Improving Educational Program Quality at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa: General Education Program Reform
Thomas L. Hilgers
When we do something infrequently, it’s usually for a reason. Sometimes it’s because there’s minimal need (for example, a good house-paint job usually lasts for about ten years, so most homeowners don’t check the exterior’s paint every couple of months). At other times, it’s because the task is fraught with difficulty (for example, we all know that Social Security needs fixing, but achieving a consensus on workable reform seems almost impossible).
Reforming a University’s General Education Program is in the “fraught with difficulty” category. In fact, when a reform is successful, it is considered newsworthy. That’s what happened a few years back when Portland State University engaged in major General Education reform. And in some ways, that’s what’s happening now as a result of General Education Program reform at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa (UHM).
I offer this essay as my personal reflections on UHM’s General Education Program at the end of 2002. My reflections are informed by my long tenure as a faculty member here (28 years); my work on both the System and the UHM General Education Task Forces mentioned below; and my work, since F01, as Faculty Administrator of the Faculty Senate’s General Education Office. While the work I describe has involved hundreds of faculty members and a score of administrators, the opinions I offer are all my own.
General Education at UHM Pre-2001
General Education requirements and offerings at UHM changed little between 1971 and 2001. Although General Education reforms during the ’60s were achieved under the banner of “Student Choice,” the General Education curriculum quickly solidified into a rather rigid menu of requirements and options. Since most Arts and Sciences departments had at least one class on that menu, there was little momentum away from the status quo. For decades, all UHM students needed a minimum of 40 credits to satisfy Core requirements. Many colleges had additional Core requirements.
When change in General Education requirements did occur, it always involved additions. In the ’80s, the long-standing Arts and Sciences second-language requirement became a University requirement. For many students, that meant an additional 12 to 16 credits. In the late ’80s, the Faculty Senate added 5 Writing-Intensive classes as a Graduation Requirement. For the most part, students didn’t protest this “addition” because it could be met through courses in the Core and in their majors. What’s more, success in Writing-Intensive (WI) classes soon became known among students as advantageous in job interviews.
By 1995, virtually every Manoa student needed approximately 56 Core and Graduation-Requirement credits, plus 5 WI classes, in order to receive a bachelor’s degree. Arts and Sciences students, who received the majority of bachelor’s degrees, needed approximately 64 credits. Students in certain professional schools needed 60 more credits for their majors. Add the requirement of upper-division electives and the limited range of menu choices and you have no surprise: most UHM students required 5 years to earn a bachelor’s degree.
The General Education reform movement begins
By 1995, more and more faculty and administration conversations involved questions about our undergraduate requirements. Post-graduation surveys highlighted growing dissatisfaction with the scope and inflexibility of Core requirements. Departments found that they could not add new requirements for majors, however significant might be new knowledge in a discipline, without pushing students toward 6 years as undergraduates. More and more individuals were admitting, privately and then publicly, that it was not healthy for any Program to go 25 years without systematic review. That was especially true of General Education, which affected each and every student.
By the mid 90s, the full University of Hawai`i was finally functioning more as a System. Thus, when discussions about General Education reform began in earnest in the Faculty Senate’s Executive Committee, there was consensus that we’d best attempt it as a System. Thus was born a 2-year endeavor to review and reform UH’s General Education requirements as a System. The endeavor was overseen by the System’s Council of Faculty Senate Chairs; led by a troika of UHM, Community College, and 4-Year College Senators; and staffed by a UHM Professor of Education.
The endeavor produced reams of useful data and generated faculty discussion across the System. It highlighted common needs. But the logistics of achieving System consensus across many islands seemed to keep good ideas from gaining steam. The reform effort wasn’t gathering momentum.
During the second year of that endeavor, problems involving undergraduate education at UHM, where most System students sought bachelor’s degrees, became pressing. Recurring fiscal crises virtually eliminated any possibility of initiative and program development. Transfer students in particular were complaining about the lack of fit between UHM General Education requirements and typical requirements elsewhere. Both freshman and transfer-student enrollments were dropping. Faculty members knew that the upcoming WASC accreditation self study had to address these realities. So, in the Fall of 1998, the UHM Faculty Senate created its own Task Force on General Education and Graduation Requirements, chaired by Senator Eldon Wegner.
The General Education reform effort gains momentum
The new Task Force began quickly, because the System effort and the State’s ongoing fiscal crisis had made our needs clear. Through weekly meetings, informed by periodic open forums and Senate discussions, the Task Force created a draft Plan for General Education by May of 1999.
