A new (good?) idea

"I think we need to accept reality. Public and legislative opinions will be changed not by words, but by deeds."- Manuel Pacheco in his 1994 state of the University of Arizona address.

After months of giving a lot of lip-service to improving undergraduate education, the UA administration is finally taking action. This week President Pacheco and Provost Paul Sypherd unveiled the new-fangled "university college" plan which dramatically overhauls undergraduate education so dramatic that one would almost expect the "2001: Space Odyssey Theme" to play whenever it's mentioned.

The plan calls for assigning each entering student to a faculty mentor. Good idea. The plan also calls for ensuring students opportunities for senior research projects. Good idea. We especially like the idea of changing the promotion and tenure structure to reward efforts in undergraduate education. Then again we'll only believe it when we see it.

But the most interesting aspect of the model is that all incoming students will have to enroll in an introductory college. As freshmen and sophomores, each year they will be required to take six units in three areas: natural sciences; art and humanities; and individuals and societies. At least for the first year of the plan, these classes will be survey courses. For example, chemistry, physics and biology could be covered by a natural science class.

At this point, it would seem impetuous to come out for or against the core course plan because the administration has only given a vague outline of what it will entail. However, we have several questions and concerns that we'd like to see addressed:

1) How many sections of these core classes will be offered and how big will they be? Are there going to be 500-person lecture hall courses or classes with less than 50 students? Either way there will be problems accommodating 4,500 incoming freshmen.

If the core courses are large lecture halls, the whole purpose of the "university college" plan would be defeated. Imagine having three 500-person classes every semester for two years. Not a very pleasant prospect. Any gains in "personalizing" the university with the faculty mentor program could be nullified by students sitting in arena-size classrooms for two years.

Let's say classes are limited to 50 students. Simple math: there will have to be 90 sections of each of the three freshmen core courses. That's 270 teaching slots that will need to be filled. Keep in mind that students will be required to take two years' worth. Take into account that some freshmen drop out, and the university will still have at least 450 teaching slots to be filled by faculty. Where is the administration going to find so many faculty members? An even better question: Will faculty members be willing teach these classes?

2) How will these courses be organized? Will there be one teacher for each course or a slew of teachers? In a social sciences course, will a political science professor be teaching psychology? If each course is taught by a group of professors, will the classes have any consistency? Could professors ever agree on a common course syllabus for the classes? How many books will students have to buy per class?

3) The creation of a new "university college" means more bureaucracy and more administrators. How many new administrators will have to be hired? How much will it cost to even create such a college?

4) How much student and faculty input will be accepted in the planning stages? If there is a strong backlash against the plan, will the administration ditch the idea? If there is not a consensus among faculty supporting the program, what will happen?

The "university college" plan is intriguing enough, but it looks like it could be a logistical nightmare. Questions need to be asked now and administrators must start developing a more detailed model for the "university college."

Pacheco is right. The university administration needs to accept reality, but whether the "university college" plan is a realistic solution remains to be seen.

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