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A New Vision for Undergraduate Education

“One BU” aims to break down academic barriers

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A report titled “One BU: Unlocking the Undergraduate Experience” examines ways Boston University can expand its undergraduate experience.

The key concepts of “One BU,” Boston University’s Strategic Plan, initiated in 2006 by President Robert A. Brown, include the central idea that, given its diverse schools and colleges, the University could build a competitive advantage by facilitating intermediate interactions among students and faculty in ways that enhance teaching, research, and service missions.

In 2008, University Provost David Campbell created a task force to examine how the One BU concept could be applied to redefine and improve the undergraduate educational experience. Led by Victor Coelho, associate provost for undergraduate education, the task force released its findings yesterday in a 42-page report called “One BU: Unlocking the Undergraduate Experience.”

According to Coelho, the report is a blueprint for expanding undergraduate opportunities by integrating activities and expanding opportunities for students across schools and programs.

“The University has an obligation to prepare students for lifelong learning,” he says. “A broad liberal arts education, combined with a solid background in a specific professional area, will allow students to pivot between careers and increase their options intellectually and vocationally.”

Comprising of deans, faculty members, administrators, and students, the 17-member committee emphasizes bridging the divide between BU’s liberal arts and professional schools. “We need to start looking at the University as a single entity,” Coelho says. “Education should be holistic.”

The report provides 60 recommendations for ways in which the University can enrich the undergraduate experience. The most logical place to start, he says, is by reducing barriers between schools and colleges.

“A recent New York Times poll indicates that nearly 16 percent of college graduates wish they had majored in something different,” he says. “But students hesitate switching because it’s so hard to do without falling behind and because the walls of colleges are not as porous as they might be.”

BU’s broad lineup of professional and liberal arts schools distinguishes it from smaller colleges, Campbell says. “We have schools for fine and liberal arts,” he says, “but we also have schools for journalism, business, and law.”

Campbell calls this the BU Advantage. “A 21st-century liberal arts education should provide a way to discover lifelong intellectual and vocational interests by offering a perspective on how knowledge is used and created in different fields,” he says.

Universities place too much emphasis on courses that relate only to a student’s major, according to Coelho. “The obsession to choose a major early on makes getting a liberal arts education all the more difficult,” he says.

The first step is for BU to determine what constitutes a general education. “There needs to be something that brands every BU student,” he adds, “something that makes the BU student unique.”

The plan suggests the addition of more introductory, “gateway,” courses, similar to those offered by the new University Honors College, which emphasize an interdisciplinary structure and collaborative research.

This would allow open dialogue between professional schools and the liberal arts and sciences, Campbell says. Students would continue to satisfy requirements for existing majors while taking advantage of an interdisciplinary structure.

Committee members also recommend grouping related courses from different schools into "clusters." For example, Coelho says, a student interested in the environment might take classes in environmental political activism, geology, and Henry David Thoreau. With more than 7,000 courses to choose from, it would be easy to create clusters around a strong theme. “The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among many others, has had tremendous success with this concept,” he says.

The committee also proposes offering combined undergraduate and graduate degrees, increasing access to the arts, achieving greater global and technology competencies, expanding the School of Management entrepreneurship program to extend beyond the school, and offering science courses that address relationships between technology, public policy, and ethics. “The idea is to provide a more contextual base for the sciences at the general education level by making them relate more within society,” Coelho says.

The committee’s recommendations “are absolutely in step with the transformations that are taking place throughout the country, and very much part of the national conversation about undergraduate education,” he adds.

“We’re confident that the implementation of these suggestions will improve opportunities to make BU a more intellectually exciting place,” Campbell says. “Without sacrificing any educational rigor, we hope to offer a competitive advantage and enhance our ability to attract top-notch students.”

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @vickywaltz.

8 Comments

8 Comments on A New Vision for Undergraduate Education

  • Anonymous on 02.23.2010 at 9:48 am

    The university already has a program in place (that has been in place for years) that provides gateway courses and an interdisciplinary structure — it’s called The College of General Studies. The university always seems to forget about this program …

  • Anonymous on 02.23.2010 at 10:13 am

    This movement sounds like it is only going to become more difficult to fill majors with a heavy load of requirements. A cap should be put on the number of required courses for a major if the University insists on throwing in more intro courses.

  • Anonymous on 02.23.2010 at 11:45 am

    How to bridge the gap

    Want to bridge the gap? Close down CGS. The gap between professional schools like SMG, SHA, and COM, and liberal arts and engineering is due to the fact that CGS students flood the professional schools junior year and the educational quality immediately drops. The atmosphere as a freshman in SMG was extremely intense, competitive, collaborative and dynamic. My peers were pursuing double majors or minors through CAS, and many of them had the math skills to succeed in ENG. Unfortunately, as soon as CGS students arrived the educational quality dropped dramatically. Exams were curved to the point where some students exceeded 100% so that former CGS students could get a C. Because they make up such a large proportion of our class (they don’t have the math, writing, or science skills to succeed in CAS due to their rigid, high school-like curriculum), upper level SMG courses suffer as professors attempt to reduce grade variance by producing subjective exams with a grade “floor” and by making team projects and class participation the majority of our grade. SMG would certainly be among the best undergrad business programs if it weren’t the inevitable destination of so many CGS students.

