Like President-elect Barack Obama, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy wants change. In our case, however, the change is specific—improvements in higher education—and we are backing up our hopes with concrete actions and proposals. We are a nonprofit institute dedicated to helping today’s students by addressing all-too-pervasive problems that include: 1) high costs, 2) declining academic standards, 3) ideological conformity, and 4) lack of a solid grounding in a core education.
As the president of the Pope Center, I would like to review five initiatives the Pope Center took over the past year, report on how they fared, and tell you how we will follow up in 2009.
1) Opening up the Classroom. In July, the Pope Center proposed a change that sounds arcane but would enormously benefit students—and the public, too. Jay Schalin suggested that colleges require professors to post online syllabi (detailed descriptions of their classes) at the time when students actually register for classes. Currently, professors usually post syllabi during the first week of class, long after most students have chosen their courses. Students may sign up for “The Modern Novel” not knowing if they are going to read James Joyce or James Gould Cozzens.
Reaction: At a forum we hosted, faculty were divided about the proposal, which could mean meeting tighter deadlines. Unaccountably, UNC vice president for academic planning Alan Mabe dismissed the idea, saying that students know enough about the courses to choose.
In 2009, we will survey faculty, administrators, and students about this initiative and publicize the results.
2) Reforming the Education Schools. Education schools at universities throughout the country have abandoned teaching students how to teach the basics of reading and math. Many have shifted their curricula have shifted to “social justice.” At a time when our public schools are failing, this is appalling.
Our paper by George Cunningham, an education-school professor who taught at the University of Louisville, broke through the façade of “student-centered learning.” That is a deceptive description of the current fad in education—letting the child determine his or her education. It means abandoning traditional concepts in favor of self-expression.
Then, Jay Schalin looked at the “social justice” curriculum at the education school at UNC-Chapel Hill. He found that the school is replete with Marxist ideas. Much of the graduate-level curriculum, particularly in the leadership classes, he wrote, has “everything to do with politics and nothing to do with helping students become more adept at teaching or administering a school.”
Reaction: We received polite attention, even from ed schools, but we have yet to see change. We will do more in the months ahead to put education schools in the public eye.
3) Informing Students about Good Courses. As some readers know, the Pope Center used to feature a “Course of the Month,” alerting students about which courses to avoid. We aren’t doing that anymore; instead, in 2008 we took two steps to direct students to better courses.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, undergraduates must choose general education courses by negotiating a complex formula of distribution requirements. Under the direction of Jenna Ashley Robinson, our campus outreach coordinator, we created a “GenEd” survey that asked students for their best-course recommendations. We came up with 18 classes, taught by professors whom we named.
Second, we created a statewide Spirit of Inquiry Award to identify the best courses. We had 27 nominations from five schools. (It turned out that the winners all came from UNC-Chapel Hill.)
Reaction: We have just finished a second GenEd survey at N.C. State and plan to expand it to East Carolina University. As for the Spirit of Inquiry contest, the first-prize winner, Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, expressed surprise that he won because he is a “capital-L liberal.” But he met the criteria for getting students to learn how to think, not what to think—and idea that the Pope Center has been promoting since its inception.
4) Bringing New Ideas to Campus. We also help students and faculty by introducing ideas that are currently ignored or marginalized—such as the values that free markets provide society and the benefits of traditional education. In 2008 we helped sponsor a lecture tour at four colleges by David Beito and sponsored a lecture at UNC-Chapel Hill by Mark Bauerlein.
David Beito, a history professor at the University of Alabama, discussed the role of black fraternal societies (groups like the Odd Fellows and the Free Masons) and their relationship to the civil rights movement in the South. For blacks experiencing severe discrimination, these voluntary associations provided economic and social support that is little recognized today. The North Carolina History Project joined us in sponsoring Beito’s talks at N.C. Central, St. Augustine’s, N.C. State, and Campbell.
Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, is author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. He contends that the tech-savvy students of today cocoon themselves in social networks, separated from much of reality avoiding education.
Reaction: Both speakers were hits. We hope to bring additional provocative ideas to North Carolina campuses in 2009.
5) Promoting the Teaching Specialist. Some faculty members at Pennsylvania State, Florida State, and other universities specialize in teaching rather than research and are rewarded with high salaries and long-term contracts. They are not on a tenure track, but neither are they stigmatized as “adjuncts” or “contingent” faculty. In 2007, Dirk Mateer, a teaching specialist at Penn State, wrote a Clarion Call article about his experience.
This year, Mateer returned for a roundtable of education reformers led by Pope Center director of research George Leef. The teaching specialist was a hot topic. Although there was nostalgia for the “ideal” combination of researcher and teacher, the participants recognized that this is a positive way of overcoming the rigidities and low productivity caused by tenure.
Reaction: We are going to learn more and perhaps champion this as a cost-effective way of improving the quality of teaching.
The Pope Center did a lot of other things in 2008, too. In addition to writing articles on our Web site (we post new articles three times a week), we issued papers on legal education (receiving notoriety for suggesting that North Carolina is “under-lawyered”); provided a new twist on an old case, Griggs v. Duke Power, in a paper by Bryan O’Keefe and Richard Vedder; and held a roundtable on higher education in addition to the one mentioned above. We even helped kill a few bad ideas cooked up by the North Carolina legislature.
Please stay in touch with the Pope Center and contact Jane Shaw if you have any questions or concerns about higher education that we can help with.