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General Education Committee to decide fate of distributions, hosts student forum

Amelia Davis / Thresher Leslie Schwindt-Bayer speaks during the student forum on values highlighted by the American Association of Colleges & Universities for general education requirements.

By Ivana Hsyung     2/13/24 10:07pm

The General Education Committee hosted two undergraduate student forums Feb. 6 and 12 to discuss the future of the distribution system at Rice. 

The committee was created in February 2023 following recommendations from a working faculty group. They are nearing the end of the first of three phases, which consist of research, proposal and implementation. These forums served as a showcase of the committee’s work thus far and were a time for students to share their opinions and input. Any changes proposed by the committee will likely take effect no earlier than Fall 2026.

As outlined by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, Rice’s accrediting agency, GenEd refers to portions of undergraduate curriculum which are aimed at providing a broad education base.

“As much as being a student at Rice reflects course work toward a major or minor, as well as electives classes, our general education program reflects a broad curriculum that should help students achieve essential learning outcomes,” Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman wrote in an email to the Thresher.

Professor of Business and Public Policy Douglas Schuler explained in an email to the Thresher that having a plan for GenEd is crucial for institutional accreditation. 

Schuler was the chair of a working faculty group established by the Faculty Senate in 2020 to evaluate GenEd at Rice. In 2021, the group submitted a series of six recommendations before dissolution, which included establishing a permanent GenEd committee that would periodically reassess Rice’s approach. 

“The GenEd committee is following Faculty Senate recommendations to review our current university general education curriculum and provide recommendations for a revised approach,” Rob Bruce, Dean of the Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, wrote in an email to the Thresher. 

Rice currently fulfills its accrediting agency’s GenEd requirement via the distribution system, in which students are required to take a minimum of three distribution-designated classes in each of the three distribution groups.

According to Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and chair of the GenEd committee Leslie Schwindt-Bayer, this system has been around Rice since 1967 with only minor tweaks over time. First-Year Writing Intensive Seminar courses and Analyzing Diversity courses were added to the GenEd requirements in 2012 and 2022, respectively. The last big effort at doing a wholesale evaluation of a potential reform of the system occurred in the 1990s, but the recommendation did not pass the Faculty Senate vote.

“This [current committee] is pretty historic; it hasn’t really been done permanently on this scale for at least 30 years,” Schwindt-Bayer said.

The student forums were held to share the committee’s research on how GenEd is approached around the country with students, and to hear what students were interested in. Some presented examples included Stanford’s Civic, Liberal, and Global Education requirements, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s City as Classroom requirement

“It was interesting that we were able to see how a few choice universities do distribution systems, just to get a taste of what the possibilities are,” Wiess College junior Lucy Bozinov said. “I was still thinking about it in terms of this three-pronged [distribution] system. After looking at what other universities have done, I’ve seen some of the bigger potential.”

According to Schwindt-Bayer, the strengths of the current distribution system lie in its flexibility, variation and relatively easy-to-understand structure.

Hanszen College sophomore Nathaniel Boateng agrees with this sentiment.

“What captivated me about Rice and similar peer institutions is its liberal arts education and its emphasis on freedom of the mind, where you master many modes of thinking to gain a better perspective of the world and be a well informed citizen to contribute to society positively,” Boateng said.

Schwindt-Bayer explained, however, that the system is often inconsistent in what counts for distribution and that there can be insufficient course offerings per distribution group. 

“There’s no clear vision for our distribution system, so it’s not entirely clear why we’re doing this, and what you’re going to get out of it,” Schwindt-Bayer said.

According to Schwindt-Bayer, each school decides which of their courses count for distribution credit. For example, for a course to be approved for distribution group 1, a request must be reviewed and accepted by the School of Humanities’ School Course Review Committees. Incentive to add new courses to the distribution list thus largely falls on the professors.

“There’s really not a way to individually petition for it [as a student],” Schwindt-Bayer said. 

According to Schwindt-Bayer, the GenEd committee has hosted over 25 events and talked to more than 300 administrators, faculty, staff and alumni. They have conducted over 80 focus group interviews with different undergraduate populations, such as student-athletes, transfer students, students of color and peer academic advisors. Schwindt-Bayer explained that the committee wants to consider what makes Rice unique and build upon it in the eventual curricular model. 

“It’s a research university and liberal arts college in one. We are a small institution, particularly for a research institution, and our location in Houston is pretty unique,” Schwindt-Bayer said. 

A survey is currently available for students to provide feedback on what GenEd should look like.

“We just would really love to see students who are interested in this share their preferences and their priorities for moving forward,” Schwindt-Bayer said.

Bruce hopes that the future approach will allow for exploration and flexibility. 

“It’s estimated that today’s graduates will have over 10 different jobs in their lifetime,” Bruce wrote. “How do we prepare students for their careers while also preparing them to be lifelong learners who lead and contribute to the greater good?”

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