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tipsGuiding Curricular Change: Lessons Learned at SUNY–Buffalo

By Peter Gold
Assistant Dean of the Undergraduate College, State University of New York–Buffalo

Eight years ago, SUNY–Buffalo first offered a pilot section of the course "American Pluralism and the Search for Equality." The course is now the centerpiece for a new general education core curriculum required of all arts and sciences students. During the past five years of the requirement, forty-five faculty members from twenty-two departments--in the arts, humanities, social sciences, law, education, and student-support programs--have taught 122 sections of "American Pluralism" to approximately 1,100 students annually.

Several key policies helped to get this course approved and ensured its continuation. These included the successful management of campus debate, commitment to faculty development, and deliberate use of criticism to focus development of the course and ensure its longevity. We also assessed the course at every stage. Students participated in focus groups and identified strengths and weaknesses of the course, as well as its impact on campus life.

Early in the process, we were well aware of the divisiveness that had frequently resulted from other campuses' attempts at these kinds of reforms. While we did face some debate that was nasty, personal, and stereotyped, campus leaders directed attention to the problems with the existing curriculum and the national call for courses shaped around issues of diversity.

We made use of survey data we had collected over many years on shifting student attitudes and demographics. Critics did attack our efforts in widely circulated position papers and in the campus newspaper. In spite of this, we continued to keep the focus on the development of the course syllabus and on keeping the teaching process public.

Respecting faculty criticism of the course also helped to ensure its curricular integrity. For example, critics charged that the course indoctrinated students and celebrated victims. From the first offering, course reviews examined these allegations by critically studying syllabi and assigned readings. Student focus groups and course evaluations all explicitly asked for evidence to support the charges. There was no evidence. On the contrary, students appear to be even less tolerant of indoctrination than are faculty.

From the beginning, we also were committed to creating open "windows" into every "American Pluralism" classroom--windows through which every curious critic and supporter was welcome to look. Under the auspices of the Council of Arts and Sciences Deans and a Curriculum Committee, there is a distribution of regular reports on the curriculum, syllabi, student evaluations, and faculty development programs. A book of readings was prepared and its table of contents distributed for discussion. One unexpected benefit of talking about the course and circulating course information was the creation of a campus conversation about the issues and ideas being taught. In a way, requiring this course of students furnished a vehicle for the "general education" of the faculty.

Students have consistently reported that this course allows consideration of issues they had little experience discussing in a public setting. In the midst of a heated campus debate in which race figured prominently, it was students from "American Pluralism" who were most informed about the issues. We have also found that students are advocates for the course. They support it as a requirement.

"American Pluralism" has found its place on campus and won the support of faculty, staff, and students. Its longevity comes from maintaining faculty oversight and responding productively to critics.

For more information, see "Faculty Collaboration for a New Curriculum," by Peter Gold, Liberal Education 83 (Winter 1997).

To see copies of the syllabi for "American Pluralism" visit DiversityWeb.

Communication tips

When managing a campus debate on a "hot" topic like a new core curriculum on pluralism and equality, keep the media in mind as you plan how best to manage the debate. If there is reason to believe that opponents will talk to reporters, it is better to reach out to the media yourself than to just hope the stories will be balanced.

Identify reporters likely to be supportive and schedule a breakfast or lunch to talk about what is happening on campus. Consider it an opportunity; news stories on curriculum tend to include the most in-depth exploration of diversity education.

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