Fall 1999 saw nearly weekly forums on aspects of the new General Education plan, forums that were open to both faculty and students. Especially heated were discussions in two areas: maintenance of the universal second-language requirement, and how Hawai`i should be highlighted in graduation requirements. (One example of how the two areas merged: the language requirement became the “Hawaiian or Second Language Requirement.”) In November 1999, Senator Wegner held a joint meeting of the UHM Task Force and representatives from each UH System campus. General reaction to UHM plan was positive, since the overall plan was seen as flexible and inclusive.
In December 1999, the full UHM Faculty Senate adopted the Task Force’s General Education Plan. The campus now had a new General Education Program set to begin.
The process of the new General Education Program’s implementation begins
The UHM faculty soon discovered that it had done the easy work of General Education Reform. The hard work lay ahead.
Three issues dominated reform efforts during the 3 semesters between the Senate vote and the F01 date of the new requirements’ going into effect.
The first involved Board of Regents (BOR) endorsement of the new General Education Program. While all parties saw the advantages of the new Program, questions were raised in some quarters about the UHM-centered processes whereby the Program had been adopted. Most parties agreed that System reform of General Education would have been the preferable course. Some parties insisted that it should have been the only possible course. In point of fact, Manoa was not alone in following what appeared to be a “go it alone” process. The same decision had been made by the faculty at UH Hilo, the campus with the System’s only other full 4-year undergraduate program. It was perhaps no coincidence, then, that the Regents adopted new, independent, General Education Programs for both UHM and UHH in June of 2000.
The second issue involved faculty governance. The new General Education Plan called for total faculty governance. Since the faculty had previously played an essentially consultative role in General Education, governance processes had to be developed from scratch. Particularly problematic were issues relating to membership of the various General Education committees. Thus, it took a full year of discussion to produce a General Education governance document. The document was approved by the Senate at the end of 2000, 9 months short of the new requirements’ becoming effective.
A third issue dominated the main faculty governance body during its first semester. The agenda of the interim General Education Committee, composed of 9 faculty members, became dominated by college and school requests for waivers from the Hawaiian or Second Language requirement. This issue remained a source of contention between professional-school faculty and Arts-and-Sciences faculty. By the end of 2000, some schools had achieved the waiver they sought, but not to the delight of all.
The main victim of the lengthy debates over governance and language requirements was the General Education Program itself. By early 2001, it was clear that the development of new General Education courses for F01 would not be possible. The Senate was forced to craft a plan whereby existing courses would be mapped to new requirements, thus buying time for the various faculty General Education committees.
General Education at UHM Today
The full-on effort to implement the new General Education Program began in September 2001. By then we had Faculty Committees to oversee implementation (the General Education Committee); to review Core-course proposals (the Foundations Committee); and to implement the Graduation Requirements involving Focus courses (committees involving Contemporary Ethical Issues; Hawaiian, Asian, and Pacific Issues; Oral Communication; and Writing Intensive classes). Staff support for the several committees is provided by the General Education Office, a unit that was essentially an extension of responsibility for the Manoa Writing Program, the office that had long supported Writing-Intensive classes.
It soon became clear that governance by faculty committee would not be easy. Indeed, the faculty knew of predictions that faculty governance on such a grand scale would prove impossible. Perhaps the challenge implicit in that prediction was one factor that motivated the faculty committees to do an enormous amount of work during AY 2001-02. As a result of that work, students began F2002 with a full range of courses that had been designed for the new General Education Program.
Advantages of the new General Education Program
The advantages of the new Program are several.
Challenges to the new General Education Program’s success
As this essay is being written, the new General Education Program is completing its first semester of full implementation. Obviously, a lot of work has to be done for some of the advantages just mentioned to be fully accomplished. I here list a few key challenges that the full UHM community has to meet in the next couple of years.
Future Prospects: Continuously Improving Undergraduate Education
The UHM administration and, particularly, the UHM Faculty deserve commendation for their accomplishments in General Education reform to date. But within five years, the General Education Program will no longer be new, and the energy surrounding its implementation today can be predicted to lag. We have to defy that prediction if the full promise of the new General Education Program is to be met.
We can defy that prediction if, as I hope, the assessment efforts designed into the Program are fully accomplished. That hope represents our greatest opportunity for changing the way we at UHM “do” undergraduate education. It holds promise of making us into an ever better educational institution. In this effort, we cannot afford to fail: the people of Hawai`i, of the Pacific, and, increasingly, of the world are depending on our success.
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