On Curriculum Change, Openness and Responsiveness

Senior Vice President and Provost Stan Wearden shares his vision on curriculum change and outlines the process.

As the college embarks on year two of the Strategic Plan, Senior Vice President and Provost Stan Wearden sent a letter on October 25 to all faculty sharing his vision on curriculum change and outlining the process. What follows is an abbreviated version of this message.

A 21st Century Curriculum

One of the great strengths of the Strategic Plan, which we launched a little more than one year ago, is the call for a 21st century curriculum that is current, intentional, and relevant – a curriculum that will best serve the needs of our students.

Current: When we examine our curriculum, we should begin with a number of questions. Is our curriculum, whether at the level of the Columbia core, at the level of our various programs, or at the level of the individual courses, up-to-date? How do our program curricula compare to those of the top programs nationally and internationally? Also, are we providing students with current knowledge that will help them to compete for jobs and have rewarding careers?

The problems of our world – whether creative, social, cultural, political, or economic – are too multifaceted to allow for single-discipline solutions. A current curriculum will provide opportunities that allow our students to work across disciplines without slowing their progress toward graduation.

Intentional: The first piece of intentionality is to ensure that our entire curriculum is guided by clearly articulated learning outcomes. Last year, a committee of full-time and part-time faculty and staff created a set of Universal Learning Outcomes (ULOs), which were broadly discussed across the college, revised, and ultimately affirmed by the Faculty Senate. These clear learning outcomes, in turn, will enable us to assess how effectively we are educating our students and will help us to improve teaching and learning on an ongoing basis.

Another aspect of intentionality has to do with clearly recognizing a central reason why students come to Columbia, which is that they hope to earn a college degree. Much of the feedback on the Columbia curriculum – feedback from the strategic planning process, from surveys of alumni and recent graduates, and from surveys of students who have left Columbia without a degree – has indicated that our curriculum is too often confusing to students. We have asked all departments to work on clarifying and streamlining curricular requirements, including nested prerequisites that are often confusing to students, to create opportunities for the kinds of choice students seek, to help students manage the choices they find confusing, and we have asked that there be a clear four-year roadmap to graduation for every major at Columba.

Another way in which our curriculum can be more sufficiently intentional is for it to be appropriately leveled. All students who are graduating should have taken roughly half their courses at the lower-division level (1000- and 2000-level courses) and roughly half at the upper-division level (3000- and 4000-level courses). Proper curricular leveling is an important indicator of intentionality.

Relevant: As we developed the Strategic Plan, we saw that it was not enough to educate highly skilled arts and media practitioners. To prepare our graduates to author the culture of their times, which Columbia’s mission statement calls on us to do, we also must ensure that their education remain relevant in other ways.

  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: If our students are to become cultural authors, they must understand institutional forms of racism, exclusion and inequity, and they must have a sense of the work it will take to undo these historic and current practices.
  • Global Education: The diverse world into which our students will graduate is becoming increasingly globalized in terms of both economics and polity. Our students will need to understand that there are other value systems in the world than the ones they grew up with, and they will need to learn how to navigate this complexity.
  • Business, Entrepreneurship, and Marketing: We hope all our graduates will be able to earn a living in a way that sustains them materially, creatively, and intellectually. All our graduates will need clear knowledge of the fundamentals of effective business practice, an education on how to be successful entrepreneurs in a fast-changing marketplace, and an ability to market themselves and their creative and intellectual capital.
  • Technology: Our students must be current on technological issues in two ways when they graduate. First, our graduates need to be able to program in the computer languages that are relevant to their disciplines. Second, they must be literate in such things as user experience design, social media, and other processes whereby technology is having an impact on creative practice.
  • Community Engagement: We have an obligation to explicitly connect our students to the larger community in ways that will allow students to interrogate and adapt their classroom and studio education in a real-world context, and that will engage students and the community in a relationship of mutually beneficial transformation. If students are to become the authors of the culture of their times, this authorship should begin with meaningful and regular engagement with the city of Chicago.

