From 2016-2019 I had two positions that have taught me a lot about academic leadership and organizations. I led the process of redeveloping UNC’s General Education curriculum, “IDEAs in Action,” which was approved in April 2019; and I sat on the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) elected Council. These two blog posts are intended to explain some of the things I’ve learned from both of these experiences .
This first post will deal with what I’ve learned from three years chairing the curriculum redesign process.
I was asked by then-Dean (now Chancellor) Kevin Guskiewicz to lead a committee he appointed to examine and redesign our general education curriculum. The committee decided early on that the question would not be how should we modify our existing curriculum but rather how should a general education curriculum bring Carolina’s strengths to the task of educating our students?
The process was led by a faculty committee. We held countless meetings with faculty, students, staff, and others, to gather ideas about the goals of the curriculum. We engaged student government, student organizations, alumni, and community members early and throughout the process. We appointed dozens of task forces, subcommittees, and expert panels comprising over 200 faculty, students, and staff, to make recommendations on particular pieces. We presented before, listened to, took questions from, and ultimately asked approval of, faculty governance committees as well as the Faculty Council.
In the end, we crafted a curriculum proposal that was approved overwhelmingly by the Faculty Council, and it’s in the process of being implemented for students arriving in 2021. I’m very proud of it. I think it’s intellectually rigorous and ambitious. It helps students make the most of the big, often confusing research university at which they’re studying. And it helps break down some of the inequalities our students “bring in the door” due to their very different social, economic, and educational backgrounds. But the point of this post is not the curriculum itself. It’s to discuss some of the leadership lessons I learned from the process.
While I was in the middle of it, the typical response when I told people what I was doing was “I’m so sorry,” or “how did you get dragged into that?” But the truth is I loved the work. Not every moment of it, to be sure; there were plenty of times it made me anxious, upset, or even angry. Overall, though, it was exhilarating to be able to think expansively about the core goals of this public and wonderful university and to work with a lot of great people to do something collaborative and ambitious. Here are a few lessons I learned.
The structure of the university does not lend itself to college- or university-wide thinking. Most faculty’s primary horizon is their department, and that’s as it should be. But that structure means most faculty see themselves primarily as citizens of their departments. The primary threat to good curriculum design is disciplinary turf battles; one person expressed it as “what faculty want to teach” instead of “what students need to learn.” As much as we think intellectually that disciplines are in some sense arbitrary, we often fight tooth and nail to preserve and privilege our own. It was crucial for us to ask faculty consciously to view themselves as citizens of the university, not just of their departments. Why should a student be required to study this? Is a question any academic should be prepared to address. At many meetings we had to push faculty: what should non-major students gain from studying in your area?
Most people involved are acting in good faith. University faculty, staff, and administrators are generally in those positions because they care about the university and its goals. I thought plenty of them were wrong, and plenty of them thought I (and my colleagues) were wrong. It’s easy to dismiss opponents as narrow-minded, provincial, territorial, or just plain frustrating, but I think pretty much everyone actually acted in good faith, raising issues they found substantively important and trying to advocate for a good outcome. It helped to keep asking some basic questions: Why do you disagree with a particular part? What would make it better? How does your position contribute to the ultimate goal of an excellent, inclusive, demanding experience for students?
Faculty in resource-poor departments and universities become very risk-averse. We were undertaking this project in the context of very tight budgets and declining state support. Funding has been low across the University–particularly, but not by any means exclusively, in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Nobody has been able to hire as much as they should. Innovation requires risk-taking, though, and risk aversion is a natural response to resource constraints. The effect is that, as one colleague quipped, “there’s nobody as conservative as the progressive faculty.” Thorp and Goldstein (39) quote F. M. Cornford’s satirical comment that that sometimes the faculty’s position is: nothing should ever be done for the first time.
There’s no way around conflict, only through. When good, committed people disagree about a matter, it’s valuable to work through that disagreement. There were times it was tempting for us to ignore criticism, but I think that would have eventually been much worse for the result of our work. Conflict and disagreement are good for policymaking. We delayed approval of the new curriculum twice in order to make sure we worked through conflict, and while I was really frustrated we had to do that each time, the alternative would have been much worse. And the curriculum we ended with was better because of that conflict and compromise.
Don’t consider individual questions in isolation. There is far more important, valuable material that could be part of a curriculum than can feasibly be included. What that means is that many cases for requirements are very convincing on their own. Personal finance! Alcohol and drug abuse! American history! Healthy diet and exercise! The list of fully valuable requirements was endless, and could easily have filled students’ entire college careers and more. It’s crucial to understand the effects each such decision would have on the whole system and consider the decisions in that context.
Working with great colleagues is indispensable. The committee I worked with was dedicated, generous, tenacious, supportive, and communicative, not to mention brilliant. To be honest, though, it’s probably not the committee I would have chosen at the outset if it had been up to me–we came at the task with substantial intellectual differences among the group, and working through those differences really helped improve our work. I learned a tremendous amount from the experience, in large part because the colleagues I worked with made our committee intellectually vibrant.