Regents’ report doesn’t satisfy all

The reports states that the incoming class is the second most diverse ever.

Daniel Groth

When the Board of Regents voted in 2005 to demote the General College to a department, opponents of the plan said it would hurt the University’s diversity and accessibility.

Now that the plan has been implemented, reactions are mixed. Most students interviewed said they haven’t noticed many changes in programming. But faculty members said the transition hasn’t been quite as smooth for them. It’s still unclear how the move will affect the University’s long-term diversity.

This fall, General College became the department of post-secondary teaching and learning in the new College of Education and Human Development. The change, prompted by low graduation rates in the college, was part of a strategic positioning plan adopted by the Board of Regents in an 11-1 vote in 2005.

Students, faculty react

Dan Hennen, a sophomore in the new department who was chairman of the General College Student Board last year, said he hasn’t noticed any major differences.

“All the services are still the same, classes are generally the same, same instructors, advisement is the same,” he said.

Heidi Barajas, department chairwoman, said returning students have not felt affected because of the faculty’s hard work.

“The No. 1 concern was to make sure this was a seamless transition for students,” she said.

Sophomores this year will be the last class to complete the former college’s two-year program, which was intended to prepare marginalized students to transfer to other University colleges. The new program lasts one year.

Although sophomores haven’t felt an impact, first-year students and future post-secondary teaching and learning classes will have a very different experience than former General College students, Barajas said.

“We intensified the program by linking more courses, by offering more freshmen seminars and by hoping that by the end of the year they really are prepared to go out (into other colleges),” she said.

Walt Jacobs, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, said the department focuses on better preparing students for succeeding elsewhere through learning communities, or two or more classes linked together.

“Learning communities are a more intense experience and students are pushed harder and faster to get used to the pace of college,” he said.

Though the goal of the program is the same, post-secondary teaching and learning will admit fewer students than the General College did.

Since students in the new department have no basis for comparison, the groups most affected by the change right now are faculty and staff – some faculty members have even left the department.

Jeanne Higbee, a post-secondary teaching and learning professor, said she misses the sense of community the General College had.

“People who were once part of my small unit are now administratively placed in the broader college rather than the department,” she said.

Mark Bellcourt, a College of Education and Human Development academic adviser, said he feels isolated from the new department even though he advises its students.

“We don’t have the same access to faculty in the department that we used to have,” he said. “We share the same building but that’s about the extent of it.”

Despite the challenges, Higbee said she’s optimistic.

“It’s very early on, we’re in a rebuilding process and I’m looking forward to seeing the redevelopment of that community,” she said.

Barajas said he’s also looking positively toward the future.

“The whole transition has been difficult, but the possibilities it has opened up are extremely exciting,” she said.

Jacobs said the department hopes to launch a four-year major program in multicultural studies by fall of 2008.

Diversity

During the 2005 debate about closing General College, opponents of the move argued that campus diversity would decrease.

The Board of Regents recently reported that this year’s first-year class is the second-most diverse in University history, with students of color making up 20.2 percent of the class. Last year, 18.5 percent of the first-year class was students of color.

Nate Whittaker advised General College students and helped found the General College Truth Movement, which led the opposition to the closure. He said he would like a more detailed assessment of diversity.

“I question that those new numbers are made up of low-income, first-generation, urban students of color who are in need of equal access to education,” he said. “You can have the numbers, but I think it’s a class issue more so than a race issue.”

Despite Whittaker’s skepticism about diversity numbers, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Craig Swan said the University has made a serious commitment to support low-income students – although he said students of all backgrounds must be more prepared.

“We do not do anyone a favor if we accept them and they’re not prepared for the work of the University,” he said.

Swan said he believes that higher admissions standards across the University, including for the new department, are a positive step.

“The academic preparation of all students from all ethnic groups has increased this year over last year and I think that’s a good thing,” he said.

But Bellcourt said if graduation rates increase among general studies students, it won’t be a result of the new intensive program, but rather a different kind of population.

“When we admit the kinds of students we’re admitting now, we’re leaving out this other population of people who are just as smart, but because of their economic situation they’re not being afforded the same opportunities,” he said.

Political science doctoral candidate Jonneke Koomen, an active member of the General College Truth Movement, also questions the diversity numbers.

“We’re concerned that a lot of those so-called diverse students are international students and students of color from privileged backgrounds,” she said. “The University has an obligation to help working-class students from Minnesota.”

Sharon Reich Paulsen, assistant vice president and chief of staff to the provost, said it is “absolutely not true” that the number of low-income students has decreased.

“That is speculation and they have no proof of it,” she said.

Zebadiah Anderson, the General College representative to the Minnesota Student Association at the time of the protesting, said his sentiments have changed since he protested the General College closure last year.

During the protests, “I thought it was infeasible that the University would increase diversity if General College was shut down, but through this period of adjustment I feel that the ‘U’ is doing an OK job,” he said.

In 2005, Anderson successfully fought for a position statement in which MSA condemned the General College closure. But now he said he applauds the University’s plan.

“In the overall scheme of things, I do consider this transition to be for the better,” he said.

Baraja said the University’s plan is to increase diversity throughout campus, and Reich Paulsen said that goal has been met this year.

Whittaker said that although General College is probably not coming back, it’s only a matter of time before people grow skeptical of the University’s plan.

“Basically, they put in a plan without a plan, and some really damaging effects will come out of that,” he said.

But Swan said he disagrees.

“Restructuring was a difficult issue and people were genuine in their concerns. At the same time I think all the evidence so far confirms that it was the right decision,” he said.