The Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 4, 2002
February 4, 2002
VOL. 31, NO. 20


Undergrad Life Takes Center Stage

Commission's charge is to re-envision social and academic experiences

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

This month work begins for a new university committee that is charged with the lofty goal of re-envisioning the entire undergraduate experience at Johns Hopkins. The Commission on Undergraduate Education, formally convened at an event held Thursday night, is the first endeavor of its kind and is part of an effort to keep Hopkins well-positioned amid an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace.

The commission's primary task is to produce by spring 2003 a list of recommendations that, once implemented, will significantly improve the quality of undergraduate education at Hopkins over the next 20 years. The commission has been asked only to preserve the university's core research values and the concept of a hand-tooled education; beyond that, it has been granted free rein to examine all aspects of the undergraduate experience, from admissions practices and academic curriculum to classroom instruction and social life.

At the kick-off event for the Commission on Undergraduate Education, Peabody Director Bob Sirota talks with Vice Provost Ralph Kuncl and Provost Steven Knapp.

Steven Knapp, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, says this effort is the logical next step in the university's long-range planning, falling on the heels of master plans for the Homewood and East Baltimore campuses and the development of strategic plans for the schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering.

The 30 members of the commission are a diverse group--including faculty, senior staff, students, trustees and alumni--representing the university's five divisions with undergraduates and also the schools of Medicine and Public Health. The council was organized by Ralph Kuncl, vice provost for undergraduate education, who championed its formation. Eugene Schnell, director of Organization, Development and Diversity, will act as facilitator.

On Jan. 31, President Brody addressed the committee members at CUE's commissioning event, held at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Brody began his talk on a historical note. On Commemoration Day in 1925, he said, Hopkins president Frank Goodnow suggested that "the university cease offering introductory college courses" and "soon thereafter cease to award bachelor's degrees." While Goodnow's "New Plan" was never fully implemented, parts of it were in effect from 1929 to 1935, and modified portions existed up until 1951.

"Thankfully, your charge today is not to help us find a way to eliminate undergraduate training at Hopkins but rather to help us make it better," Brody said.

Brody added that significant strides to improve the undergraduate experience at Hopkins have been made in the past 15 years.

Committee members Audrey Henderson, chair of the 2001 MSE Symposium, and Anuj Mittal, Student Government president, and university President William R. Brody during the kick-off event.

New cross-disciplinary majors such as neuroscience and public health, the funding of teaching fellows, the Center for Educational Resources, the recently opened Mattin Center and student recreation center at Homewood, a new home for the School of Nursing and major renovations to the Peabody campus are among the tangible factors that enhance undergraduate life.

"But what I believe we need to address, and what I hope you will consider, are some of the underlying forces that may be pushing us in directions that are difficult to gauge or control," Brody said in addressing the commission. "In the foreseeable future, a Johns Hopkins undergraduate education is likely to remain very costly relative to other colleges and universities not engaged in research. So I would suggest that part of your challenge is to acknowledge this fact of life, and help us validate the value proposition of the Hopkins undergraduate education."

The Commission on Undergraduate Education comes as a result of the university's upcoming reaccreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The evaluation, which occurs every 10 years, will take place in 2003.

Kuncl says that the planning process for reaccreditation typically takes two years, during which time the university, focusing on a theme, studies itself critically and identifies both its "warts and successes." The theme chosen for the current self-study is "The Challenge of Improving Undergraduate Education in a Research-Intensive Environment."

"It's through that single lens that we will study the university," says Kuncl, adding that the report produced by CUE will form the "backbone" of the university's presentation to the Middle States Commission.

Provost Knapp says the university has an obligation to assess its quality and justify how it markets itself.

"In a sense, we are asking, How can the undergraduates take full advantage of a university like this to make good on the promise of learning through discovery?" Knapp says.

The commission, which will meet monthly for one year, will begin its charge on Feb. 16 with a retreat on the Johns Hopkins at Eastern campus, where members will devise themes and goals. Once the key issues have been identified, working groups will be established and members added to study these issues in more detail.

The commission will decide on its own agenda. Knapp says he expects possible issues will include how to better integrate the intellectual and social life of undergraduates; the diversity of the student body and academic disciplines; the professional training of graduate teaching assistants; and improving upon, and assessing the quality of, undergraduate research.

"We can do great service to ourselves competitively by critically evaluating the learning outcome involved in individual undergraduate research," Kuncl says. "And there are a lot of other things we can improve upon besides research, and that will be the work of this commission."

Kuncl says one particular challenge is to overcome the perception of Johns Hopkins as an intellectually stimulating but cold environment. He says that for Hopkins to remain competitive, the overall quality of life for undergraduates has to improve.

An illustrative statistic, Kuncl says, can be found in last year's report on competitiveness: Thirty percent of alumni answered no to the question, If you had it to do over again, would you come to Johns Hopkins? "That is just way too high," Kuncl says. "So there is something about the education experience, not just the education, that we need to work on."

Another challenge for CUE, Kuncl says, is developing workable recommendations.

"You often hear a jaded comment about committee work, that nothing ever comes of that work, so why bother?" Kuncl says. "In this case, the report will be an integral part of the accreditation document. It will probably be on the Web. It will matter. I expect the commission to come up with five or six topics of burning interest to them that are high priority. What the commission members recommend, we have every intention of realizing."