Skills development was never enough

Is improving the University’s prestige worth compromising some of our core social values?

During the current planning process for the University’s future, people have heard and read things about General College. Much is emotional and some is not accurate. On March 10 on these pages we described the controversy that led to the founding of General College. It was not, as has recently been claimed, founded to “prepare” students for a university education. It was started by a group of educational radicals to provide an alternative to the University education of the time.

People like Malcolm MacLean, the first General College director, took on a social mission to change higher education in ways that would make it more relevant to citizenship in a democracy in crisis.

General College was not a preparatory unit – it existed to provide relevant two-year degrees when baccalaureates were obtained by only the few. Its students were primarily those who were deemed not admissible to the University but that did not drive the creation of the curriculum and the goals of its creators.

General College has always been student-centered rather than discipline-centered. The curriculum adapted to meet students’ needs – including the desire by some to transfer to baccalaureate degree programs. Another constant has been the desire to eliminate General College.

The first serious attempt came after World War II. But the General College faculty had prepared by creating occupational programs and courses for returning veterans. Once again, its student-centered approach helped meet pressing social needs and presented a rationale for its continued existence.

Twenty years later, creation of the state community college system led to calls for eliminating a “redundant” General College. But the faculty had already realized that the college’s original two-year mission was not enough in a world where four-year degrees were becoming the educational standard. A baccalaureate program in which students designed their degrees to unite general education with occupational and technical education again helped meet a demand for education relevant to social needs.

Twenty years later in the mid-1980s, many General College faculty were concerned that the college was overextended.

We were not surprised by and some even welcomed former University President Kenneth H. Keller’s proposal to eliminate degrees and occupational programs and to focus on a developmental education mission.

But, consistent with our history, we saw that mission as much more than skills development. We accelerated the existing trend of integrating skills development into disciplinary courses and became a major force in the national developmental education journals and the discourse about where that field should go.

In that process we maintained and recruited a faculty passionately committed to a social mission that includes civic engagement, learning communities, and ways to address the achievement gap in K-12 education. After 20 years, another plan to eliminate General College comes as we are reinventing ourselves.

This plan doesn’t directly argue that General College costs too much because we run largely on tuition revenues – although other colleges would capture the tuition of students admitted in place of ours.

It does use the familiar student qualifications argument however. Increasing the University’s prestige by admitting students with higher qualifications helps solve the rankings problem.

An argument that hasn’t been stated this time but has lurked behind all previous attempts to close General College is the uneasiness about the college felt by those committed to a traditional university model.

In many ways, we don’t fit. In the distracting 1996 attempt to close us, the message was that the University doesn’t need to do the research we do, serve our kinds of students, or take the educational risks we take. That sentiment would favor dispersing the faculty so that it couldn’t cause trouble. Luckily, the new plan doesn’t seem to be going in that direction. University President Bob Bruininks has told us that he shares many of our values.

We hope that proves true when he finalizes the recommendations he sends to the Board of Regents. The challenge for the University will be to find a structure that harnesses our passion for social justice and commitment to innovative teaching and curricula.

Thomas Brothen and Cathrine Wambach are professors at General College. Please send comments to [email protected]