Undergraduate life

Task force report lauds fluidity of intellectual experience

Tufts students, faculty and staff value a sense of belonging, an atmosphere that encourages intellectual curiosity and strong connections between curricular and co-curricular life, according to a status report released by the university's Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience.

In addition, more than 90 percent of the 240 faculty members who responded to a survey conducted by the task force said they were either "satisfied" or "very satisfied" at Tufts.

© Kathleen Dooher

The task force's preliminary findings—in particular, the results of the faculty survey—were presented by task force chairman Gilbert Metcalf at the Arts, Sciences and Engineering faculty meeting on September 18. An interim report is expected later this semester. That report will present a number of scenarios for faculty, staff and students to discuss. The feedback to the draft scenarios contained in the interim report will guide the task force in the drafting of final recommendations to be presented to President Lawrence S. Bacow by the end of the current academic year.

"We're very pleased with the very thoughtful feedback we've received from faculty, staff and students," said Metcalf, professor of economics.

Bacow created the task force in fall 2001, asking the group to evaluate undergraduate education and life at Tufts. "Now is the ideal time to explore how Tufts' undergraduate experience might be enhanced for the 21st century," Bacow said in his charge to the task force.

Three themes
The task force was asked to examine the strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum and in teaching methods; the contribution of residential and co-curricular life to the overall Tufts undergraduate experience and how each undergraduate year contributes to students' intellectual and personal growth. It was also asked to identify the resources necessary to bring about any changes it might recommend.

The group met with more than 500 students, faculty members, staff, trustees and alumni at more than 30 sessions last spring, reviewed existing surveys of students from the Office of Institutional Research and collected information from approximately 30 other colleges and universities that have engaged in similar efforts.

The 11-member task force was assisted by three staffers and a student advisory committee. The co-chairs are Charles Inouye, dean of the undergraduate colleges, and Bruce Reitman, dean of students.

Three primary themes—termed "community, climate and coherence"—emerged from the task force's outreach efforts, Metcalf said.

Community refers to the need of students, faculty and staff to feel connected to both small groups within the university and to the university as a whole. "Time and again, people have told us how important it is for them to feel a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves, whether through their affiliation with various groups on campus or within the larger community of Tufts as a whole," the report says.

Climate refers to the intellectual, co-curricular and social atmosphere. "We heard many expressions of a desire to foster a climate that encourages curiosity, excitement and engagement in students in all the facets of their Tufts experience, whether it be in the classroom, in dorm discussions, over dinner conversations or during co-curricular activities," the report says.

Coherence refers to the university's ability to integrate high-quality teaching and research and to enable students to gain more from their range of experiences at Tufts. "Our unique identity poses a significant challenge: How can we help students take advantage of the plentiful opportunities available at Tufts without either spreading anyone too thin or losing a sense of coherence?" the report asks.

Faculty survey
At the AS&E faculty meeting, Metcalf presented the results of a faculty survey, to which 49 percent of full-time faculty and 18 percent of part-time faculty had responded. The faculty discussed various strengths and weaknesses within the curriculum and related areas.

The perceived curricular strengths included quality of teaching; variety and flexibility in developing new courses; opportunities for mentoring and building student-faculty relationships; the interdisciplinary structure of many programs; the overall breadth of education and the university's international focus.

For example, "faculty can easily implement new courses to try out new ideas and respond to issues that are of current interest in their disciplines," Metcalf said. "Courses can be tested out either within departments or, for more unusual topics, through the Ex College.

"Intellectual curiosity is not stifled by red tape here at Tufts," he said.

Perceived weaknesses included dissatisfaction with students' writing and oral communication skills; too many course requirements; minimal support for undergraduate research and a perception that students are not required to work hard enough—for example, the existence of the pass/fail option and the ability of students to drop a class at a late date without penalty.

There was also mention of the need to improve some aspects of the advising system.

"Many of the advising experiences for first- and second-year students are very successful, and those students develop meaningful and long-lasting friendships with their advisors," Metcalf said. "The problem is that there is a great deal of unevenness in advising across the board.

"The most satisfying advising relationships seem to be ones in which students and faculty are engaged in coursework or research," he said. "Unfortunately, we don't have the resources at present to provide these kinds of advising opportunities for all of our students."

Gratifying work
According to the survey, AS&E faculty believe the most gratifying aspects of their work are interacting with excellent students and colleagues and the opportunities for research and collaboration.

When asked what improvements were needed, they mentioned the need for more and better classrooms and offices, more faculty, more funding for student research, greater engagement in student life and increased compensation.

"If anything surprised us in the faculty survey, it is the depth of the commitment of our faculty to the institution, despite areas in which a shortfall in resources makes it difficult to do their jobs as effectively as they might," Metcalf said.

"They bring an excitement and energy to their work that can only make one very proud to be a part of this institution," he said. "Students and staff are also passionate about Tufts and care deeply about the future of the institution."

The task force's status report is available online at http://ugtaskforce.tufts.edu