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Commission Unveils Plan for Academic Priorities

Examine the various disciplines and fields of knowledge we teach. Determine their relative strengths and weaknesses. Point up their gaps and redundancies. And, then, propose a plan for their development over the next 15 years that will ensure their uniform excellence and maximum coherence.

That was the daunting charge President Michael Mooney handed the Commission on Academic Priorities in the Arts and Sciences in the spring of 2000.

Over the next two years, 14 senior faculty members spent more than 200 hours poking, probing, and painfully analyzing every component of Lewis & Clark’s undergraduate curriculum. A grant from the Mellon Foundation helped fund the planning process.

“We all realized the importance of our work,” says Curtis Johnson, dean of the College and Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Professor of Government. “That was both our problem and our source of strength, because when you are dealing with something really important, feelings run deep.”

Faculty debated a preliminary draft of the report at three lively forums in the spring of 2002. Commission members listened carefully and ironed out most of the difficult spots. “When we saw strong consensus in the faculty, we tried to adopt that particular point,” says Johnson.

The result is a proposal with 27 recommendations mapping a curricular direction for the arts and sciences at Lewis & Clark. The report also includes a chart for each department listing current faculty and their expertise.

Here President Mooney tells why he established the commission and describes how the planning process will strengthen Lewis & Clark’s curriculum.

What is the Report of the Commission on Academic Priorities in the Arts and Sciences?
It is a draft of a possible future of the College. It’s not a final decision about what the College is and where it should go. But it is a serious, thoughtful proposal brought forward by a group of high-minded faculty based on discussions they had throughout the undergraduate college.

How did the commission come about?
I established two commissions two years ago: one to study the academic priorities in the arts and sciences and the other to study teaching. I view them as companion efforts: one focuses on the areas of knowledge we choose to address at this college, and the other analyzes the mechanisms we use to engage students in learning and research.

The Commission on Academic Priorities distributed its final report this fall. The Commission on Teaching has issued a draft report, which faculty are now discussing in a series of forums. I expect the Commission on Teaching to issue its final report by the end of this term.

Why did we need the Commission on Academic Priorities?
So many of the faculty have changed over the last 15 years that we run the risk of losing the concept of the whole. We needed to pause, take some time out, look at all the aspects of what we do and ask, “Are we doing them equally well? Are there redundancies in what we do? Are there subject areas that are glaringly absent? And, finally, do all of these pieces make sense together?”

Why is it important to set academic priorities?
There is something about the nature of the arts and sciences, and the growth of knowledge generally, that makes this task a chronic need of any college.

The liberal arts are concerned with basic knowledge of nature, the individual, and society. That is a vast reach of curiosity. It is inexhaustible. So you have to make choices.

In an earlier day, it was possible to have a small, multicompetent faculty teaching a coherent curriculum. The explosion of knowledge that came about through specialization and subspecialization in the 19th century—which has continued right up to the present—has, in a sense, usurped the simplicity that once characterized the liberal arts college. Increasingly, research specialties determine what’s taught in a college and what kind of faculty are hired.

We also face the challenge of our size. For example, at Lewis & Clark, we have only eight biology professors; Berkeley may have 100 or more. As a result, the issue of academic priorities becomes more important and more difficult.

Coherence is a major theme in the commission’s report. What do you mean by “coherence”?
You can have a hundred individuals pursuing individual specialties without any sense of how those efforts reflect a clear set of principles that guide the entire enterprise.

Consider again the field of biology, which is exploding with discoveries and new questions. Some institutions will therefore decide to focus only on the most dazzling areas of biology—say, genetics or neuroscience. Others will say, no, our obligation is to cover all of the essential general fields of biology and fill in with a few specialties in accordance with the training of our individual faculty members. Each approach is valid and has coherence in its own way. 

At Lewis & Clark, the commission saw a need for every department, every division, and finally the College as a whole to decide some of those organizing principles.

The commission also uncovered the need to address balance. Some departments cluster their resources in the modern era, which limits historical breadth and depth.

Several years ago, the philosophy department undertook a careful study of the field of philosophy, both its history and its subject areas. The department emerged with a thoughtful plan for covering what it considered the essentials of its discipline with only four faculty members. As a consequence, the department now has a road map for managing the gradual transition from one set of faculty to a new set of faculty. We need to adopt that sort of planning throughout the institution.

The issue is not whether we make choices, because obviously we must, but how we will make those choices and how those choices are informed. Are they informed only by the needs of a particular corner of one department of instruction? Are they informed by the needs of the entire department, of the division, or of the College as a whole?

How long will it take to act on the recommendations?
I think we can do it in five to six years.

Is the planning process complete?
No. Planning is an ongoing exercise. As the commission itself recognized, we have to put in place a mechanism for ensuring that this work will be done continuously. We need to produce a rolling academic plan in much the same way we have produced a rolling plan for the development of the physical campus.

What happens next?
The report has three types of recommendations. Each type requires a different kind of response.

The first type derives from an analysis of departments and programs. Before we make any but the most obvious moves, I want to be sure that we are managing resources prudently. I’m asking some of my colleagues to test the recommendations for their resource implications. I’ll then bring that information back to the faculty in the context of what I heard the commission recommending as a whole.

The second type of recommendation has to do with the curriculum, and with such matters as grading, overseas programs, and “numeracy.” The faculty can easily handle these recommendations through its regular channels, and I have encouraged the faculty to get on with those issues because they seem to me of real urgency.

And, finally, we have the structural recommendations. After we have discussed the priorities that have been set before us, I want to devise with the faculty a structure for the ongoing work of planning. If we can achieve that, not only will this onerous faculty process have been a success, but we will be in a position to achieve a very high degree of distinction indeed.

What do you want alumni to know about this?
I want alumni to know that this is essentially a strong college, proud of its traditions and proud of its recent achievements. It’s also a college that’s not afraid to probe and see what might be improved. Finally, I want them to know that we are a college that is not afraid to make changes and to embrace opportunities.

—by Jean Kempe-Ware 

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