Peer Review

LEAPing in Utah: Lessons Learned along the Way

Utah’s road to LEAP was accidental. We did not set out to be a LEAP state. We set out to create a faculty-led system of articulation and assessment for general education (GE) in the Utah System of Higher Education. Or at least that is what we were doing before the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), with whom we had been working for years, invited us to become the fifth LEAP state.

The catalyst for Utah’s system-wide collaboration is the Regents’ General Education Task Force. This task force was originally convened in 1992 by Utah’s chief academic officers (CAOs) through the Utah System of Higher Education. It was a typical system-based ad hoc group. Its specific charge was to evaluate a proposal by one campus for televised general education courses. But when the task force tackled this issue, it was immediately evident that the system had no way of defining “worth.” This realization led to explorations of what GE was accomplishing statewide. A snowball effect ensued, in which success at one venture led to explorations in another. Since 1992, the task force has been charged by Utah’s CAOs and the regents with a wide range of work involving statewide collaboration on GE. By the end of the decade, it ceased to be ad hoc and became a standing faculty committee. The committee has the job of overseeing the assessment and articulation of GE in the state. In practice, it acquired the informal mission of serving as a place where faculty can exchange information and ideas and develop a shared perspective on curricular issues.

Once together, faculty representatives from Utah’s nine state schools began exploring common goals. Discussion raised the possibility of seeking GE goals that transcended individual institutions. The task force wanted to support distinctive faculty voices and campus missions. How could both similarity and difference be protected? The task force started with the question: “What is an educated person?” Next they explored whether statewide faculty shared pedagogical values sufficiently to develop a mutual vision of GE. Early on, the task force sent a team to an American Association for Higher Education conference on assessment. There we discovered that we were a complete anomaly, the only state system at a conference geared to campus teams. But we did learn something else important: when faculty get a chance to talk about common issues and values, very productive work gets done. Consequently, we decided to hold our own regional conference, inviting Utah faculty to solve the articulation and assessment questions we were confronting. We believed that if we, as faculty, took the lead we could fulfill our professional responsibility and prevent political interference with the curriculum. We titled the first regional faculty meeting with the question that started our task force work—What Is an Educated Person?

From the beginning, the conference was political because we faced state-mandated assessments, partisan pressures, and public criticisms of our effectiveness. We wished to show our government leaders and the public that we took our job seriously, and that we valued their input. To this end, we began working with an organization of chief executive officers from some of Utah’s largest corporations. Their answers to “What is an educated person?” have proved both enlightening and politically useful. For instance, they insisted that students have a well-rounded GE that teaches them communication skills, exposes them to cultural diversity, and fosters other educational outcomes that faculty sometimes fear are devalued outside academe. At the same time, we wished to engage our institutions in the national conversation about higher education reform. One of our earliest keynoters was AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider.

The What Is an Educated Person? conference mixed representatives from all regional institutions—including private ones like Westminster College and Brigham Young University, and some Idaho schools that transfer large numbers of students to Utah—with business and political leaders. This first conference was so successful that twelve more have followed. In November 2010, the thirteenth conference addressed changing views of GE from the perspectives of business, faculty, and students, in conjunction with the launching of the Utah 2020 plan for increasing access and graduation rates.

The conference was a useful tool to gather information and feedback, but the task force created others, too. In keeping with our commitment to faculty leadership, disciplinary task forces were built around GE categories, such as humanities and life sciences, and charged with defining standards and suggesting appropriate assessment techniques. In 2000, the Regents’ Task Force undertook assessment of composition, quantitative literacy, and state-mandated “American Institutions” requirements. These discussions taught us an invaluable lesson—if you wish to use assessment for curricular change, you must do assessment that corresponds to the culture of the faculty in the field.

We then convened “majors’ meetings” annually. With Assistant Commissioner for Higher Education Teddi Safman’s support, faculty representatives began meeting to make policy for their disciplines. These meetings concentrate on GE issues—common course numbers, articulation, and premajor qualifications—but they foster larger disciplinary discussions. Faculty in the system get to know one another, to share their professional values, and make common cause across all institutional types.

Thus began a conversation with two streams. One followed the worn channel of transfer and articulation: could we create clearer, more intentional pathways through degrees for students? The other followed the rough gully of outcomes: could majors express their degree outcomes in ways that clearly indicated to students and employers what degrees prepared students to do, understand and know?

Inspired by AAC&U VALUE rubrics and a Bologna-Process-style amendable learning record, we began to dream of a new sort of transcript: an e-portfolio that would begin with the LEAP essential learning outcomes (ELOs), demonstrate work with GE artifacts and evidence from the major, and allow students to add pertinent information. This educational portfolio can present students’ skills and accomplishments, and act both as an assessment and an employment tool. Such a portfolio could provide a roadmap for students seeking a path through the thicket of higher education, help us better know students’ needs and accomplishments, and aid with articulation and transfer. Salt Lake Community College, under the leadership of David Hubert, dean of the school of General and Developmental Education, has launched the e-portfolio for GE.

In 2009, the task force was approached by the Lumina Foundation to join Tuning USA, a faculty-led process linking college degrees to learning objectives, disciplinary outcomes, and workplace relevance. We chose to “tune” history and physics. Asking “What should a student with this degree know, understand, and be able to do?” faculty colleagues worked effectively together, reaching consensus on system-wide outcomes. This ongoing experiment has also led to discussion of the relationship of upper-division degree requirements and GE, internships, high-impact learning practices, and other inputs to a degree.