Curricular Review Process and My Expectation of Responsiveness

As outlined in the Curriculum Policy Manual (CPM), with deep respect for the principles of shared governance, the process of curricular review is as follows:

• Curriculum change begins informally when a faculty member or group of faculty members propose a curricular change – anything from a single course to an entire curricular overhaul. Our faculty are experts in their disciplines and deeply connected to the creative industries and scholarly fields of inquiry we teach. Therefore, it is appropriate that the details of proposed curricular changes are guided by their knowledge and expertise. In the early stages of curricular development, our faculty also take into account the national landscape in a discipline as well as feedback from other scholars, practitioners, and industry leaders.

  • The formal curricular review process starts with a discussion and ultimately a vote by the Department Curriculum Committee (DCC) of the relevant department.
    • Each DCC has a representative from P-fac as a voting member.
      • Full-time faculty members in a department have the opportunity to express their opinions on curriculum proposals to and through their full-time colleagues who represent them on DCC.
      • Part-time faculty members in a department have the opportunity to express their opinions on curriculum proposals to and through the P-fac member who represents them on DCC.
  • Once a vote has taken place, the curriculum proposal moves to the department chair, who must approve proposed departmental curriculum changes.
  • If the chair approves, the proposal moves on to the school dean, who forwards the proposal to the School Curriculum Committee (SCC), which, like the DCC, is composed of faculty members. This body also discusses and votes on the proposal.
  • Next, the school dean reviews the proposal and decides whether to approve it.
  • If the dean approves, the proposal moves forward depending on the type of proposal:
    • New course proposals, changes to existing programs, and changes to existing courses approved by the school dean are sent as a point of information to the provost and the registrar and are entered into the appropriate catalog for implementation.
    • New program proposals go to the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC) and Financial Affairs Committee (FAC) of Faculty Senate. All the voting members on these committees are faculty members. These groups also discuss and vote on the proposal.
      • If AAC and FAC approve the new program proposal, it then moves to the full Faculty Senate for one final discussion and vote by faculty members.
      • Finally, all Faculty Senate approved curriculum moves to the provost for final approval.

There is a clear and effective structure in place, by formal college policy, to ensure that all departmental faculty voices have the opportunity to be heard – a process that honors shared governance at every stage.

At a time when we are doing widespread curriculum review, there also is the danger of widespread anxiety about what is happening. Therefore, as a curricular proposal becomes ready for DCC review, I encourage department chairs or DCC chairs to share these proposals with all departmental faculty, part-time and full-time, and to ask for their feedback, which could be anything from outright acceptance of a proposal as written, to suggested revisions, to outright opposition to a proposal. I also encourage faculty members to give thoughtful, considered feedback on curricular proposals. This feedback could be gathered in multiple ways: through emails, open forums, small-group or one-on-one conversations. Professionalism dictates two things about this feedback process: 1. The department or DCC chairs who request feedback should listen to what they hear and dutifully pass it along to their DCCs for consideration. 2. All voices should be heard, and none should be silenced either by a chair who will not listen or by a faculty colleague who will not permit others to speak.

None of this emphasis on openness and transparency is a violation of the CPM. It is, rather, wise practice for maximizing useful feedback on curriculum. Ultimately, as prescribed by the CPM, the preliminary curricular recommendation will be made in a vote by the DCC. All feedback from faculty, and even from students and staff who may take an interest in curriculum development, should be welcomed by that body, but the DCC also has the right to set deadlines so that its ability to discuss and vote upon curricular proposals can move at a reasonable pace. Once the DCC votes, the rest of the process, as outlined above should and will be followed.

Our Strategic Plan Will Work

We have a Strategic Plan that will work. The Italian poet and novelist Giuseppe Antonio Borgese once said, “It is necessary; therefore, it is possible.” This simple statement of faith in the human ability to do what needs to be done is directly applicable to the work we are now doing. If we want to achieve our greatness, it is, in fact, necessary that we implement the Strategic Plan. And it is possible for us to do this. We have the creative and intellectual talent to do it. But we must understand why we are doing this work together; we must believe in the transformative value of the work; and we must keep faith in our ability to do what is necessary for the good of our students and of Columbia College Chicago.