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Thinning Requirements for Thinning Budgets

October 31, 2008

Among students in a discipline, small seminars sort the wheat from the chaff. There are no large lecture halls in which to hide from a question. Everyone notices those who are tardy or absent. And don’t even think about not reading for class. Beginning next quarter, some students at the University of California at Los Angeles will be spared this experience, at least while completing their basic requirements for graduation.

The Faculty Executive Committee of the College of Letters and Sciences recently voted to suspend the condition that at least one of a student’s 10 general education requirements be an approved lower-level seminar. Students in the university’s other four enrolling undergraduate schools do not need to complete a seminar to meet their differing general education requirements. While UCLA is operating with a constrained budget -- with further cuts likely on the horizon -- college officials maintain that the decision to drop the seminar requirement was not simply budgetary, but also curricular.

Judith L. Smith, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education, said the seminar requirement was relatively new and resulted from a 2002 review of the overall general education requirements. Before those changes, many students took small lower-level seminar courses as part of either a selective honors program or an optional general education cluster sequence the college offers to incoming students. As part of that cluster -- which is still an option for freshmen -- a student takes a seminar in a discipline of his or her choice after completing general education courses in that same discipline. After the 2002 curricular review, she said, the seminar requirement was added for all students in the college.

Despite widespread recognition of the value of small, concentrated courses, the requirement raised some issues. As students had to complete certain general education prerequisite courses to quality for seminars, Smith said, there was an enrollment crunch for the prerequisites. Since 2001-2, UCLA's college freshman class has grown to 3,800 from 3,200 students, outpacing the number of seats available in the seminars. Waning interest from faculty and straining budgets limited the college's ability to create enough seminars in the various disciplines to accommodate the growing number of freshmen. And with many people at the university interested in creating more seminars as senior-level capstone courses within majors, Smith said the college did not have adequate funds to increase the number of lower-level seminars as well.

“We had a number of students waiting until they were seniors to fulfill this requirement, as we have not had enough courses and have not been able to get faculty to be vested in them,” Smith said, noting that, despite the suspension of the requirement, lower-level seminars will still be available for those students with an interest. “If you can’t do it well, then maybe it’s time to reconsider what the purpose of the seminar was and whether it’s realistic to continue.”

Although acknowledging that the suspension addresses immediate concerns, other university officials expressed unease as to what it might mean for the future. Bruce Beiderwell, director of writing programs at UCLA, said he is concerned suspension of other requirements could result, and possibly become permanent. He said the writing program was cut to only required courses five years ago, abandoning popular upper-level and optional writing courses.

While no writing requirements are directly affected by this seminar suspension, Beiderwell said he was concerned his program and others like it would bear the brunt of future trimmings.

“Right now, it is unfortunate that we’re in a spot where undergraduate education is taking a hit,” Beiderwell said. “These requirements were not created out of nothing and for nothing.”

While there was some concern among faculty about the seminar suspension, Smith said it was ultimately supported because it does not change the essence of the general education requirement. Students still must take the same number of courses and are exposed to many different disciplines. Smith also said that UCLA had suspended the requirement only to remedy the current enrollment crunch and accommodate budget realities; the faculty, she said, will probably review the move in the spring to determine whether to adopt it permanently. At the moment, she said she is unsure of the future of the seminar requirement.

“We would have liked to be more successful,” Smith said of the requirement. “Still, it’s also necessary to rethink what you thought was best practice."

 

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