How we are improving the undergraduate experience

Chancellor's Corner

Rachael Garner/File

A few weeks ago I held a fireside chat with students on the subject of undergraduate education.  Much of the conversation concerned curricular issues, from majors to breadth requirements, from DeCal courses to the role of electives and freedom of choice.

The conversation ranged widely, and was both incisive and impassioned. One student seemed opposed to any breadth requirements at all, protesting the idea that he should have to take any courses in science fields.  Others worried that coursework had the effect of reducing the level of passion Berkeley students brought with them to campus, particularly for pursuits outside the classroom, including, increasingly, entrepreneurship.

We heard about the importance of making real connections with faculty, how early years in particular could be alienating especially with large lecture classes and an environment in which research was seemingly given greater importance than teaching.  Many spoke very highly of the freshman seminar experience, and some thought that we needed more rather than less structure for the lower division, while others found fault with the current structure of breadth courses.  And we heard about the importance of ensuring that all students feel the excitement and power of being part of a great research university, through doing real research and through practical engagement with their chosen subjects.

It was, as the fireside chats invariably are, fascinating both for what was said and how it was said.  As always, students enjoyed interacting with other students from different backgrounds and different interests.  Some students — echoing words I have heard repeatedly — complained that they too often find themselves moving within narrow social circles.   While energized by the larger Berkeley environment and participation in extracurricular activities and community service, students also expressed a desire for a greater sense of community on campus, and in their intellectual and academic lives.  One student lobbied hard to have me visit Bowles Hall, a residence hall that has been known for its commitment to engaged student life and, thanks to alumni contributions, will be renovated over the next year as the residential college it was initially set up to be.

College life has always been the subject of vigorous debate in the United States, whether in regard to the nature of residential life and student culture, or in the context of questions about what should be taught, what is the meaning and purpose of an undergraduate degree, and whether colleges should focus on vocational and career specific training or on the broad education of the citizen and moral subject. Yale, Harvard and Princeton were well known for emphasizing residential life early in their histories with their colleges, houses and eating clubs, while Columbia, for many years, and NYU, even more recently, educated students who for the most part commuted from home.  UC Berkeley established one of the first of the nation’s residential colleges in Bowles Hall, but did not provide extensive options for dormitory life until the last few decades.  Columbia and Chicago established common “core” curricular offerings that famously situated “great books” and “great ideas” at the center of undergraduate teaching, while Harvard introduced the idea of electives and student choice.  One of the most notable experiments in undergraduate education was conducted at the University of California, when Clark Kerr and Dean McHenry established the new campus in Santa Cruz, with residential colleges that not only housed faculty but provided part of their appointment.

The undergraduate initiative underway now at Berkeley is designed to focus our collective attention on all of these questions and issues, with a new level of urgency and continued commitment to ensure that we provide the right kind of experience and opportunities for all of our extraordinary students — see last month’s column.  We have therefore been in the process of evaluating and consolidating the enormous progress made in recent years.  For example, we intend to extend the availability and importance of freshman seminars, while continuing to develop course threads and cross-disciplinary “Big Ideas” courses, further expanding the hugely successful Berkeley Connect program, providing greater coherence to our advising programs and enhancing the residential experience in our dorms and residence halls.  We also continue to monitor and support courses and majors that attract the largest numbers of students.  We hope, however, to do much more.

In one of the more exciting developments over the past year, a faculty committee has been designing a new set of courses in the field of data analytics, customized to different kinds of student interests and focused on teaching a new kind of data literacy that will only grow in importance in the coming decades.   We are also tackling the question of how to evaluate what kinds of goals should be set for all of our students, even while offering more depth and practical engagement in specialized fields of study.  Stepping back to look at the totality of issues that make up the undergraduate experience, I, along with the students, staff and faculty on the initiative’s steering committee, have been revisiting some of the age-old debates and issues noted above.  How do we enhance our curriculum and undergraduate experience to meet the evolving needs and interests of students, create a common set of intellectual experiences that will advance our fundamental moral and educational mission and foster a more complete sense of community among students?  Can we try to do this not just through the creation of new courses but the development of new institutional structures, both residential and academic?  And how should we balance not just “general” and “specialized” education but also the institutional missions of teaching and research, as well as the classical concerns of an intellectual life with the commitment to cosmopolitan engagement with the world.

Our ultimate success will depend in part on our capacity to engage the whole campus community in these deliberations and debates.  As we move ahead, I look forward not just to many more fireside chats, but to hearing from you all about these critical issues.  Let me know what you think!

Chancellor’s Corner is a monthly opinion piece by UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

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