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Catholic U. Pushes Homer; Faculty Say D'oh!

February 20, 2009

Catholic University of America may soon have a new freshman curriculum, which some critics say amounts to a new commandment: Thou Shalt Read Homer.

Citing concerns about lagging retention rates, Provost James Brennan is pressing for a new program that would require first-year students to take three common courses, including a two-semester humanities class that focuses on works such as the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Bible. The First Year Experience program, which would group students into small learning communities to study and live together, is designed to improve retention, and in so doing help the tuition-driven institution shore up its financial base in difficult economic times.

“If we raise our retention 10 percentage points toward where we want to be, that would retrieve the money invested in this program within two years,” said Brennan, who anticipates initial expenses of about $1.7 million. “In a financial sense it’s almost a no brainer, but we’re doing it for other reasons. We’re doing it because in the long run we’re not meeting the expectations that students have when they come here. They’re [voting] with their feet.”

The outline of the program has already drawn critics, who say it was hastily crafted and shows no evidence of effectiveness. On the other hand, first year experience programs have gained increasing support in higher education, and Brennan suggests something has to change on campus if the university is going to move the needle on retention rates.

Catholic University loses about 20 percent of its students between their freshman and sophomore years, and another 10 percent between their sophomore and junior years, Brennan said.

The university has had particular problems retaining black students, who graduate at significantly lower rates than their white counterparts. Indeed, the six-year graduation rate for African American freshmen entering between 1994 and 2001 was an average of 29 percentage points lower than that of white students, according to university data. In 2000, the year of the largest graduation gap over a nine year period, the six-year black graduation rate was 25 percent, compared with 75 percent for white students.

The proposed program for freshmen doesn’t specifically deal with minority retention rates, but it is aimed to serve “millennials.” Brennan describes the traditional freshman at Catholic as a student who needs a lot of support transitioning from a nurturing home environment into an urban college setting in the heart of Washington.

“They really need a kind of structured [program] to help them navigate the complexities of a university,” he said. “This perhaps has become even more urgent with increasing years in the post-9/11 world, where so many of these students are buffered and protected and sheltered by others -- usually parents.”

The structure of the proposed program at Catholic borrows heavily from other first year experience programs, which have roots in the late 1800s and have gained momentum in the last 30 years. Students will be grouped into 18-person learning communities, sharing common dormitories, classes and advisers in their first year. Brennan aims to pilot the program in the fall and make it mandatory thereafter.

"No Confidence" in Plan

The First Year Experience plan, which generated quick controversy, was crafted by a nine-member faculty committee, mostly from the humanities. When it was first presented in December to the university’s Undergraduate Board, the board declined to even vote on an endorsement, calling the plan far too prescriptive and specific to be characterized as a rough "framework," as the committee had described it.

More recently, the School of Arts and Sciences passed a resolution pledging that the school wouldn’t incorporate the program into its curriculum because it “risks exacerbating retention problems rather than ameliorating them.” The Academic Council, which includes the chairs of all major departments in Arts and Sciences, passed its own motion expressing “no confidence” in the proposal. Faculty in the school are also discussing a vote of “no confidence” in the provost, according to two faculty members who asked to remain anonymous discussing such a sensitive matter.

Broadly described, faculty who object to the plan -- many of whom asked to remain anonymous -- say it saddles students with yet more required courses, decreasing their ability to explore diverse areas of study or incorporate minors. Much of the frustration, however, is tied to the process by which the plan unfolded. Critics charge that it was hastily crafted to be put into place by fall, giving little time for a true dialogue about a program that stands to become a cornerstone of the institution.

One faculty member described the plan as a “kind of bad knockoff” of the common freshman curriculum at Columbia University, where the chair of the committee that crafted the Catholic plan completed his doctorate.

“This was kind of brought out and put forward to everyone as a done deal,” the faculty member said.

If the process was flawed, however, it may be because there’s no precedent for incorporating an academic initiative across the entire university, according to Barry Yatt, associate dean for undergraduate studies for the School of Architecture and Planning.

“I don’t think [Provost Brennan] was trying to be evil in any way, shape or form, or even bypassing the system; we didn’t have a system,” said Yatt, who sits on the Undergraduate Board that declined to endorse the plan.

While Brennan said he’s open to further input, he maintains that the core elements of the plan -- the creation of learning communities and faculty acting as advisers for their freshmen students -- will remain intact. The proposal also prescribes that the teaching load be distributed between existing faculty, graduate students and a new class of full-time, non-tenure-track teaching faculty who will be required to have terminal degrees in their fields. Brennan plans to give these teaching faculty full health care benefits and salaries between $52,000 and $57,000 for nine-month appointments.

“I’m pretty confident that we’ll be able to hire some really accomplished people who are really good teachers and want to be teachers,” he said.

Lourdes Maria Alvarez, an associate professor of Spanish, said she’s unconvinced that the plan will be a magic bullet for the university’s retention woes. Indeed, she’s concerned that splitting students into small groups makes it less likely that members of underrepresented minority groups will interact with each other, potentially exacerbating retention problems that are already most prevalent in those groups.

“I am seriously concerned about a negative impact on minority students,” she said, “and then we add to that the whole idea of taking away choices, decreasing the likelihood that a Latino student majoring business could take Spanish.”

For First Year Experience programs to be effective, they have to be a true reflection of the “ethos” of the institution, according to Jennifer R. Keup, director of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina.

“It really should reflect the mission, the purpose, the ethos, the values, what that institution is and who that student will be by being an involved integrated member of that institutional environment,” Keup said.

“It can be a very rich discussion,” she added. “Sometimes it can be a little contentious.”

 

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