Shifting Campus Conversations to Advance New General Education Programs

All the summer institutes given by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) have a common structure—campus teams explore different approaches from innovative institutions, exchange ideas with other teams in similar situations, and consult with their mentors on the institute faculty. These exchanges help teams develop action plans appropriate to their institution. The final assignment is to develop a very brief (five to eight minutes) presentation of this action plan for a specific audience. Teams could easily feel the presentation is meant to force them to complete their action plans. However, our University of Rhode Island (URI) team realized that this presentation or “pitch,” as it came to be known, was the central component of our action plan, and the closing days of AAC&U’s Institute on General Education and Assessment (IGEA) provided an invaluable opportunity to create, revise, and rehearse it. In retrospect, we should have recognized the importance of a well-developed communication strategy early in the first year of a new general education program, but instead we stumbled into the realization through our dialogues with one another, other teams, and our mentors at the institute.

By sharing our story, we hope that other institutions in similar situations will benefit from some of the lessons we learned. Below we describe the central features of the first year of our new general education program and chronicle the origins of the pitch and the campus response. Drawing from our experience, we close with six principles of an effective communication strategy.

URI’S General Education Backstory

We suspect we are not the first institution to confront a loss of campus momentum after the faculty completed the hard work of designing and legislating a new program. Despite our previous best efforts to introduce the new program to students, generate new courses, and follow the implementation and assessment process set by the faculty, the campus climate seemed to plateau, hindering the enthusiasm necessary to ignite the faculty’s ongoing commitment to the program.

In September 2016, URI launched a new general education program that focuses on the knowledge, competencies, and responsibilities critical for students to pursue meaningful careers and lives in the context of the global and national challenges of the twenty-first century. In tandem, the provost established the Office for Innovation in General Education with the primary goal of ensuring student success by promoting the value of the program, guaranteeing access, and pursuing continued improvement of the curriculum. After the first year, we identified several critical issues essential for determining the future trajectory of the program.

With a student success framework in mind, the director identified the most pressing issue as the need for more course offerings for several of the learning outcomes new to the general education program. This issue was directly related to key faculty concerns, including faculty members reporting frustration with the course proposal process and uncertainty around the requirements and implications of a new assessment model. In combination, these factors contributed to a widespread sense that the initial implementation process was burdensome without the promised benefits for faculty and students. These perceptions became obstacles to a fully successful implementation by the end of year one and served as the impetus for our participation in the 2017 IGEA.

To address immediate accreditation and program needs, the director of general education partnered with the Office for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (ATL) to identify and train teams of faculty members to vet each of the twelve learning outcome rubrics and provide feedback to develop a long-term assessment model. This assessment process was distributed over two years and involved nearly 240 instructors. With this early phase of assessment scheduled to end in spring 2018, we sought to design a more permanent approach to the assessment of our general education program. Therefore, at the end of year one, we believed the highest priority was designing a long-term assessment plan with detailed logistics including timing, sample and faculty involvement, data collection and analysis, and technological solutions. These goals led us to assemble a team to attend the summer institute. The team was composed of stakeholders with distinct perspectives, expectations, and experiences with general education at URI. Members included administrators responsible for oversight of the program; faculty members who had proposed, reviewed, and taught general education courses; and professional staff who support teaching and learning.

Origins of Our Pitch

While our focus entering the institute was on pragmatic assessment concerns, we soon recognized that we first needed to address the campus conversation in order to build a culture that would support the innovative program we promised. Attending the institute provided the space for our team to have the necessary discourse to design an overarching communication strategy to directly address the cultural challenges. Our focus shifted to identifying strategies that would bring faculty and administrators together to invest in the future of the program.

Faculty members on the team emphasized that the communication strategy would need to build relationships to support the program and make clear to the faculty that they are valued and that the program requires their active engagement and commitment in order to flourish. In the final days of the institute, we created a presentation of our action plan for an imagined institutional audience. Our team took this opportunity to construct a pitch for departments and colleges to become more involved in the general education program. The pitch was directed towards deans and department chairs as the target audience to create connections, gain input, and build alliances that would help the office better support and engage faculty. The message incorporated three components: a concern, an idea, and an opportunity.

Our concern addressed the most significant problem after the first year of the program—alarmingly low course offerings for a significant portion of the program learning outcomes. Although faculty developed many new courses, several areas continued to be underrepresented. Too few seats available across learning outcomes meant there was a real risk of students being unable to complete the program in four years. Numerous course options needed to be available for each outcome immediately. To drive our point home, we asked deans and chairs to see this concern from the perspective of their students. Our top priority was to partner with deans and chairs to identify, recruit, and help faculty to develop and submit courses in these areas. Earlier attempts to increase course proposals involved direct appeals to faculty without prior coordination with deans and chairs. This marked an important shift in how we sought new course proposals.

