One college model gains steam in strategic plan talks

Groups of professors and administrators have spent two months pitching bold solutions for GW’s strategic plan and one change has been gaining momentum: creating a single college for all undergraduates.

Instead of tethering students to specific schools like the Elliott School of International Affairs, all undergraduates could study in a single, umbrella college to encourage cross-disciplinary studies and make it easier to double major, administrators said at a strategic plan town hall May 8.

The one-college model, which is common across higher education and the norm in the Ivy League, could also set up more skill-based courses taught across GW, like the current requirement for all undergraduates to take University Writing.

Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning Forrest Maltzman said the model would allow the University to teach the same “core set of key skills” to all students. He added that specific curricular changes had not yet been discussed, but said he thought it would help the University’s academic structure by encouraging students to study multiple fields.

“There are real barriers right now for students to have a double major in two different schools. The one-college idea is one that we’re exploring, and we really want to get feedback on it,” Brian Richmond, chair of the anthropology department and head of the strategic plan’s group on interdisciplinary studies, said.

“The idea I think, what this would help us do, is really explore what we want every GW undergraduate to come away with in their education at GW,” Richmond added.

The “student-focused” change would not affect academic organization for departments or deans, Richmond said.

The Board of Trustees will deliberate on the strategic plan ideas over the summer, Provost Steven Lerman said, with faculty and administrators finalizing details before its released in the fall. He said if it is adopted into the strategic plan, which will be unveiled in October, a one-college model would not come to fruition until 2015 or 2016.

“I have a lofty ambition for the idea of one school,” Lerman said at the May 8 town hall. “I could imagine a real conversation about what are the foundations of a modern education at a university like ours.”

He also said laying out skill sets that all undergraduates should acquire would likely need a one-college model.

At the town hall, which drew more than 200 people to hear the progress of the groups working on GW’s 10-year strategic plan, administrators hyped several other ideas like showing off research through a GW think tank and extending “deep international programs to South America and sub-Saharan Africa.”

The strategic plan, a signature piece of University President Steven Knapp’s agenda, will look to define GW’s next 10 years. Working groups divided into the four themes of innovation through interdisciplinary work, globalization, citizenship and governance and policy have tried to whittle down the plan’s initial ideas since March.

The University has looked to expand its interdisciplinary academic offerings this year, creating a sustainability minor that is housed in the provost’s office instead of a single school. Richmond said the focus on interdisciplinary academics would help students focus on solutions to global issues, instead of just learning the tenants of a discipline.

Richmond also added that different schools vying for students’ tuition dollars when they double major across schools comes “at the expense of the best undergraduate experience.”

“Part of [the current structure] is just the way the University has evolved. Schools can be siloed and in order to create an interdisciplinary major, it involves some pretty intensive negotiations over who gets what tuition dollars between the different schools,” Richmond said.

Administrators cautioned that the strategic plan working groups and faculty members would provide significant input before the proposal is given the green light.

Maltzman said the University was pushing to bring down institutional barriers. For him, the issue was underlined when a parent lamented that her daughter could not major in both public health and music.

“The parent said our only disappointment was that our daughter couldn’t double major in music. And I sat there, and my job is to defend the University, but that’s very difficult to defend,” Maltzman said at the town hall. “It’s almost a sad statement about one of the things that had happened.”

“All institutions need to continuously innovate. The strategic planning process has helped to ensure that this is happening,” he added in an email.

The one-college model is common at universities so that students can students face a “core set of standards” in their education, said Linda DeAngelo, assistant research director at the Higher Education Research Institute, a research center housed at University of California-Los Angeles.

She said changing the University’s undergraduate structure would take careful planning.

“Change is hard. Institutions of higher education by their very nature are conservative and change slowly,” DeAngelo said. “This is certainly a big proposal and it will take strong leadership to move it forward and have it succeed.”

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