A commission's work is now done. The road to an improved undergraduate experience at Johns Hopkins has been charted.
The university's Commission on Undergraduate Education has issued its final report and submitted it to the president and provost. The nearly 70-page document, released today, contains the committee's findings and 34 specific recommendations that, once implemented, are intended to improve significantly the quality of the undergraduate experience over the next decade, while still preserving the Johns Hopkins core research values.
The report also will form the centerpiece of the university's upcoming accreditation by the Middle States Association Commission on Higher Education. The evaluation, which occurs every 10 years, will take place this year and into next, and in the self-study portion of the process, Johns Hopkins decided to focus on undergraduate education.
Paula Burger, chair of CUE and vice provost for academic affairs, said that the creation of this "pivotal" document significantly places the university "on the threshold of making the whole much greater than the sum of its parts."
The 40 members of CUE were charged on Jan. 31, 2001, by President William R. Brody and Provost Steven Knapp, with the goal of re-envisioning the entire undergraduate experience at Johns Hopkins, from academic curriculum and classroom instruction to housing and social life. CUE is also part of a larger effort to keep the university well-positioned amid an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace.
Knapp said the profound significance of CUE's final report comes not only from the number of concrete suggestions made but also from the many important questions and issues it raises.
"Thanks to its diligence and the breadth of its membership, the commission has started a conversation about undergraduate education here that I am sure will continue for the rest of this decade," Knapp said. "It is too soon to tell how much of what CUE recommends will actually be implemented, although some of it has been already. That depends on the deans and faculty of five independent and very different schools. But there is no question that Johns Hopkins as a whole is now much more deliberate and strategic in its approach to undergraduate education than it ever was before. We have always had excellent students and strong, dedicated teachers, but we have rarely thought collectively about what we were doing in this critically important part of our mission."
An interim report by the commission was released in January of this year. Since then, more than two dozen community meetings have been held to discuss the 33 interim recommendations and to make adjustments where necessary. With only a few substantive changes made, the interim document was more or less preserved, Burger said.
"There were some practical suggestions made, which I think strengthened our recommendations, and we took all those into account," said Burger, who next month will assume her additional role as vice dean for undergraduate education. "Specifically, we added two new recommendations, deleted one and realized that on another one, more discussion was needed."
The committee's final 34 recommendations cover four broad areas of undergraduate life: the academic experience, advising and career support, diversity, and student life.
In terms of bolstering the academic experience, the report calls for the assurance that upperclassmen have access within their majors to small classes and small group experiences, including capstone courses. It also calls for the appointment of a faculty director of undergraduate studies in each department or degree program, who will be charged with the formal responsibility of ensuring adequate course offerings, monitoring class size, organizing the department's advising system and leading the development of a coherent major.
On advising and career support, recommendations include involving alumni more directly in career networking and internship development and better tracking of career plans of JHU graduates.
For diversity, the report acknowledges the need for increasing the overall diversity of the student body. Specifically, the recommendations call for the preparation of detailed plans to increase the enrollment of African-American, Latino and Native American students.
Burger said the overarching theme of the report is the need to strengthen community and foster more school spirit. To that end, recommendations include providing more university housing for upper-class students, the creation of more "social space" for students and the exploration of a "freshman quadrangle" on the Homewood campus. Currently, many freshmen in the schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering live in residences on the east side of Charles Street, across the street from the core campus. The report calls for the addition of beds and space to the existing AMRs so that "every freshman can have a traditional residential experience on the campus proper." Having this experience, Burger said, increases student satisfaction.
In addition, the report's final recommendation expresses the need to support partnerships to enhance the Charles Village neighborhood and to develop additional amenities that could improve the quality of life for residents as well as JHU faculty, students and staff.
Follow-up on the recommendations will begin immediately, Burger said, and the commission expects "ongoing attention" in the coming year to the various issues brought up in the final report.
In each of the university's five schools that have undergraduates, the dean or director will oversee a process of prioritizing the report's recommendations and assigning responsibility for implementation. CUE also has recommended that each school establish a working group to help in this process by coordinating the implementation and assessing progress.
Burger said that since the five schools have different curricular requirements and, in some cases, different missions, the final CUE report was intended to be a very adaptable blueprint.
"Peabody, for example, has a lot of small group learning experiences already, so they don't need to sit around and think how can they can create more small group working experiences," she said. "In essence, CUE has done its part; now it's time for the divisions to identify their own implementation plans and priorities."
Knapp said that the ultimate success of the exercise is a shared responsibility.
"None of these changes will take root unless the faculty takes ownership of them. That's as it should be," he said. "And that's why it was so important that the faculty was broadly represented on the commission itself. What's encouraging is to see how often faculty themselves are now bringing up the CUE recommendations in meetings I attend around the university. People are paying attention, and that's more important at this stage than agreement with the details of the recommendations themselves."
Burger said the implementation of some recommendations is already under way. She points to the pending renovation of the cafeteria in Levering Union, which is intended to create a more dynamic eating and gathering space for the Homewood community.
"Nobody was barred from jumping onto a good idea as soon as they heard it," Burger said, referring to the formal discussions on the commission's interim report. "And I'm sure as we proceed with implementation, we'll find we are already engaged in some things we brought up."
Burger said CUE's report is less of an indictment of the current state of the undergraduate experience and more a means for making something that is already good even better. In fact, the report implicitly states that the university is "building on considerable strengths" and that there has been an ongoing effort in recent years to improve undergraduate life at Johns Hopkins. Specifically, the report cites the diversity of academic opportunities at Johns Hopkins, the addition of new academic programs, the strengthening of premajor advising at Homewood and the creation of new student-oriented facilities, including the Ralph S. O'Connor Recreation Center, the Mattin Center and Hodson Hall, a classroom building packed with state-of-the-art technology.
"We already do many things wonderfully well, but not everything," Burger said. "I think the only way you stay a first-rate institution is by constantly looking for those things that you can improve on. That is what this commission was all about. The very day you stop trying to be better is the day you're less good than the day before."
On a table in Burger's office sits a "CUE" ball, a bone-white pool ball branded with the commission's logo. Each member of CUE was recently given one, Burger said, as a modest sign of appreciation for all their hard work.
In many ways, the CUE ball was a fitting gift as it illustrates the group's role as a catalyst toward both activity and change. In a sense, with the release of the final report, the CUE ball has been struck, and now the 34 recommendations need to be pocketed.
"I'm optimistic that even within a year we will see many signs of progress," Burger said. "I would hope that by this time next year we already have set in motion significant activity on many of these recommendations. I firmly believe that the combined force of these recommendations will improve the culture here for undergraduates in significant ways."
Burger added, "One thing I will be very interested to look at is the senior survey of the class that comes in next year. If there aren't significant indications that the class, in terms of satisfaction, says very different things than last year's class, then we won't have been very successful."
To view CUE's final report, go to www.jhu.edu/news_info/reports/cue.