  • Dr Bill Rohde on 02.23.2010 at 2:35 pm

    Block Learning - is BU ready?

    Cornell College has developed a block learning plan that gives the entire class fundamental presentations in the major areas of academic tradition, and then allows students and faculty to undertake only one course at a time, working together intensively for short periods so that cross fertilization replaces collaboration and the student becomes an active participant in developing resources necessary to reach a common goal. EXCELLENCE, no matter what ability, block learning promotes excellence. Is BU ready? Take a look http://www.cornellcollege.edu/academics/ocaat/index.shtml (It may be ancient history, but in 1967, the President of Cornell College, Dr. Arland Christ-Janer, left my alma mater to become President of Boston University. Dr. Christ-Janer was determined that a college experience must create what he called a “new Weltanschauung” that gave every student a real foundation in the common elements necessary to understand contemporary life, and also gave students the time to probe subjects in depth, in preparation for real world challenges, that do not adhere to semester plans, but require sustained and concentrated effort. With the tools of distance learning, the entire BU campus world can become a unified resource that empowers students to question rather than memorize, and to build rather than remain bored and passive.) . . .You say that you’re a jock and you don’t know that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields at Eton? You need a resource!

  • Anonymous on 02.23.2010 at 4:29 pm

    Sounds good on paper....

    As others have mentioned, part of my concern with such a program lies in the fact that it will make it infinitely harder for students to finish requirement heavy programs within 4 years. While this is often not a problem for many students, for some it imposes an insurmountable financial burden.

    Further, I think that overly permeable barriers between fields does not allow for an education in any field that is rigorous and specific enough to prepare students for graduate education or the job market in their chosen field.

    Not to mention that a slew of introductory courses that range so widely might over whelm students and, ultimately, make the choice of which major to declare more and more difficult rather than helping students refine their ideas and goals.

    The walls should be softer than perhaps they currently are, granted. But, tossing all too often under-prepared high school students into so many options without looking for ways to help them choose a path is not helpful.

    Regarding the statistic about the number of graduates who wish they had done another major….that is life! Hence, graduate programs, career changes, life changes that force career changes onto people….these bumps in the road are inevitable!

  • joke on 02.23.2010 at 5:36 pm

    HAHAHAHAHA such integration makes it into the news?
    When I applied for transfer here, I was APPALLED when I finally figured out how UN-integrated the various aspects of the university was. Sending me from 881 to CAS, to all sorts of departments in the big campus….and back to 881, and back to my dorm confused and typing an email to some name handed to me from some office assistant…Hallelujah! Fun times…my full BU tour!

    Tmr’s new should read: BU’s dining halls serve food!

  • Anonymous on 02.23.2010 at 6:12 pm

    RE: How to bridge the gap

    I absolutely agree with the first comment regarding CGS. I find it hard to understand how on Earth SMG can maintain such a double standard when it admits students from the CGS. I mean no offense to students from CGS as I am friends with many of them, but as someone who put in the time, work and effort to be at the School of Management it is REALLY annoying to see kids that get in with half the credentials, take no initiative and have little interest in anything.

    How is it that students from CGS can enter SMG with JUST a C in SM229 (the transfer class) when a student from ANY OTHER school on campus REQUIRE a B?

    CGS students are required to have ONLY a 2.3 GPA where as all students from other schools are required to have a 2.7 GPA!

    The CGS website even indicates that students at CGS have an average SAT mean that is 181 points LOWER than than the average BU students mean SAT score.

    The average BU student ranked in the top 10% of his/her graduating class (with an A- average) where as the average CGS student graduated in the top 21% (with a B+ average).
    ( http://www.bu.edu/cgs/about/faq/#gpa )

    And these are just SOME of the numbers that prove the fact that the quality of the classroom is diminished upon their entry in Junior year. It is even worse to actually be IN one of those classes…

    The College of General Studies is a joke and as many of the students themselves say ‘it is just a second high school’. How and why does something like that have a place within a University that is attempting to be a world renowned research institution? Enough with the bull shit. Cut CGS so we can finally move up in the rankings for a change! It is frustrating to watch us moving lower every year when even Northeastern is on an upward trend!

  • Anonymous on 02.24.2010 at 2:32 pm

    Having attending CAS, I can attest to the quality of preparation of CGS grads who arrived in junior year. Often, they were more motivated and had better study habits than those of us who began CAS as freshmen. My impression is that CGS embodies a commitment to teaching and individualized attention that other BU schools could stand to emulate.

    Perhaps in SMG (smug), the standards are so lofty that only those lucky few who have had the chance to lightly glide on the polished marble staircase since freshman year can succeed.

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