The core of a university
A distinctive mission, a cherished heritage, a bold vision — TCU has all these. Now, after years of development, disagreement and redevelopment, it has a new core curriculum to match. Here’s how it works and why it came to be.
By Rick Waters '95
Illustrations by Dave Cutler
TCU’s chief academic officer, Nowell Donovan, asks us to imagine the university as he does: a gigantic castle of knowledge filled with a thousand rooms, many of which connect to one another. These rooms have names like Geology, Theology, History and Mathematics.
Students of this castle walk the corridors opening doors. In each room, they look around to get a sense of what it is like. Some they find interesting. Others they do not. Yet the students keep walking and opening and looking, and the more rooms they see, the more they begin to understand the castle. But most important, they make connections. Between rooms. Among each other. About themselves.
“This is the essence of higher education,” said Donovan, who is in his second year as provost. “It is a community of learners — students and faculty — dedicated to helping one another in the pursuit of knowledge. What they learn together, and how they learn it, mirrors the institution itself. The very essence of a university is what it teaches.”
In other words, we are our curriculum. What we deem essential knowledge — for advancing in the academy, succeeding in a professional field, living the examined life — reflects where we came from, where we think we’re going and what we believe in.
It seems obvious. Of course our reputation hinges on what happens in the classroom.
That’s the business of higher education.
But think about what makes a university great. Professors who know their students’ names. Mentors with an open-door policy. Opportunities to study abroad or work an internship with the corporation down the street.
All are notable attributes.
But look deeper.
At its most successful, a university has a clear understanding of its mission. It knows precisely what kind of institution it is and what it ought to be for its students. Then it works purposely to that end.
More and more, observers believe TCU is becoming that kind of university. Since 1999, we’ve been driven by a bold mission — to educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community — and since our days in Thorp Spring, we’ve been shaped by a heritage tied to the liberal arts and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
As a result, we’ve strived to develop well-rounded students. Each year we have charged them to understand the social and physical world, to appreciate history and cultures, to develop the capacity to make rational choices, to think creatively and critically, to demonstrate responsible citizenship and to cultivate skills for the pursuit of lifelong learning. It’s all there in the Student Handbook — along with that mission.
But as with most purpose statements, ours is not explicit about how it is to be achieved. What skills must a student demonstrate to be an ethical leader? What knowledge must one acquire to be considered a responsible citizen in the global community?
The university’s answer is, and really always has been, the core curriculum, the set of courses that every student must complete in order to graduate. But more than that, the core reflects the very heart of what we represent. Problem is, that mission and those courses never really aligned.
A university milestone
Shuffling courses is as old as the academy itself. Degree requirements are tweaked regularly. Syllabi change every semester. But the general education curriculum, known for the last two decades as the Undergraduate Core Requirements (UCR), hasn’t changed significantly since 1988.
So when the university launched the new TCU Core Curriculum for the freshman class this fall (replacing the UCR), it was a genuine TCU milestone, even if it didn’t receive the fanfare of the football team defeating Top 10-ranked Oklahoma.
Maybe that’s because on the surface, the differences between the UCR and TCU CC are slight. (See chart on this page.) Both have three sections and include many of the same disciplines. They each require six hours of writing composition in English, three hours of math and six hours of writing emphasis courses, which can be satisfied in a student’s major, a minor or other parts of the core. Both are steeped in traditional liberal arts building blocks — social sciences, natural sciences, humanities and fine arts.
The UCR calls for an hour credit in physical education and health concepts, which the new core does not.
But the most distinctive difference is the TCU CC’s new overlay of requirements called Heritage, Mission, Vision & Values (HMVV).
Accounting for 18 credit hours, or six courses, HMVV represents the ethos of TCU, the very essence of the university, and requires one class each in religious traditions, historical traditions, literary traditions, citizenship and social values, cultural awareness and global awareness.
“The new core, and in particular that [HMVV] part of it, is the embodiment of our mission. It literally is the TCU mission come alive in a dynamic way,” said economics professor Ed McNertney, director of the TCU CC. “Students, parents and everyone involved with the university from now on will know that these are the courses that make TCU what it is. They’ll know that this is how we go about fulfilling our mission.”
By design, none of the HMVV requirements is bound to a particular discipline or department. For example, courses in historical traditions need not come solely from the history department. In fact, approved courses that fulfill the requirement come from English (Wilde Years: Oscar Wilde and the 1890s), economics (Financial History) and criminal justice (Organized Crime).
The hope is that opening these categories to a range of disciplinary perspectives will encourage innovation between departments and generate fresh intellectual conversation.
