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Providing educational excellence
for our undergraduate students
by Susan Steele
Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education & Instruction
September 21, 1998
Recent columns in the Advance by President Austin and Chancellor Emmert have emphasized the importance of undergraduate education at a research university and detailed the progress we have made toward becoming the university of first choice for undergraduates. The Office of Undergraduate Education & Instruction, created to make our commitment visible, is charged with spearheading our efforts toward educational excellence at the undergraduate level and instructional excellence at all levels.
Like all major research universities, the academic organization of the University of Connecticut is vertical. Faculty members are organized into departments; departments are organized into colleges and schools; the collection of colleges and schools yields the University proper. Although it has certain isolating effects, this structure has served faculty members, their graduate students and their disciplines very well. The undergraduate experience, on the other hand, especially the early undergraduate experience, cuts across the vertical organization, as students take courses from one department and then.
another or as they move from one college to another. Because of general education requirements, no undergraduate takes all of his or her coursework in a single department; further, the majority of undergraduates change their major at least once in the course of their academic career. A fundamental responsibility of the Office of Undergraduate Education & Instruction, then, is to organize the horizontal path of undergraduates through our vertical institutional structure.
The functional organization of Undergraduate Education & Instruction speaks directly to this challenge.
The first branch - Enrollment Management, including admissions, orientation, scholarships and financial aid - involves efforts to attract and recruit the most talented undergraduates possible, in numbers consistent with our ability to deliver a quality product. If we bring in too few, the University's financial well-being is in jeopardy; if we bring in too many, we won't be able to provide the classes our students require and reasonably expect. Thus, hitting our enrollment target requires a careful balancing of strategically placed financial aid and tactically-defined recruiting - both of which the Enrollment Management team is particularly skilled at delivering. Our goals over the next few years are to gradually build undergraduate enrollments - increasing the size of the incoming class by roughly 125 students per year and improving the first and second-year retention rates - and to simultaneously improve the quality and diversity of these students.
The second branch - the Academic Experience, including the First Year Experience, Academic Center for Exploratory Students, Center for Academic Programs, and High School Coop - focuses on the successful integration of students into the academic community. Most critical here are advising and curricular initiatives. Until this fall, entering students who are undecided as to major or who are in pre-professional programs that admit in the third year were advised in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This arrangement made it difficult for the College to provide enough attention to its declared majors. It also meant that no academic advising center focused exclusively on helping this population with its special advising needs. More generally, because students change their direction often, a purely college- or school-based advising structure is obviously not adequate. The new Academic Center for Exploratory Students provides a place where students can explore their disciplinary options with advisors trained in supporting this process. Our goal this year is to undertake an analysis of advising across campus, in order to strengthen it where necessary and to enhance excellence where it already exists..
The curricular efforts are aimed at building coherence into the academic experience. Outside of the major, students' curricular experiences can be relatively fragmented. They take a selection of classes from a variety of departments, none of which need have any connection to the other. By introducing University expectations and the research experience respectively, the one-unit University Learning Skills courses and the First Year Faculty-Student Seminars provide one kind of curricular connection. From an initial enrollment of less than 300 in fall 1996, the number of students registering for these experiences has grown to nearly 1,100 this fall. The growth was particularly dramatic this fall in the Faculty-Student Seminars component: 12 seminars were offered and 200 students registered. A second more comprehensive effort involves the departments that handle the lion's share of first-year teaching - mathematics, English, psychology, the biology departments and history. Through a grant from the Hewlett Foundation, we are offering a pilot this fall integrating mathematics and composition. As these departments explore the options for linking their entry-level courses, we expect to develop other pilots for next fall, integrating composition and western civilization or biology, or mathematics and psychology. Our goal is that all incoming undergraduates in fall 2000 will have the opportunity to register for either a University Learning Skills course or a First Year Seminar and a set of linked general education courses.
The third branch of Undergraduate Education and Instruction - including Study Abroad, the Individualized Majors Program and the Honors Program - focuses on the enrichment of the undergraduate academic experience. The Honors Program plays a pivotal role, obviously, in these efforts. Under its new leadership, we are assessing the impact of increasing the size of the Honors Program (from 7 percent of our undergraduates to 10 percent) and the character of the honors experience. With the new Honors Hall in South Campus we have already added a strong residential component. But enrichment opportunities should not be limited to Honors students. Thus, a newly appointed faculty group will be considering how to make research and capstone experiences more widely available to all undergraduates. We are also working to make accessible and visible the various off-campus opportunities our students can choose and to provide them with academic connections.
The fourth focus in Undergraduate Education & Instruction - through the University Center for Instructional Media and Technology and the Institute for Teaching and Learning - is to create opportunitie s for faculty and graduate assistant development around instruction and advising. Just as we want to make it easy for students to get the services they need, faculty members and graduate assistants should be able to depend on a coordinated network of instructional support. In support of this goal, the Institute for Teaching and Learning has been charged with enhancing the Faculty Resource Laboratory and with developing partnerships with the library and computer center that will better serve the instructional needs of faculty members.
We hope to move very rapidly on these - and other - initiatives, so that the next two years should see major enhancements in the quality of the undergraduate experience for students and their instructors alike.