Educating Leaders

October 24, 2011

Dear Faculty, Staff, and Students:

Jon Samp, a junior and a student orientation assistant, expressed frustration with KU’s general education requirements during a focus group discussion in 2010. He had come to KU as a music major, but in his freshman year he realized his future was in medicine. He remains active in music, serving as a music ambassador in the School of Music and playing with the Marching Jayhawks, but is also taking 18 or more hours of courses each semester. Because general education requirements are inconsistent across the campus, changing majors was, in his words, “like starting over” as a KU student.

As part of KU’s mission, we are committed to educating future leaders and innovators. In the first year of implementation of our strategic plan Bold Aspirations, we are focusing on four key strategies:

  • establishing a KU core curriculum,
  • strengthening the pipeline of students to and through KU,
  • developing sustainable funding for doctoral education,
  • pursuing multidisciplinary strategic initiatives in research.

In my previous Provost eNews, I discussed some of the steps being taken to achieve the first two strategies, related to a KU core curriculum and enrollment. Last Monday, Chancellor Gray-Little addressed the third strategy, dealing with the important role that graduate programs, particularly doctoral education, play in KU’s ability to achieve its mission. In my next issue of Provost eNews, I will talk about the four exciting summits that are taking place, starting November 18, on each of the four strategic initiative themes.

This week, I am returning to the first strategy and sharing anecdotes that KU students have related. The stories all have a common focus and they illustrate how a new university-wide curriculum based upon core educational goals will provide additional opportunities at KU to acquire skills, discover knowledge, cultivate values, and receive a dynamic learning experience.

Student experiences

Students like Jon who change schools or shift majors often face the largest burden. Consider Kevin, who enrolled in his program out of high school, but was graduating without being able to explore beyond his specified coursework because the demands of general education and major requirements reduced his elective choices. Or Heather, who expressed compassion for some peers who had not been committed to a major as freshmen and had taken additional semesters to meet requirements.

Other focus group students told of seeking immersion in their major, but being unable to find courses that met general education requirements. One forward-looking student wanted to take upper-level courses in preparation for graduate school but she could not. Another was working towards earning a BA and a BS, and even taking 18 credit hours each semester gave him no flexibility.

Transfer students too expect greater flexibility. Most students plan to graduate in four years, but as one student related, that timeline required a semester course load of more than 23 hours after transferring because the particular credits transferred did not satisfy KU’s requirements.

Statistics demonstrate the frustration students feel: In 2009, 18% of seniors who had completed major requirements discovered that they were short at least one general education course. It takes transfer students an average of 145 hours to complete their degrees, in large part because of meeting additional general education requirements.

But perhaps most telling was that too many KU students discussed “just getting through” general education requirements, without understanding how the new knowledge or skills might help their future goals. Many students said they chose courses based upon simplicity or scheduling rather than content. When asked directly, students could not identify the goals behind the general education course requirements, with one commenting, “Students view these courses as a hindrance.”

As one student said, “We need to think about decreasing the number of required courses and increasing the dynamism of the remaining requirements. There should be some flexibility in the system for individual needs.”

Enhancing the excellence KU offers

The new university-wide curriculum will reduce the number of required general education courses, while ensuring that all KU students recognize and achieve key goals. The added flexibility will encourage students to experiment and to double major as well as to participate in the many exciting experiential opportunities KU offers, such as study abroad, research, internships, and service learning, which we are currently expanding. Those experiences are often life-changing; they can transform a good education into a truly great one.

Joe Stogsdill, a senior from Lawrence, has taken multiple alternative breaks including a trip to Catalina Island in the summer of 2010 and another last spring to JBG Organic Farms in Austin, TX. Both experiences provided hands-on opportunities to build healthy communities while also exploring the issues Joe was studying at KU. “The trip to Austin paralleled topics I have been exposed to in the environmental studies major and has created a desire in me to produce my own food on some scale for the rest of my life,” Joe says. “This experience was an excellent example of the agricultural opportunities available to people and a great learning experience to use in the future.”

For almost 60 years, KU’s nationally recognized study abroad program has provided transformational experiences for our students — experiences that contribute directly to the educational goals for a new KU core curriculum. These experiences range from an academic year or semester abroad to intensive one-week programs like the London Review. Sophomore Will Dale had never left the country before travelling to London last spring, but after the intensive experience in London, he cannot wait to study abroad again. On average, students who study abroad graduate more quickly than those who do not.

Senior Kelly Cosby also participated in the London Review last spring. “The experience made me realize how much I value travel and experiencing new cultures,” Kelly said. “The trip also made me realize the importance of being a ‘global citizen’ as opposed to having a narrow, ethnocentric focus here in the US.” Both Kelly and Will point out that, of the 25 students on their trip, each had a unique experience.

Stories of our students’ experiences illustrate why this curricular effort is so important. As I referenced in the last Provost eNews, six “satellite committees” are currently developing measurable learning outcomes that expand and elucidate each of our six educational goals. Once the learning outcomes are vetted campus-wide, the next step will be to use the goals and outcomes as the foundation to develop a university-wide curriculum, consistent with existing school accreditation standards. We are in the process of working with each school and the College as well as student government to form a curriculum committee as part of our next step.

We will keep you up-to-date on progress on our implementation page. As always, I welcome any comments you may have by email to

Provost's Message Signature: 

Rock Chalk!
  -- Jeff

Jeffrey S. Vitter

Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor
Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor

This issue of Provost eNews as well as past ones can be found on the Provost eNews web page.

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