“This is the best aspect of the core in the intellectual sense,” Donovan said. “It allows us to think outside departmental boxes. In the old core, religion courses came from religion. Now, students can go to the music department and get a course in religious music. Some day in the future, they might go to fine arts and get a course in religious music, or the psychology department might offer a course on the psychology of religion. All of these fit into religious traditions. It’s not the purview of any single department. The same can be done with history. Could there be a history of science course? Yes. There’s a history of everything.”
The concept is not without some disagreement. Some faculty members argue that certain academic subjects require specialized training and cannot be taught by just anyone, with ethics generating the most discussion.
But no one disputes that HMVV reflects the TCU mission. In fact, the university deems the section so important that transfer credits from another university or approved college credit in high school will not count toward it. These are requirements students can fulfill only at TCU.
“When students come here, in effect we’re making a promise to them that no matter what their major is, this is going to be at the heart of their education,” said music Professor Blaise Ferrandino, who was among the TCU CC’s key architects. “That empowers students to be more active participants in what they learn. Before they go to their very first class, they will know what this institution expects of them.”
Another hallmark of the new core — and a dramatic departure from the UCR — is a focus on the fundamental way students and professors approach learning.
Instead of the traditional emphasis on delivery of instruction, the TCU CC encourages faculty to concentrate on what students understand at the end of the semester. In other words, a “students will learn” approach is in, and the old “faculty will teach” philosophy is, well, old school.
It’s a subtle difference, but a meaningful one. Pulling it off, however, is not as easy as handing out a new syllabus.
“It’s fine to say that students will be aware of the natural sciences or steeped in religious traditions. But what does that mean? What we asked ourselves is, ‘What does it mean to be proficient? How can students show they understand?’ ” said Melissa Canady, director of the Office of Assessment and a member of the faculty committee that implemented the core.
In math, it’s easy to demonstrate. Either a student knows how to solve an equation or he doesn’t. But how does one show mastery of something like cultural awareness?
By meeting specific course goals.
Every course in the new core is constructed on a series of competency statements, written by faculty members working in their area of expertise. Religion professors wrote them for the religious traditions category. English department faculty provided the wording for literary traditions. And so on.
These statements serve as a guide for how a course should be designed — or in the case of an existing course, redesigned. That allows professors to teach courses that count for credit outside their discipline. Math teachers won’t be teaching English, but a course called The History of Science could be taught by a biologist instead of a historian. Or perhaps it could be taught by both. The more collaboration the better.
After the competency statements, learning outcomes and action steps explicitly chart how faculty help students attain a skill or acquire knowledge required to master a course.
Take a global awareness course. A competency statement might state that students must be able to “demonstrate knowledge of trends, issues and opportunities that impact the global community.” The learning outcome, then, is for students to “demonstrate how critical awareness and problem-solving in the global community requires the integration of a variety of perspectives.”
What would that look like in the classroom? Action steps call for students to explore texts of multiple cultural origins and articulate their analysis through coherent, persuasive prose.
None of this should keep professors from conducting their classes as creatively as they wish. Lecture, written assignments, group projects, out-of-class learning opportunities and other activities are all fair game.
Sociology professor Mike Katovich says his students are doing much the same work as before in his two courses, Media Images of Drug and Alcohol Abuse and Social Psychology: Social Approaches.
Both count toward the cultural awareness requirement, but with the new format the students are being asked to think about how they’re learning to become more culturally aware.
“I think the faculty has been doing this all along, just in an informal way,” Katovich said. “The new core just formalizes it. And it gives us a feedback loop so we can measure how well the course is accomplishing what it’s supposed to.”
The next step is assessment. Depending on how well students meet these goals, courses may continually be revised, and new courses can be introduced patterned after successful ones.
“This is what makes the core dynamic. It’s going to continually evolve,” McNertney said.
Another goal was to keep the new core comprehensive enough to reflect the university’s mission but lean enough not to overburden students in professional majors, which demand a lot of credits.
“It’s part of the genius of the HMVV overlay component,” McNertney said. “A student with a very singular path, who comes in knowing exactly what he wants, can complete the core in 39 credit hours by choosing courses that count for both the HMVV and their major, minor or other categories in the core. That leaves room for a lot of electives or a concentration in a second major or minor or both.”
Conversely, a student less certain about his area of interest can dabble in one discipline, try another, and still another, all while accumulating credits for the core, up to 63 total. Such a student uses a variety of choices early in his college experience to determine a career path and still satisfy the requirements. A diversity of subjects is achieved within the core, rather than through a bunch of electives.
Additionally, individual colleges and schools have the option of adding requirements. For example, the AddRan College of Humanities and Social Sciences may add a foreign language requirement for its majors in coming years.
Best of all, the new core finally sheds the image that it is nothing more than basic courses that must be “gotten out of the way” in the freshman and sophomore year.