In 2008, Utah began talking with AAC&U about becoming a LEAP state. Since the task force is careful to respect curricular autonomy, we asked our nine institutions if they accepted the LEAP ELOs. After the nine GE committees had considered their positions, we could report that we, as a system, endorsed the ELOs and were committed to teaching them. By fall 2009, we were ready, institutionally, to take the leap.

At this point a new ally joined us. In 2010, AAC&U released its employers’ survey. At about the same time, the statewide Salt Lake Chamber launched its Utah Prosperity 2020 initiative. Not surprisingly, we discovered that our initiatives to improve liberal education in Utah matched neatly with the chamber’s commitment to improving educational quality and access in Utah. Subsequently, the Salt Lake Chamber cosponsored with the Utah System of Higher Education the launch of LEAP Utah in 2010. This alliance is giving faculty a standing in the political conversation about the future of higher education in Utah.

What have we learned as we evolved into a LEAP state officially committed to creating a twenty-first century liberal education for all Utahans?

Faculty and Staff are the Key to Cultural Change

We learned quickly that faculty know what they are doing, and that they are often far ahead of their institutional catalogs when it comes to valuing and instituting innovative pedagogies. Moreover, they are perfectly capable of articulating the outcomes in their disciplines. A room full of faculty can—in an hour or so—reach a high level of congruity about learning outcomes. They also know how to evaluate them. Ask them to build a rubric that expresses the outcomes they strive to teach, allow them to measure outcomes according to the norms of their disciplines, and you will find willing participants.

Advisers and other student services personnel, along with people from the registrar’s and assessment offices, should be in the conversation, too. Faculty know what they value; these others know how students behave in a system and can provide important feedback and help with implementation.

Structures Are Important

The ability to make changes in educational expectations depends on the structural flexibility in the system. In Utah the faculty-led effort at curricular change would have been impossible if the commissioners of higher education had believed that policy was the perquisite of the professionals in their offices and the chief academic officers. Utah’s lack of rigidity and hierarchy provides a context in which ideas and information can move easily among faculty and institutions. This is especially important given that hierarchies frequently fail to communicate policy decisions to those who work with students.
However, it is necessary to have structures that validate faculty conversations. We could not do what we are doing in Utah if the commissioner did not exist. The trick is to have structures that encourage and support change in ways that allow those doing the work to do it according to their understandings of the problems.

Sharing Is Important

Institutions and disciplines do not stand alone. To establish and assess outcomes in a major, you need all departments in the system to participate. Otherwise, lone departments or faculty leaders lack the necessary affirmation of their colleagues. This takes the conversation back to disciplinary values, away from pressures from a particular dean or institution. Of course, the deans and institutions have to recognize the validity of disciplinary values. If everyone agrees on the outcomes, has similar rubrics, and accepts that certain artifacts are the appropriate evidence for performance, students can truly move within the state system with ease.

Keeping in mind power structures, you need to approach, inform, and make alliances with those who can help. Medieval kings used to summon “all good men” to parliaments, by which they meant all the powerful. We, too, must include the powerful. We need to be sure that legislators, governor’s staffs, chambers of commerce and other employers’ organizations, and the general public are aware that the professionals in higher education are minding their own shop.

Keep Focused on Students, NOT Institutional Types and Turf

When they are teaching, faculty belong to larger professional groupings than their campus community. Notwithstanding institutional types, the teachers think about students in their disciplines. Realizing this, and recognizing that conversations about disciplinary pedagogies and assessment are universal, we have always included private institutions and institutions from adjoining states in our meetings. Professionals together inform and support one another, and everyone benefits, no matter where the students are located.

Moreover, by focusing on the professional skills of the faculty, we mitigate institutional pecking orders. We all know that higher education in the US has a tendency to discriminate between faculty at research, comprehensive, two-year, and other sorts of institutions. But when Utah thinks about its common curriculum, it thinks about its students and faculty as a whole. Focusing on students removes institutional barriers, and our professional goals for student success provide common glue in our discussions. True, some innovations are easier to do in some institutional types—the small classes in some colleges are the envy of faculty at the larger institutions, and the availability of graduate students to help with the grading is the envy of the smaller places—but we are still talking about a common curriculum.

Keep Communicating: Build and Maintain a Community

If you want to have a living system of innovation and assessment, you have to keep the conversation alive, and you have to be as inclusive as possible. Faculty, administrators, staff, politicians, professional organizations, and all other stakeholders need to be invited into the tent. Our annual Educated Person Conference reaches out to all sorts of groups, while our majors meetings keep the departments in our institutions talking. We get to know our colleagues around the state, a popular and useful thing that makes us feel like we belong.

Utah’s efforts to create a higher education community that has the power to change the culture of education in the state is an ongoing effort that has to be maintained. It has been institutionalized, but it does not run itself. But becoming a LEAP state is another sign that what we have been doing may be sustainable.


Norm Jones is a professor and chair of history and religious studies and the director of general education and curriculum integration at Utah State University; and chair of the Utah Regents’ General Education Task Force.

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