The next decade of GW’s future is critical. The state of higher education faces unprecedented change.
The University has big plans for the next 10 years, outlined by administrators in the strategic plan released Tuesday. Spearheaded by Provost Steven Lerman, along with administrators, students and faculty, the document will face the Board of Trustees in February. The plan is clear and forward-looking, and will hopefully propel GW onto stronger academic ground. But in its current state, it also has a number of weaknesses.
Before the Board gives its approval to the strategic plan, there are a few parts that should be amended and elements that should be clarified.
An overarching curriculum
One of the key parts of the plan is a proposal to develop a core curriculum that provides all students with a central set of skills and knowledge before receiving a degree. As it stands, University Writing is the only course required across schools before graduation.
But this change comes after the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the Elliott School of International Affairs have recently restructured their curriculums, and the GW School of Business is in the process of doing so, raising the question of why such an overhaul is even necessary.
The plan also calls for enrolling students into the University as a whole, rather than to specific colleges. Admitting students to the University could undermine individual schools’ prestige, as some of the more elite programs generate a higher level of appeal.
Administrators have said that having a unified undergraduate college would make it easier for students to switch between different courses of study. But as it is, switching into another college is not difficult. Instead of taking dramatic steps to reorganize the structure of the University, administrators should instead ensure current and prospective students better understand the process to switch majors and schools.
Drastic structural changes are not necessary, but improved communication is.
What the plan lacks
The University is undergoing a transition. It is struggling to define itself as either a liberal arts institution or a school that focuses on teaching specialized skills to prepare students for the job market.
In this plan, the University attempts to do both.
The strategic plan was organized around four broad principles: globalization, governance and policy, innovation through cross-disciplinary collaboration and citizenship and leadership.
It’s no secret that GW is hoping to increase interdisciplinary collaboration over the course of the next decade among departments, students and faculty, and with good reason. Interdisciplinary education offers students a chance to immerse themselves in a wide array of intellectual fields. The plan to build small research centers would create more opportunities for students, including those who are looking to explore interests outside their major.
But if creative thought and innovation are top priorities, those goals should have been clearly spelled out as one of the guiding tenets of the plan, not just mentioned in a few vague bullet points.
The job market for today’s college graduate is challenging to say the least. Students are expected not only to have good grades, but to have a number of marketable experiences to be considered by many employers. And having skills outside their specific major will give students a leg up.
That’s why the plan could have also mandated that students take on minors to complement their majors. Although some students, like engineers, might find it difficult to fit in an extra concentration, many others could benefit from an added skill, like those in the School of Media and Public Affairs.
The plan makes clear the University’s increasing emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math courses, but any notable devotion to the social sciences and humanities is absent.
In the past few years, these courses have been called into question time and time again. But these courses are integral to any undergraduate education. The humanities teach students critical thinking and how to write well – both essential skills. Students may not remember obscure chemical formulas forever, but writing is a lifelong skill.
An evolving gameplan
Some ideas in the plan – like the goal to renovate performance space on campus, which shows recognition of the value of the arts – are commendable.
In light of the reality that many students have to forgo unpaid internships for paying jobs, the University has demonstrated a commitment to establish a scholarship fund, giving students the financial means to work as interns even if they are not paid.
And in keeping with the trend of hiring part-time professors who also excel in the workforce, the University has expressed interest in increasing the number of professionals who share their expertise in the classroom. Termed “reverse sabbatical,” this new approach would continue giving students who attend the University insight into potential career paths.
The plan both looks into the past and anticipates the future, providing the community at large with the University’s vision of itself in the years to come. As such, this plan should not be a steadfast rule, but rather a flexible document that can adapt with the changing educational climate.
As a community which has continually evolved over the past 200 years, we recognize the importance this plan will have on the future prestige of the University and the value of a GW degree.
And this document must fully reflect it.