“The TCU CC is geared so students will take core courses every year they’re here,” said assistant English professor Theresa Gaul. “Ideally, students will space them out and take some core courses that are required by their major and take others that they just find interesting.”
A sometimes bumpy road
What led to these changes? The short answer is that the process began in the late 1990s with members of the Commission on the Future of TCU, made up of faculty, administrators, staff, alumni and community leaders. After 11 months of discussion, they concluded that for the university to reach the next level of prestige it needed to enhance the undergraduate experience by revitalizing the core and aligning it with the institution’s mission.
But the true impetus for reshaping the core actually began in 1992 when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) recommended a revision of the UCR, faulting it for not incorporating learning outcomes and assessments.
Discussed informally for a few years, the issue was raised again during 1996-97 by the Academic Excellence Committee of the Faculty Senate, which sought a formal analysis of the core and several specific changes.
“But there was no mechanism for change and the effort died,” McNertney said.
Then in 1998, Chancellor Michael Ferrari arrived and brought together the Commission on the Future of TCU. Following its report, he encouraged the faculty to revisit the issue and create something academically distinctive. In 2000, he formally charged the Faculty Senate with the task during his State of the University address, even providing momentum with the revised university mission statement.
Despite the urgency of an accreditation visit from SACS in 2002, the effort languished for several semesters, through four proposals in as many as six committees, eventually remaining incomplete at the time of the audit. Not surprisingly, delays frustrated the administration and Board of Trustees, but faculty members held to their stance that a new core, done correctly, couldn’t be rushed.
An early version of the core called the Common Undergraduate Experience (CUE) seemed promising early but broke down when debate centered around myriad issues: the number of hours for writing emphasis and fine arts; adequate representation of literature, religion and critical inquiry; how to incorporate ethics; and whether foreign language should be a requirement. Others resisted the CUE’s outcomes-based approach, saying it was vague, unachievable and immeasurable.
Eventually, Ferrari, then-Provost William H. Koehler and the Faculty Senate Executive Committee stepped in and hammered out a revision, but controversy remained. The divisions were too deep, and the CUE failed again.
“Those missteps were a product of the hastiness in which the work was trying to be accomplished. There was an emphasis on speed of delivery,” recalls associate religion professor Nadia Lahutsky, who was a member of the Senate Executive Committee at the time. “But we also learned something. We were hammering out a process, trying to be as inclusive as possible, but some faculty groups felt shut out and that’s what seems to have doomed the CUE. We were only going to be able to design a core that the faculty can deliver, and consensus can’t be achieved when you’re trying to push it through quickly.”
Starting over, the Faculty Senate focused on developing the core-creating process rather than the final product. The result was the approval of a course change policy, a mechanism to build the core and change existing courses to fit a developed model.
“This allowed us to grow the core incrementally — the process, the competencies and the design,” Ferrandino said. “It meant we didn’t have to go back to a blank slate. It helped us build great momentum. So in looking back, the process has turned out to be as significant as the final product.”
By spring 2003, the Core Curriculum Committee had crafted an overlay model, which won approval in the Faculty Senate, despite quibbles about dropping the foreign language requirement and whether to include leadership as a seventh category in the Heritage, Mission, Vision & Values section. A vast majority agreed that the model encouraged multidisciplinary learning and teaching, and best of all, it reflected the university mission.
And it came just in time for Ferrari’s retirement.
“You can nitpick this thing to death, but I’m delighted that the basic plan was passed,” Ferrari said then.
Throughout 2003 and 2004, the Core Implementation Committee completed the outcomes, action steps and assessments for the Heritage, Mission, Vision & Values section. Most important, individual colleges and departments developed the language for the competencies and outcomes of each row.
Then in fall 2004, the committee ironed out logistics with admissions and the registrar, while the seven colleges submitted and vetted courses.
As the calendar flipped to 2005, course catalogs and publicity materials were updated, and by summer, soon-to-be freshmen attending orientation were signed up for courses in the new core.
“It turned out to be a pleasant surprise,” McNertney said. “We were all holding our breath, expecting problems and confusion. But there really wasn’t any. It had been a long road to get to that point, and it was cause for celebration — they were getting it.”
Making it come alive — together
We could have crafted a new core in a number of ways. We could have copied another university’s, made a few tweaks and called it our own. Or we could have kept the UCR and added competency statements and learning outcomes. Those solutions would have been easier, faster and less contentious.
But our faculty knew TCU needed more than that. It needed a core curriculum that reflected the institution’s heritage, values and mission.
And it delivered. “What we have now is rare among universities,” Donovan said. “Using competencies and outcomes is not unique, but the fact that our curriculum and our mission are aligned is something of which we can boast.”
