Office of the Chancellor



General Education
   The Vision
   The Rationale
   Strategic Elements

The Rest of the Baccalaureate

Next Steps

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University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
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November 30, 2004

A Call for Review of Baccalaureate Education
at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Bruce Shepard, Chancellor


First, a disclaimer: curriculum is the prerogative of the faculty, one hundred percent. That being taken as a given, I believe it is my responsibility to direct attention to matters I see as important to the continuing quality and success of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

I do not have the answers. I do have some of the questions though, and they are asked with the complete confidence that faculty much more creative than I will come up with approaches far better than anything I could imagine. I have chosen to use bold face to highlight my efforts to provoke your better thinking.

I don’t think we can look at general education in isolation from our entire curriculum. Taking up general education first, I will then offer a briefer section noting opportunities to integrate a review of general education with comprehensive consideration of UWGB baccalaureate education. I conclude with some thoughts about possible “next steps.”



At the very first Faculty Senate meeting I attended as your Chancellor, I made the statement that UWGB does not have a program of general education. Now, some colleagues rightly criticized me for indulging in what, I acknowledge, was hyperbole. But most faculty I have talked with since share with me the frustration that what we call general education is, by and large, simply a distribution requirement.

Those are my impressions, formed, I must admit, with no “hands-on” or direct experience. I will add though, that it is also the perspective of our students: not only does general education get low marks from our students and recent graduates, UWGB students give our general education program significantly lower marks than do students, on average, at other UW comprehensive campuses and at other Master's comprehensives around the nation.   (We repeat the study every two years, as do all UW campuses and many other universities across the country. Results have been consistent over all three surveys. Our freshmen in comparison to other UW campuses and in comparison to a national group of Master’s I institutions, rank their classroom experiences at levels that place us in the bottom 10% among peer institutions for most measures; for no measure, separately considering what our freshmen reported and what our seniors reported, do we creep into the top half of peer institutions — that is, break into the 60% decile.)

What about the effectiveness of our current general education program? Here, the results are, in my view, undeniably disturbing. Over the last decade, our students’ command of basic concepts as measured by the BASE assessment has been steadily and dramatically declining in the areas of Reading & Literature, Writing, Lab & Field Science, Science Fundamental Concepts, History, Social Sciences, Strategic Reasoning, and Adaptive Reasoning. This decline has occurred at the same time that our admissions process has become more and more selective and, by a variety of measures (ACT scores, high school GPA’s), the academic preparation of our incoming students has been steadily improving.

We have tried to understand these disturbing data. For example, Lucy Arendt sought connections between measures of satisfaction and other factors, including class size. Multiple and thorough examinations could find no correlation between student perceptions of the quality of their UWGB general education experience and class size.

Similar efforts by Debbie Furlong to relate class size to the decline in BASE measures of concept competency have also found no link. This decade-long decline has occurred while, institutionally, student/faculty ratios have remained largely constant.

Those observations notwithstanding, I have no intention of being Pollyanna-ish here. There is no denying that quality costs. I also believe though, that if, out of concern for resources or turf, we do not allow ourselves to dream, then we are dooming ourselves to the status quo.


The Vision

Were I to express the vision for general education in the terms of what I understand to be the prevailing UWGB dogma, it would take the form:

All students, from their very first hour in their very first UWGB class, experience and benefit from the distinguishable features of a UWGB education connecting learning to life: hands-on, practical and real-world engaged problem solving from multiple perspectives.

I like that. But, if we take what I assert to be our real academic heritage seriously (challenging conventionality), we should even be questioning the vision just articulated. Indeed, we should begin by questioning the continuing relevance of even having a general education approach rather than simply taking that for granted.

The Rationale

There is the academic rationale: a higher quality set of learning experiences for our students. I don’t believe that important, but self-evident, justification needs further elaboration.

There is another rationale that also moves me to make the call for a review of baccalaureate education at this time: It strikes me that a comprehensive review of baccalaureate education is a way to engage with colleagues, to cross lines that increasingly separate us, to be motivated by the lofty aspiration of keeping UWGB on the academic cutting edge, and to appreciate the strong interdependencies that bind us each to the other.

Strategic Elements

Cyclical or Perpetual Reform
Throughout my career, I have been struck by our penchant to take a somewhat cataclysmic approach to general education reform. We go through a massive review and reform trying to precisely predict the academic consequences of every “i” we debate dotting and every “t” we consider crossing before we act, creating considerable angst and uncertainty while doing so. Finally, we put in place something that will command a majority of the votes in the Senate, perhaps in exhaustion leave the adopted program largely untouched and unquestioned for a decade or more, then repeat the whole process. There has to be a better way.

Instead of the usual approach, imagine a university where the general education program is different every year. Only somewhat different, but still different. I have in mind a model in which we put a premium upon experimentation and innovation, constantly trying or pilot-testing ideas, evaluating the results, and then deciding to continue, broaden, or stop the experiment based upon the analysis of results. I believe such an approach really draws upon our strengths and our values as academics: to experiment and innovate, to continually learn, and to put what we learn to good purpose.

Should (Lower) Rank Have Privilege?
I said I wanted to get radical and this may be the most radical procedural suggestion I can come up with; namely, that senior faculty, rather than taking the usual and expected leadership role, instead take a back seat.