Our idea focused on promoting the value of past and current faculty contributions to general education in order to encourage a more positive view of the program. Many URI faculty members had already created incredible courses that resulted in meaningful and valuable learning experiences for their students. The entire university community needed to know about their efforts and to know that those efforts were valued. Sharing and celebrating success stories within the new program is an important way to recognize the accomplishments of colleagues and to inspire the broader community to make their personal contributions to the program. In the pitch, the director described a vision for an annual publication to highlight and promote faculty and student success stories. We encouraged every dean and chair to provide the director with frequent updates about exciting general education experiences created by their faculty for their students.

Finally, the opportunity we presented offered faculty members a means to directly participate in solving our concerns about the dearth of course offerings. In collaboration with ATL and the Faculty Senate’s General Education Committee, we developed a four-part workshop series that took participants from the beginning to the end of the course design and submission process for two of the underrepresented areas of the program. We requested that deans and chairs have a strategic discussion with their faculty and identify options for revising existing courses or proposing new courses for the program. The deans and chairs recommended faculty members to the director, who personally invited them to participate in the workshop series.

Ultimately, the goal of this three-part pitch was to initiate a strong working relationship with the deans and chairs in order to create a network of faculty leaders to collectively address implementation issues and to continue to move the program forward.

Changing the Campus Conversation

With our well-crafted pitch in hand, we began year two by scheduling presentations at the meetings of department chairs held by the college deans. These meetings not only provided the right audience for our message, they also integrated our efforts with the deans’ strategic vision for their curriculum. Enlisting and mobilizing deans and chairs to help engage faculty had both short-term and long-term benefits for the advancement of our program.

These conversations resulted in a much-needed increase in course proposals for our targeted areas. In contrast to year one, when the director reached out individually to faculty, deans and chairs recruited a much broader array of faculty to propose courses for the program. Critical to this process, deans and chairs identified the right faculty and encouraged them prior to any formal invitation from the director to participate in the course proposal workshops. Having a more strategic approach to seeking and supporting course development for the program was key to not only increasing the number of offerings, but also to establishing important communication networks among academic leaders and growing a shared sense of responsibility for the program.

The pitch has led to several long-term benefits as well. Perhaps most significantly, the director has established more systematic communication and coordination with deans and chairs that allowed for wider engagement of faculty across the university. This new open line of communication has led to a much richer exchange of ideas and collaboration on both practical issues and innovative opportunities to advance the program. These relationships have become an organic foundation for sustaining the dynamic general education program originally envisioned by the faculty. We believe these connections are the linchpin to our success.

A second lasting benefit of the pitch has been the elevation of faculty contributions to general education. While at the institute, faculty members on our team had emphasized the importance of recognition to motivate faculty engagement. Responding to the idea outlined in the pitch, chairs and deans highlighted faculty who have brought creativity and passion to the new program. The Office for Innovation in General Education developed an annual spotlight publication describing outstanding courses and instructor stories. In addition, the office initiated two annual Excellence in General Education Awards for faculty members nominated by students. We believe these forms of recognition will have a contagious effect, inspiring other faculty members to value and contribute to the ongoing growth of the program.

A third benefit emerging from our communication strategy is the recent establishment of the Scholar Advocates for General Education. This new faculty team, composed of nine members representing disciplines and faculty positions, will guide and champion the program as it moves forward. In the near future, this team will be tasked with revising rubrics for the learning outcomes based on faculty feedback. In the long term, we imagine this team will become a powerful voice in developing a shared understanding of the program’s learning outcomes and serve as campus experts for teaching and learning in the general education program.

Critical Insights

Revitalizing and maintaining broad faculty engagement in a general education program requires an effective communication strategy. Our approach includes the following six principles:

  • Focus on addressing the current campus climate before attending to implementation details.
  • Build relationships with academic leaders and faculty members who have the ability to shape change.
  • Employ copresenters to highlight the broad commitment and coordination of those supporting the program.
  • Deliver a single message that is meaningful for multiple audiences to drive campus engagement.
  • Incorporate the student perspective and experience when discussing concerns.
  • Present concerns alongside structured opportunities for faculty and administrators to contribute to the solution.

Reflecting on the past year, we’ve accomplished much to reengage our campus community with the new program. New partnerships with deans, chairs, and faculty leaders have bolstered our ability to address new challenges as they emerge. Although the pitch is now retired, the process of developing and delivering it was illuminating. Working to shift the campus conversation is a daunting task, but by sharing our general education reform experience, we hope that our insights will have value beyond the gates of our institution.

Rachel L. DiCioccio, Director, Office of Innovation in General Education, Professor of Communication Studies; Elaine Finan, Assistant Director for Assessment, Office for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning; and Eric C. Kaldor, Assistant Director for Faculty Development, Office for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning—all of The University of Rhode Island

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