01 September 2005

Blowing the whistle

Old joke: Guy runs a stop sign. Cop pulls him over and says, "Didn't you see that stop sign?" Driver replies, "Sure. But I didn't think it was meant for me!"

One of the things I dislike about this university is that there seem to be a lot of people who don't think the stop signs are meant for them. I've said sometimes, only half-jokingly, that a policy is a rule when applied to a faculty member, but a guideline when applied to an administrator.

Yup, I've got an example.

The universities in Texas are subject to the policies of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. They set rules for university curricula. One of those rules (Chapter 4, Subchapter B, Section §4.29: Core Curricula Larger than 42 Semester Credit Hours, if you're curious; click here for a PDF of that chapter) is that a university can't have more than 48 hours of core courses. Core courses are defined as courses that are required of every student (Chapter 4, Subchapter B, Section §4.23c).

The University of Texas - Pan American has 48 hours of core courses, which is the maximum allowed by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Click here for a PDF of the UTPA catalog, hop to "Requirements for a Bachelor's degree" over on page 66, and you'll read, "3. Core Curriculum Hours and GPA: 48 hours of University core curriculum requirements must be satisfactorily completed with a minimum GPA of 2.0. (See page 95-98 for specific coursework.)"

But wait! Read down a couple more paragraphs. You'll see another requirement. "8. University Requirement: All entering freshmen with fewer than 30 completed semester credit hours are required to enroll in the UNIV 1301 – Learning Framework course during the first year of college (Fall, Spring or Summer). Transfer students with fewer than 30 completed semester hours will be required to take the course, unless they have completed an equivalent course at another institution." (Emphasis added.)

What's "UNIV 1301"? It's a sort of "How to study at the university level" class. An "Introduction to university" or "Survival skills" package designed to prepare the students, many of whom are not adequately prepared by their high school education for the tasks they'll face in their first year. Fair enough. I've given enough failing grades in introductory biology to attest that many of our students need some sort of help, because they are not effective at studying.

Back to the point. If everyone has to take UNIV 1301, then by definition, it's a core course. But we're already at the maximum allowed. In other words, we're requiring more than is allowed by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

How is the university getting around this little problem? They're going around asking (strong arming) each individual department and telling them to make this UNIV 1301 class a requirement for their major. That way, the university can claim, "It's not a core course, because a core course is a university requirement. It's just that every department made it a requirement."

And a lot of the departments have capitulated. The new catalogue has this UNIV 1301 class listed as a degree requirement for English (pg. 111), Health and Kinesiology (pg. 154), Mathematics (pg. 197). To date, my department has resisted the pressure that's been applied for the better part of a year. I hope we continue to do so.

The goal of this class is to increase student success, which I'm all for. But they've gone about implementing in absolutely the wrong way. Rather than removing some other requirement, they're trying (and largely succeeding so far) in sneaking it in the back door. It's going to make every student take longer and spend more money to complete their degree.

My university's breaking the rules. Shamelessly. It's absolutely cut and dry. It's days like this that I'm embarrassed to work here.

Luckily, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board website has a page where they invite comments. And there's a little place to check off if the comment is a complaint, including complaints against an institution. I've already sent one. We'll see if it gets a response.

Additional: I did get a reply. Apparently, even a class that is absolutely required of every student is not necessarily "core." "Core" means something else. So the university isn't running afoul of rules.

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