This thought first came to me as I reflected upon the roots of our university. It was, I have been told, an exciting time when many faculty early in their careers created and brought to fruition a very special academic plan. Many of these colleagues have now retired or soon will retire. That is a genuine loss. However, isn’t it also an opportunity to turn the “keys of the curriculum” over to a new generation with the hope of creating a somewhat similar sense of innovation, excitement, and adventure as well as a sense of communal ownership and responsibility?

No firm ranges need be set, but I am thinking we might expect our faculty in the advanced assistant professor, and through the associate professor ranks, to take leadership (and ownership) of the general education review. We senior faculty would expect to be listened to. In the end, however, we would have to be willing to step back and collectively say, “OK colleagues, if that is what you want then we will go along, for you are, over the longer haul, the ones to make it succeed.”


Whom Else?
Curriculum is the prerogative of the faculty. That’s the point I began with. We, as faculty, though, need to call upon diverse expertise.

One group clearly needs to be thoroughly involved — our academic staff colleagues. Much of what they do affects our students’ total learning — its effectiveness as well as its content. Now, I have been at universities where the fear always is that “non-faculty” will want to water down general education. What I have seen here, though, is our academic staff colleagues bringing excellent ideas for helping make our educational programs more effective, more hours with “hands-on” problem-solving components, greater international perspectives, and more engagement in the issues of the day.

There are others who, were we able to include them, could make significant contributions. Student representatives are typically involved from the outset in general education review and I would hope we would have the wisdom to do so here. Institutional research needs to provide staff support. Perhaps the best general education review I ever took part in had, as part of the actual campus-wide committee, a respected member of the local two-year institution. What a difference that person made in making sure we were attuned to the needs of all our students.

And, an idea I have never seen any university follow. How about a person or two who sit as full-fledged members of whatever review group is appointed who come from walks of life well apart from academia? We boast an educational approach that has practical, hands-on, community-engaged problem solving. How about being able to pick the brains of a person or two out there who are doing precisely that?

Arts and Sciences and the Professional Programs
General education has been traditionally viewed as the domain of the arts and sciences. Why shouldn’t our professional programs be expected to contribute to the general education of all of our undergraduates? Certainly, they have much to contribute. Why should they get a free ride in fulfilling our responsibilities for general education?

The greatest resources we have are our shared talents and time. They are already heavily committed, even over committed. However, given the alarming data I opened with, it seems reasonable to assume that the benefits of investing some small percentage of those treasures in a review of baccalaureate education could well prove worth the price.

I also know that any general education program will cost. We won’t know, though, whether the costs are worth paying until we have a proposal sufficiently detailed as to allow us each to weigh the benefits.

In the general area of resources, I will add the additional thought: Should we attempt to have a constantly innovating general education curriculum, we will need to do a much better job, as a university, in expending the resources necessary for continual professional development.

Structure and Function
The General Education Council does carefully consider proposals for general education courses, our structure of outcomes, and other matters within the purview of their charge. But, when it comes to realizing the benefits of the headaches (and expenses) we endure in regularly assessing outcomes, the most important link, the feedback link (seeing that those assessments continually help us decide what to continue to do and what to experimentally change), is effectively absent.

Effective feedback, completing the loop, involves more than drawing arrows on an organizational chart. The critical question to ask is: Who owns general education? And, answers have to do as much with the affective dimension as with matters of governance.

I would like to see an even more fundamental reexamination of academic structure. With budget, positions, promotions, and tenure decisions going through interdisciplinary units, I believe we are a giant step ahead of every other university in seeing that structure supports mission. I also believe our ability to effectively communicate program-level needs, issues, ideas to “the administration” is being hampered by the absence of a school or college administrative and governance structure.


General education cannot be considered in isolation. So, were pictures of a potential new approach to general education to begin to emerge, majors and minors would also need to be reviewed.

In thinking about the “rest of the curriculum” though, I have in mind simultaneously reexamining all other aspects of our approach to baccalaureate education. Several examples, meant only to be illustrative rather than comprehensive:

Should we offer a program to engage, challenge, and recognize highly motivated and very able students? For example, Prof. Kaye has brought forward a very stimulating “Weidner Fellows” program. We should rack our brains for various alternatives, evaluate them, argue them, and see what might emerge.
How do we assure that every UWGB student has a significant, practical, hands-on, community-engaged experience in practical problem solving? Should we make that a degree requirement, perhaps defined and implemented at the level of the major?
Should we require a significant international experience of every student, perhaps again letting each major define how, for that major, students would fulfill the university requirement?

I could go on and on with ideas. I am not advocating any particular idea. Rather, I would love to see our campus afire with the ideas, the energy, and the arguments that such subjects would precipitate. Yes, the quality of our curriculum could benefit. So, too, could the quality of our professional lives.


As an initial step, I propose simply inviting any faculty who might be interested to sit down together one of these afternoons to share their ideas as well as their passions – be it their passionate caring for what is our calling and how best to advance it or be it the outrage that may have been provoked by any of my assertions.

Should there be sufficient interest at the informal gathering, then we might, with the advice and assistance of the General Education Council, charge a more formal group, representative of the program areas and working through program chairs.

And, we should not “reinvent the wheel.” There are fine institutions conducting exciting experiments with their curricula. We should use spring semester for several seminars, inviting colleagues from other institutions to share their “findings” with us.

As I said at the outset, my role here is one of raising questions. I am confident that the faculty and other interested members of our campus community, working together, will provide the answers that will build on this university’s strong foundations.

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