Undergraduate education should be president's priority

By Keren G. Raz
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Let's hope that the Arizona Board of Regents prioritizes one thing when searching for the next president of the UA: undergraduate education.

While this administration has dealt with a lot - budget cuts - and accomplished a lot - investment in biotechnology - it has also not been as visionary when it comes to undergraduate education, choosing to focus on enrollment management.

It's a story that has been missed: Many faculty, students and staff are upset with the administration's decision to push for investments in the sciences and the marketable programs at, what some say, is the expense of undergraduate education, specifically the humanities and the social sciences.

Undergraduate education is a key part of university life and ought to be a major focus of administrative policies. But two years ago administrators axed the position of vice president for undergraduate education, replacing it with the new position of vice president for enrollment management. Although the significance of the decision was missed in the news at the time, the implications were huge. They were a reflection of President Peter Likins' belief that the key to improving undergraduate education here was to improve the quality of the students coming in and staying. While that is part of it, and one can only hope that the next president will continue to work on recruitment and retention so vigorously, undergraduate education here will not improve until it becomes an investment on the part of administrators that allows colleges serving undergraduates the ability to think as creatively as those in the health sciences are doing right now.

Specifically, here are two investments the UA could use in the future:

Interdisciplinary programs. Double majors are on the rise at the UA. In fact, Rick Kroc, director of assessment and enrollment research, said that over the past 10 years the number of double majors has increased significantly. That's telling of how students are no longer content with a single degree path. We want to learn more and have more diverse educational backgrounds. Yet the UA remains incredibly rigid when it comes to departments cooperating for the benefit of the student. A few weeks ago, graduate and professional programs announced they were going to collaborate to form interdisciplinary programs. The College of Humanities said it has yet to get a green light from administrators.

Hopefully the next president will realize how strong interdisciplinary programs will not only attract top students who want to go to a university where they get something they will get nowhere else, but also will go along with this new mission we have called Focused Excellence.

The second investment: the Honors College, which is in need of major repair. Two years ago Arizona State University replaced its dean of the Honors College, and here are the results: The UA used to get from 15 to 20 students with the Flinn Scholarship, one of the most prestigious scholarships in Arizona. This year, it only got 11. That

number has been dropping, and it might only drop further if the UA Honors College doesn't re-evaluate its role on campus. The Honors College has wonderful people working for it who are invaluable to many on campus. However, something is going wrong when the UA, unlike ASU, can't get any real honors courses, when it fails to extend its presence and influence outside its home in the Slonaker House, when it has more than 4,000 students and only graduates a few more than 200 a year with honors.

Despite what The New York Times might lead the rest of the country to believe by publishing an article written by an Ivy League-educated man, this university can be a wonderful place to get an education. Here we learn how to live in the real world rather than the bubble world of the private schools. Here we also have wonderful professors and wonderful classes, even those in the general education system. George Gehrels, who has been honored as a distinguished professor, teaches one of the best courses I have ever taken - and it's a gen ed. However, when it comes to undergraduate education, the UA could stand to invest in undergraduates as much as its best professors do.

Perhaps deans need more power to develop creative strategies when it comes to financing and curriculum. Perhaps we need to focus less on a medical school in Phoenix. Whatever it is, it needs to happen, and it needs to happen by prioritizing undergraduate education when selecting the next president.

Keren Raz is a senior majoring in political science and English. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.