But for all the accolades, concerns remain. Are there enough courses in the new core? Registrar Pat Miller says yes, so far. There are more than 125 — along with hundreds of class times — but more courses will be needed as more students explore the core. Only freshmen who entered the university in fall 2005 are using the TCU CC, while the rest of the university finishes the UCR. By fall 2008, everyone will follow the same curriculum. In the meantime, many of the courses count for both.
The new core does reflect the mission statement, but can it do more? If we claim to be a global university, shouldn’t foreign language be required?
“It sounds like a good argument, and it is. It’s been made by several faculty members,” McNertney said. “But the question is at what level do we do it? Would one course be enough? Or do they have to be fluent? If we want every TCU student to be fluent in a foreign language, it would take an enormous commitment. Not that we shouldn’t do it, but we’d need dozens more faculty members, and every degree plan would have to be expanded so students could take a language course every semester. Even 12 hours won’t get you there.”
Another question is if a leadership column should be added to the HMVV. What about an ethics column? Does the university have the resources and the scheduling capacity for more categories?
Ferrandino says faculty and the university face these questions every academic year, regardless of a new core, and patience is needed to let the campus adjust.
“We need to let the core evolve at its own pace,” he said. “With a community of scholars, it’s good to give it some time. In three or four cycles, these areas of concern will correct themselves.”
Meanwhile, our core, like our mission, is something everyone has a hand in.
Together we make it come alive.
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The value of the "C" in TCU
RECENT SURVEYS show that two-thirds of college freshmen consider it “essential” or “very important” that their schools help develop their personal values. And almost one-half say the same about expressing their personal spirituality. All of which underscores the advantages of TCU's religious heritage.
By David Murph,
Director of Church Relations
TCU's church connection is a genuine plus, an ongoing reminder that the University has a dimension that impacts the search for purpose in life.
The story of the church connection emerges from the larger saga of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a religious movement born on the American frontier in the early 19th century. Rooted in Jeffersonian democracy and the belief that people should be able to read the Bible for themselves and make decisions about their faith, the movement grew rapidly. With its emphasis on education, one of its hallmarks was the founding of schools.
Burdened by low enrollments and financial strains, many of these schools did not survive. TCU was one of the fortunate ones. Christian Church ministers Addison and Randolph Clark launched AddRan Male and Female College in Thorp Spring in fall 1873. In 1895 the school moved to Waco, where it became Texas Christian University. It arrived in Fort Worth in 1910.
TCU was closely linked to the church then. In fact, inscribed in the cornerstone of Reed Hall, the former Administration Building, are the words “Dedicated to the service of Jesus Christ in Christian education.” All of the trustees belonged to the Christian Church. (Through the years, the percentage has gone down. The mandated minimum today is one-sixth. Today 16 of 51 Trustees are members.)
A number of the early schools have dissolved their church connections. Others have kept the tie but in name only, an almost-forgotten part of their early history. TCU, on the other hand, has intentionally maintained its church relationship. In 1977 TCU and the church entered into a 12-point agreement whereby each agrees to support the other.
To be sure, a church relationship can be tricky for a university. For one thing, the word “Christian” requires interpretation by potential parents and prospective students who don't understand the historical connection. Moreover, concerns about academic freedom sometimes arise, as in: How tight is the tie to the church? and What kind of church are we talking about?
On both counts TCU benefits, as it and the Christian Church are a great fit. The Disciples are a congregationally governed denomination that has neither an interest in nor the ability to run a university. This cooperative, covenant-based relationship is appropriate and works well. A school could not ask for a better partner than one that believes in the God-given goodness of people, values the whole person, puts a premium on education and seeks to create unity among diverse groups.
When families examine the universities their children might attend, TCU's church relationship offers an advantage. It sends a message that TCU provides a safe, healthy environment and is concerned about the well-being of its students, that each one is special, each one matters.
In a larger sense, the church connection says that TCU seeks to offer education at its best, to deal with the whole person. It says we are here to do more than prepare individuals for the workplace. We have the opportunity to help students find meaning in their lives.
TCU, by its very nature, is able to do just that.
Our Church Relationship
As the largest of 18 schools or universities associated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), TCU is committed to the highest standards of scholarship, encourages reflection on meaning and personal values and embraces both faith and reason without espousing any particular dogma or religious philosophy.
Who are the Disciples?
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a Protestant community that began in the United States two centuries ago. Coming largely from Presbyterian parentage, Disciples bear many similarities to the faith and practice of traditional Christian communities.
Distinctive characteristics include believer's baptism, weekly communion, a commitment to the unity of all Christians and to the dialogue between faith and reason. A reforming impulse leads to ongoing re-examination of personal and corporate faith commitments.
Disciples are profoundly committed to social justice and to honoring the dignity of all persons, as well as to constructive dialogue across all faith communities and traditions.
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