide general education requirement (UGER) that pays attention to “holistic health and wellness;” the definition of a holistic class schedule, though, would vary between departments.

“All of the undergraduate faculties are considering how to respond to the CUE’s

recommendation for a university-wide general education curriculum,” said CUE Chair and associate English professor Kimberly Emmons. “At this time, there has been general agreement that such a ‘common core’ would be good for CWRU, but we are still working with the various schools and the college to determine the structure and content of such a general education curriculum.”

The University also explained that while new UGER have yet to be defined, “another faculty group has been working on more detailed recommendations for general education, but they are still being finalized.”

CUE’s UGER recommendation is designed to give students more academic freedom than the current undergraduate system. Presently, in addition to the GER, undergraduates must complete between 120 and 133 credit hours, the Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship (SAGES) program and major requirements before they can graduate.

According to Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and professor of chemical engineering Donald Feke, the new curriculum is “likely to have some features that are philosophically similar to SAGES, but there are no detailed decisions yet. Writing is envisioned to remain a highly important component within [UGER].”

CUE recommends capping credit hours at 120, which it holds would provide students “some flexibility” to pursue their academic interests in addition to the GER and major requirements. It also emphasizes “student-driven and guided exploration of the resources and opportunities afforded by the university and its surrounding institutions and communities” as a required part of the first-year experience, and suggests that faculty members integrate more meaningful coursework with post-college planning.

“Many of our undergraduates’ initial experiences on campus revolve around meeting the demands of highly structured programs,” CUE states, “rather than around discovering personal and intellectual passions.”

Ghosh said the first recommendation of the report focuses on creating a system built around practical learning instead of the “busy-work” which often dominates the curriculum.

Each undergraduate college has made changes based on the first recommendation, which resulted in the Student Success Initiative (SSI). The University said, “[The launch of the SSI] represents the realization of the CUE’s preliminary recommendation to create advising teams that included ‘Undergraduate Experience Coordinators,’ now informally dubbed ‘navigators,’ charged to assist students and their faculty advisors in accessing information and services that the students may need.”

Additionally, the School of Engineering and the School of Nursing both expanded their definition of breadth requirements last academic year, while the Weatherhead School of Management added several academic concentrations and, although its enforcement is unspecified, the College of Arts & Sciences has increased curricular and co-curricular diversity through various resource outlets.

Much of the changes in the University’s curriculum will depend heavily on how effectively various departmental heads hold professors accountable, according to Ghosh.

The second part of the report offers recommendations on “Community & Campus Identity.” This includes “countering negative perceptions” of students in non-science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, upgrading facilities for the humanities and social sciences, promoting non-STEM resources and increasing and celebrating campus diversity. This section heavily promotes student collaboration and the pursuits of non-STEM students, both areas which the Commision cites as a major contribution to the University’s lack of cohesion.

Second-year student Morgan McCommon, a history and art history double major, feels that to a certain extent, CWRU marginalizes non-STEM students by failing to promote or encourage the humanities and social sciences.

“I would love for students in STEM to view the humanities the way the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities does,” she said.

“Many students in my humanities courses are only taking the class to fill the breadth requirements, and they appear to have no genuine interest in the course,” she continued. “I also know very few people who share my majors, and many STEM students will joke that I won’t be able to find a job after college or that I don’t have any ‘real homework’ when I discuss my assignments.”

A Baker-Nord Scholar, McCommon said that her major choices are frequently questioned and challenged by her STEM peers, who she feels lack knowledge on the practical application and real-world value of her field. Despite this, she feels “fortunate” for the opportunities given to her through the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities.

“My work is just as valuable as others here at CWRU, but many people do not treat it as such, she explained. “I can never state that I’m a humanities major without someone hassling me about it.”

The third recommendation, “Governance, Administration and Budget,” calls to unify and clarify the ambiguous structure of the University’s various governing bodies to ensure accountability. However, the first subpoint also calls to add advisory groups and governance structures “for various initiatives,” including UGER and the SSI.

Additionally, this portion of the report calls to redistribute and align administrative structures with budget issues, which CUE argues will create a better oiled machine. The current undergraduate system’s structure is very “decentralized,” according to Ghosh, with many departments touching on different aspects of the CWRU experience without interaction, communication or collaboration.

Many of the issues outlined in each recommendation of the final CUE report are not new to CWRU. A similar commission in 2000, the President’s Commission on Undergraduate Education and Life (PCUEL), touched on similar issues and claimed that students often come to the University for reasons other the quality of the academic programs.

PCUEL’s Executive Summary reads: “On average, the students who choose to come here prefer CWRU only marginally over other schools and finally choose CWRU largely on the basis of our financial aid package.”

“Moreover,” the summary continues, “our situation is unlikely to be changed merely by advertising better what we already do.”