Opinions still differ on GenEd changes

The debate over Foundations of Knowledge, NKU’s general education program, is at a standstill for now, but the university is still waiting to hear the results of the U.S. Department of Education’s inquiry into how the curriculum change was approved and how complaints about the change were handled.

A June 7 letter from the Department of Education to Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), says the agency did not properly handle complaints filed about NKU’s new GenEd program, and the agency did not properly review the new GenEd program.

SACS is the organization that ensures colleges and universities in several southern states meet requirements to be accredited universities.

The agency had until July 18 to respond. Wheelan confirmed SACS did answer the Department of Education’s inquiry by the deadline; but declined to provide a copy of the letter, saying SACS is a private agency and is not required under freedom of information laws to release documents.

Wheelan said the agency had not initially provided enough information to convince the Department of Education that the agency had followed procedure, so SACS provided more information explaining the review process.

“We had two people working on the complaint, but didn’t get information from both,” Wheelan said.

She added the agency sent a “more complete response in the more complete letter” in July, and SACS has heard nothing back from the Department of Education.

Despite the Department of Education’s outstanding inquiry, Votruba said Aug. 19 at Fall Convocation that he had spoken with Wheelan and was assured the GenEd program was in compliance with SACS.

“That debate is over,” Votruba said.

However, if the Department of Education finds SACS out of compliance, the agency risks losing its status as a federally recognized accrediting agency. If Foundations of Knowledge is found to be out of compliance, NKU could risk losing some federal funding unless the program is adjusted.

The push to change GenEd requirements came after NKU went through its re-accreditation process and during administrators’ looking for ways to cut the total number of credit hours needed to graduate from 128 to 120.

Provost Gail Wells said plans to revamp the GenEd program began in May 2008 as a way to help students meet graduation requirements more quickly. She said many students were graduating with more than 128 credit hours. She added that with more than 300 course options available, students had difficulty selecting courses.

“We had to maybe make some reductions in majors or somewhere else along the line to fit everything in,” said Terry Pence, chair of the Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Philosophy. Pence was part of the faculty committees in charge of helping revise GenEd requirements.

“What [the administration] decided to do was to combine history, literature and fine arts [previously requiring nine hours of study] into one and retain only a six-hour requirement in humanities,” Pence said.

Pence, with Robert Trundle, professor and coordinator of the philosophy program, claims the new GenEd requirements do not properly address academic requirements. They voiced these concerns to NKU administrators as early as March 2010, according to email correspondence obtained by The Northerner.

Pence and Trundle said Foundations of Knowledge violates SACS provisions, which require students to take at least one course each from humanities/fine arts, social/behavioral sciences and natural science/mathematics, totaling three classes or nine credit hours.

Foundations of Knowledge only requires students to take classes from two of the three disciplines, totaling six credit hours, putting them out of compliance with SACS guidelines, the professors said.

According to emails obtained by The Northerner, Pence and other faculty members voiced concerns over compliance with GenEd policies to NKU administration throughout the review process. The Northerner has obtained correspondence dating back to January 2010.

In emails exchanged between Jan. 26-27, 2010, Provost Gail Wells informed Prof. Nancy Hancock, who was on the committee reviewing GenEd requirements, that if a new policy was not in place by fall 2010, NKU would risk losing accreditation.

Wells cited SACS’ findings that while NKU was granted accreditation, it was non-compliant in four areas, one of them being general education. According to the emails, Wells interpreted the SACS suggestions to mean that GenEd requirements needed to be completely revamped, but faculty countered that SACS actually discouraged administrators to start from scratch to revise GenEd requirements.

Wells told The Northerner in June that administrators could have fit the new GenEd requirements over the old structure with more than 300 course options, but having so many options complicated course selection for students.

Wells said the administration revised GenEd because they “wanted students to have the chance to explore.”