Profs want University to rethink course approval process

Some say the process is too long and competition for enrollment pits departments against each other.

Hailey Colwell

When new University of Minnesota courses are approved, it’s expected they’ll be taught for many years to come.

But some University of Minnesota professors say the process is too long and labor-intensive, making it difficult to update course curricula and creating competition between departments.

“The idea of having this permanent course list is really a relic of an older university,” said history professor J.B. Shank.

Courses that are taught for many years can become “rigid and unable to adapt,” he said, and having such a long approval process makes it difficult for professors to introduce more modern courses.

When Chemistry Department Chair William Tolman created a course on green chemistry three years ago, he said it was “a somewhat protracted process.” The course had to be certified to meet an environmental theme requirement and to be considered writing intensive — an even more challenging process, he said.

Tolman said he didn’t encounter problems in the process, but “it just took time.”

He doesn’t plan to create a new course any time soon because it can be difficult to find instructors to teach them, and a lot of reading and preliminary work goes into developing the content.

Part of the long process at the University may be due to its size.

Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., has a student population of about 2,000. There, instructors’ proposals go through individuals but don’t need committee approval unless problems arise, said Registrar Roger Lasley. It sometimes only takes a few days to get a course approved.

“We don’t have to wait for a committee meeting,” he said.

Competition for students

New courses have to go through a separate approval process to be certified to fulfill liberal education requirements.

Because departments are given funding according to enrollment, professors say there’s an added pressure to create courses that fulfill enough requirements to attract students.

“It’s no doubt producing a different curriculum than … if these pressures weren’t there,” Shank said.

Food science and nutrition junior Misen Luu said it’s difficult for him to fulfill his liberal education requirements because his major requires a high number of credits.

“It’s a lot of commitment outside of your major,” he said.

Luu said he might have to go to college for five years to fit in all of his liberal education requirements.

He said he wishes a wider variety of courses met multiple liberal education requirements.

English professor John Watkins said the current system is more complicated than it needs to be.

“Students think about going through the U as a series of hurdles that you have to jump,” he said.

These requirements should be replaced with a simpler process that makes it easier for students to design their degree in a creative way, Watkins said. This would also eliminate the revenue-centered competition to create courses that fulfill liberal education requirements, he said.

“We need to get rid of bureaucratic structures that are distracting people from creating interesting and compelling courses,” he said.