Proposed change to core curriculum divides faculty

By Maggie Jackson



A proposed new core curriculum that reduces the number of courses students are required to take has many liberal arts faculty concerned, particularly those who teach philosophy and religious studies.

Currently under Core Objective Four, students must take one course in philosophy and one in religious studies, as well as a third course, an elective, in either of those subjects.

If the revised core curriculum is approved, the elective will be dropped, lowering the number of required credits in those subjects from nine to six, said philosophy Prof. Beth Oljar.

While no final decision has been made, philosophy and religious studies professors are appealing to fellow faculty and the university community at large to keep the shared elective in the core curriculum, said philosophy Chair David Koukal.

“We are trying to make our argument wherever we can make it and try to address these shortcomings, and we will see how it goes,” said Koukal.

A decision is expected in April

The new core will affect others subjects, as well. Currently, Core Objective Three requires nine credits in natural and social sciences. The three-credit elective would be eliminated for those subjects, too.

The new core has been in development since November 2005, but the changes related to philosophy, religious studies and the sciences have been recent, said Koukal.

The current core has six objectives: communication skills, math and computer skills, scientific literacy, meaning and value, diverse human experience and social responsibility.

The new core also has six objectives, but encourages students to use the courses to see the world a different way, said architecture Prof. Anthony Martinico, who supports the changes.

One of the new objectives is called Integrated Themes, where courses are designed around a series of topics, he said.

“Integrated Themes is based on spirituality, diversity and ethics, among other things,” said Martinico. “Originally, Integrated Themes was going to entail getting professors together and combining classes. For example, there was a physics-and-arts related course that dealt with space, time and light. That plan did not happen, but the new core is designed to gain a clearer understanding of student development and making sure that all students engage the course outcomes at a meaningful level.”

Philosophy professors Koukal and Oljar are among the faculty concerned that the changes would alter the mission of the university, diminishing its liberal arts roots.

UDM is sponsored by the Jesuits and Sisters of Mercy.

“I think that we would be Jesuit with a ‘j’ instead of a ‘J’,” said Oljar. “There would still be the veneer, but you need a strong curriculum in liberal arts that exposes you to subjects like religious studies, philosophy, science, literature, etc. That image of the rounded, liberal-educated person is centered on what Jesuits have built their educational brand on. That is why they are the most prominent in religious educators. When you pay for your tuition here, you are paying for a Jesuit education, and exposure to courses in the arts and sciences has been a part of that structure for as long as the Jesuits have been around.”

To bolster their case against lowering core requirements in their areas, philosophy and religious studies professors are pointing to a recent survey done by the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU).

UDM presently falls in the middle of the list for the number of required religious studies and philosophy courses.

If the credits are reduced, UDM will move toward the bottom, said Oljar.

“We knew that we were not the weakest, but we were in between,” said Koukal. “We thought in the beginning that we could get more philosophy classes added, but it became pretty clear in the first two years that it was not going to happen. We said, ‘Okay, fine.’ But we never thought that there would actually be a possibility that you could take away a requirement in these areas and reduce them.”

At the end of last semester, some students started an online petition to keep the elective class in the core curriculum.

Both Koukal and Oljar said that they don’t know if the petition will be re-started, but if it is it will be at the end of the term.

Religious studies Chair James Tubbs also has concerns about the elimination of the shared elective.

“Students need to be aware and they need to be as informed as they can,” said Tubbs. “I am glad that students are becoming aware because they know how the core affects them and the university.”

Tubbs said that the best way for students to share their input is to email questions and concerns to the Executive Committee of the McNichols Faculty Assembly (MFA) and ask that the comments be distributed to members of the MFA, which meets every two weeks.

The contact information can be found on the governance page on the UDM website.

Engineering Prof. Mark Schumack, who supports the new core, said that it will help students who are in the professional schools, such as engineering and nursing – but will benefit all students in the long run.

 “In engineering, for example, the course sequence is pretty prescribed and then students have to take the core classes, which are hard to fit into their schedules,” said Schumack. “The good thing about the new core is that it is outcome-based instead of course-based.”

An outcome-based curriculum does not evaluate students’ progress simply by how many courses they take, he said.

There are also concerns that the new core will just benefit students in the professional schools, but nursing Prof. Kate Walter said that this is not the case.

“The outcome-based core is flexible and it enables students to have access to gain competency in certain areas,” said Walters. “This is geared towards the entire student body and it can help any major.”

Philosophy chair Koukal said he does see some new additions to the core that will benefit students and faculty.

“We want to make a point in saying that even though we have these criticisms of the new core, both from a mission and a department perspective, there is some good to it, too,” said Koukal. “One of the new sections of the core is called Spirituality and Meaning, which relates to personal development and social justice. Those things will really represent and embody our mission in a way that the present core does not.”

Tubbs is also worried that the new core will decrease the number of majors and minors in religious studies.

“The majority of (our) students right now are in the master’s program,” said Tubbs. “Most students come into college for a career, but the undergraduates come here to get basic liberal arts skills that were not part of their thinking before. We teach them that. Our classes fill because of the core and if exposure is limited, then there is less demand. There could possibly be some shrinkage in the number of classes.”

Koukal and Oljar share the same concern related to philosophy.

“We get our majors and minors through exposure to the core. It only stands to say that this could reduce our numbers,” said Koukal. “A department’s health is determined by the numbers of majors and minors. We are pretty proud of our numbers. Philosophers being philosophers know that it is not the most popular occupation, but we also know, or we thought that we knew, that we had a pretty safe place at a Catholic university.”

The faculty assembly is still deciding what to do. Until a decision is made, professors will continue to make their cases.

The debate also divides students.

Kirsten Mooney, a master’s student in the intelligence analysis and security administration programs, said that though students should be exposed to classes like philosophy, religious studies and the sciences, the new core would allow students to apply their knowledge through their different classes.

Senior philosophy and religious studies student Joe Jordan said that while the core curriculum should be addressed every few years, the courses that make UDM a Catholic institution should not be dropped.

“We shouldn’t be sacrificing liberal arts for other programs because they are the bread and butter of a Catholic education,” said Jordan. “Dropping those classes not only weakens the programs, but it also takes away what Catholic education is all about.”

The degree work of current students would not be affected by the changes, which would go into effect in 2016.