Friday, March 21, 2014

General Education Reform: The Students Speak, Will Faculty Listen? Marginalizing the Student Voice in the Reform Process

The Pennsylvania State University, like many universities of its size and reputation, periodically review and modify what has become a staple of higher education branding and "product differentiation"--general education. At its last Senate meeting, the University Faculty Senate held a forensic discussion about progress to date. The Forensic report, A Progress Report to the University Faculty Senate, is available HERE.

 (Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

This post does not speak to the merits of the substance of those proposed modifications  to Penn State general education; that will be undertaken later.  Instead the post focuses on perhaps on its potentially substantial process weaknesses--the extent wot which adequate consultation and engagement has been undertaken among all key stakeholders in the general education reform process.

One key stakeholder group--the students of the Penn State system--have not felt either engaged seriously in the process of general education reform, or adequately consulted. It is one thing for faculty to develop programs grounded in their own sense of the value of changes proposed. Indeed, traditionally, in purely faculty centered education systems, faculty would relay almost entirely on their own sense, drawn from the insights gathered from study in their respective disciplines, of the merits of affording students with a particular set or program of study leading toward the attainment of a clearly defined educational objective.  But educational objectives have become more complicated now--intermeshed with a number of social systems the objectives of which may not  be focused on the pure dissemination of knowledge but on its practical utility as that may be understood within these systems (e.g., wage labor markets).  And for that purpose the role of students in having a larger voice in their studies has been given greater legitimacy.  Thus, it is quite an important matter when changes to foundational educational programs are justified through endorsement by students intimately involved in its development, when there may have been substantially less engagement than warranted by such suggestions of support and engagement.  

That criticism, an important and weighty one, going perhaps to the legitimacy of some of the bases of support for the changes proposed, was made by student leaders at the last Penn State University Faculty Senate Meeting.  The student statement follows. It was delivered by Melissa McCleery (PSU '15 expected) UPUA Representative, College of the Liberal Arts and Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee, for the student senate caucus.

Student Senate Caucus Statement Delivered March 18, 2014 Penn State University Faculty Senate Meeting

The General Education Task Force (GETF) has made weak attempts to incorporate the student voice into the real decisions being made. The student focus groups being conducted, the social media presence and communication with students, and the few students involved in the GETF subcommittees are small concessions that appease the student body for the short term for the lack of real student input.

The General Education Task Force at large, where the important decisions are made, contains only two students. Two students on the Task Force is not enough representation to ensure that concerns expressed in the social media, focus groups, and other conversations are seriously taken into account. A few other students are involved in the task force through subcommittees, but the representation of the student voice in the GETF is not nearly enough. Furthermore, the Caucus fears that changes to General Education will be passed during the summer, when there are few students on campus to advocate for student interests.

The General Education Task Force has failed on multiple occasions to respond positively to requests for more student involvement on the task force at large.

The Caucus is concerned that the General Education Task Force has become caught up in concerns for faculty, administration, and staff, and has lost sight of the necessity of student input in the project.

To the Student Senator’s Caucus, the lack of student involvement in the Gen Ed Task Force is unacceptable for such a fundamental change to our University that will affect no one more than the students of Penn State. If more students are not incorporated into the General Education Task Force, the project risks losing support from the student body. The Student Senators strongly encourage the incorporation of more students onto the General Education Task Force. We do not wish to see the continuation of a project that ignores student voices. The Student Senators Caucus will communicate with and collaborate with the GETF to ensure the incorporation of more student voices.

The student caucus would be in favor of a resolution reading:

Whereas, the General Education Task Force was established and charged to reform and improve General Education at Penn State, and

Whereas, changes to the General Education curriculum will fundamentally affect the experience of Penn State students, and

Whereas, requests for increased student involvement on the General Education Task Force have not been acted upon,

Therefore be it resolved that the General Education Task Force be reformed to include a minimum of five permanent student representative seats on the task force at large, and

Be it further resolved that no report of legislation be drafted until these student seats have been filled and the students have had a chance to review Task Force progress up to this point.

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