Transformative education

Task force produces a wealth of recommendations for enhancing the undergraduate experience

To offer its undergraduates a more intellectually challenging and personally enriching experience, the university should consider changes in both the structure of the undergraduate program and the culture of the Medford/Somerville campus.

Those were among the conclusions of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience, which has released its final report. The task force, appointed by President Lawrence S. Bacow in the fall of 2001, was charged with evaluating undergraduate life and education at Tufts. The task force issued two interim reports over the past academic year.

© Kathleen Dooher

"Tufts, long known as the light on the Hill, has the potential to shine brighter still and become, in the process, a beacon for other mid-sized universities," reads the report's introduction.

To reach that potential, the report says, the university should concentrate on enhancing three aspects of the undergraduate program, which the report categorizes as "climate, community and coherence."

It makes several specific recommendations within these categories, such as instituting a four-year writing requirement; enhancing undergraduate research opportunities; developing more extracurricular connections between students and faculty; creating a "college system" on campus; improving the advising system and celebrating "intellectual milestones" during a student's four years at Tufts.

The task force has helped set an agenda for the university's next decade, said Charles Inouye, dean of the colleges and co-chair of the task force. "We began with the premise that the process of the task force itself was largely a means to identify needs and to provide vision," he said.

© Kathleen Dooher

"I was delighted by the quality of the process and by the product," said Jamshed Bharucha, provost and senior vice president. "It was just marvelously written. The members of the task force put in hundreds of hours, if not more, having town meetings and meeting amongst themselves. It was a monumental task, very inclusive, very well-organized."

The three C's
The report defines its three areas of focus:

Climate: "Despite the excellence of students and faculty alike and the impressive work that goes on in the classroom, the institution itself, or the atmosphere that pervades it, seems to separate intellectual exploration and enthusiasm from students' shared experiences beyond the classroom," the report says. "We need to enhance the intellectual climate at Tufts to enable our institution to achieve the next level of academic excellence."

Community: "Tufts could do more to push students to venture outside of their comfort zones and draw them out of their various sub-groups in ways that contribute to their sense of belonging to the broader university community," the report says.

Coherence: "In the face of so many requirements and so few visible markers to outline the 'big picture,' students frequently adopt a 'checklist mentality' with regard to their education," the report says. "We need to provide greater coherence to our overall education plan."

Yet, none of these categories is entirely distinct from the others, said Gilbert Metcalf, task force chair and professor of economics. "There is a real symbiosis among these three concepts," he said.

For example, "climate refers to the learning environment that we have at Tufts, both inside and outside the classroom, and the notion of climate has to do with creating an atmosphere where education and student learning and educational development are at the forefront," Metcalf said. Coherence, meanwhile, speaks to "the process by which we provide that education."

One example is the proposed four-year writing program. This could be structured so that during their first year, students take writing courses that help them hone basic writing skills. As they progress and choose a major, students would then concentrate on writing within their discipline; eventually, they reach their senior year, when they presumably would have the writing skills to compose a thesis or comparable project. The skills learned each year would build upon those that came before.

A 'transformative experience'
"One of the things that I had thought about was the need to make the educational experience a more transformative one for our students," said Inouye. "I could see a lot of our students were bright, but I could also tell many were, in a sense, going through the motions of education.

"For me, the essence of life in college is to discover your talent and your curiosity and make a commitment to developing that talent that prepares you to make a contribution," he said.

© Kathleen Dooher

That idea underscores another key point of the task force report—the need to offer more opportunities for undergraduate research, Inouye said. This was also one of the ideas presented in the task force's interim reports, and, in fact, was one of the recommendations that the administration was putting into place even before the final report had been released.

This summer, the university initiated its Summer Scholars Program, in which 30 undergraduate students are teamed with faculty mentors from most of Tufts' schools and affiliated hospitals. In conjunction with Summer Scholars, a "research clearinghouse" was created—a web site where faculty from throughout the university can describe their scholarship and research interests and the type of background they desire in a research assistant.

"One of the exciting things about working on this report is that while some ideas may take a number of years to be put into effect, other ideas are being put into effect immediately, and we're already beginning to see some payoff for our efforts," Metcalf said.

Because most of the final report echoes suggestions and topics broached in the interim reports, there were few "surprises" for either the administration or the faculty.

"People knew what was going to be in the report, and, for the most part, were quite enthusiastic," Metcalf said. "There is a lot of support for undergraduate research and for the four-year writing initiative."

Recommendations
The 11-member task force was composed primarily of faculty, with representation from the administration and students. It also worked with a 14-member Student Advisory Committee.

Specific recommendations within the report include:

  • Emphasize communication skills across the curriculum.
  • Construct a café in Tisch Library to symbolize the library's role as an intellectual center on campus.
  • Restructure curricular requirements to reflect the outcomes that define a Tufts education. Along with this, the task force suggested that the relationship between Latin honors and honors theses be examined.
  • Provide additional support for undergraduate research. In addition to the Summer Scholars Program and the research clearinghouse, the task force suggests an augmented undergraduate research fund, research funding for students at the professional schools and an expanded version of the annual Undergraduate Research Symposium.
  • Encourage initiatives that knit together the School of Arts & Sciences and the School of Engineering.
  • Increase programming that contributes to an enhanced intellectual climate. This could include initiatives such as a Distinguished Lecture series or a brown-bag Deans' Luncheon Series. Also, Tufts should seek ways to make cultural offerings and internship opportunities in Boston more accessible to students.

One initiative that already has begun is a series of "High Table" dinners for faculty, hosted by Daniel C. Dennett, University Professor and Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, who directs Tufts' Center for Cognitive Studies. About two dozen faculty members from various fields in Arts, Sciences, Engineering and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy were invited to four monthly dinners during the spring semester, where they listened to a presentation from one professor and then took part in informal discussions about their research. A similar series is scheduled for the fall. The High Table dinners are funded by the president's office.

  • Create attractive and convenient gathering spaces for faculty and students throughout the campus.
  • Support a commitment to providing attractive and educationally appropriate classrooms.
  • Create a College System that brings faculty, students and staff together. The task force proposes creating four residential colleges on campus, each with a first-year residence hall that would serve as a "college center." Students would belong to a particular college throughout their four years at Tufts, regardless of where they subsequently choose to live. Faculty and staff would serve as "senior members" of the colleges. The report recommends further research on this proposal by various constituencies within Tufts and by appropriate external consultants.
  • Use residence halls as an instrument for undergraduate education and create a planning group to design the optimal configuration of residential housing options for undergraduates.
  • Implement a need-blind undergraduate admissions policy.
  • Provide enhanced support for faculty and curricular development.
  • Expand the Mayer Campus Center to fully realize its potential as a "town commons." The report urges "serious consideration" of a campus center addition, which would include a faculty dining room, multifunction space for large groups, an expanded dining commons and a central mailbox facility for students.
  • Develop a series of "intellectual milestone" events and support systems. In addition to events that already exist, such as the president's speech at matriculation, other items could include a letter from the president upon a student's acceptance to Tufts, a pre-matriculation book gift from the Tufts University Alumni Association, a "Majors Day" and a "World Homecoming Day" for students returning from study-abroad programs.
  • Restructure the advising system within Arts & Sciences, using the School of Engineering's advising program as a model. Under this system, each student would have a continuous relationship with a dean of advising for his or her entire four years.
  • Strengthen connections between alumni and students, particularly in the area of career services.
  • Create closer links between curriculum and co-curricular life.

The full text of the task force report can be found at http://ugtaskforce.tufts.edu

Helene Ragovin is a senior writer in Tufts University's Office of Publications. She can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu