diversity digest
Winter 01
Student Experience
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Leadership, Dialogue, and A Long-Term Commitment:
Keys to Effective Curriculum Change at Kent State

Debra Humphreys, Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs, AAC&U


ESPECIALLY SINCE SEPTEMBER 11TH, I FREQUENTLY RECEIVE INQUIRIES FROM REPORTERS ABOUT HOW COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES ARE CHANGING THEIR COURSE OFFERINGS TO RESPOND TO RECENT EVENTS AND CHANGING STUDENT INTERESTS. THOSE QUESTIONS BETRAY A PROFOUND IGNORANCE ABOUT THE TIME FRAME OR DIALOGIC PROCESS NECESSARY IN CHANGING A COLLEGE CURRICULA. ANYONE WHO HAS LED ANY KIND OF CURRICULAR CHANGE EFFORT KNOWS WHAT A DIFFICULT AND LENGTHY PROCESS IT CAN BE, BUT ALSO HOW THIS PROCESS CAN RESULT IN EFFECTIVE FRAMEWORKS LEADING TO POWERFUL LEARNING OUTCOMES AND CHANGES IN A CAMPUS ETHOS.

But those institutions that have invested the time it takes and have maintained an ongoing commitment to offering a curricula that educates students for the diverse and conflicted world in which we live demonstrate what makes today's college curricula powerful and vibrant in a changing world. Kent State University's (KSU) effort to incorporate a two-course diversity requirement into an existing set of liberal education requirements demonstrates the payoff of sustained commitment, powerful leadership, and campus-wide dialogue.

The process of curricular change at KSU that resulted in a two-course diversity requirement implemented in 1999 actually began with a university-wide committee report issued in 1993 on all aspects of campus diversity issues. Among other things, the report recommended that the campus explore the possibility of a diversity requirement, but that it do so through KSU's existing faculty governance procedures. While a frustratingly long one, participants now believe that the lengthy process that ensued resulted in greater support for the diversity requirement across divisions of the campus and among students, faculty, and administrators.

Ultimately, KSU's requirement rests on a fundamental commitment to "helping educate students to live in a world of diverse communities, many of which are becoming increasingly permeated with cultural and ideological differences." KSU also placed its requirement in the context of its "broader efforts to encourage, both at the university and beyond, the development of communities in which all members and their contributions are recognized and valued."

This sense of a larger purpose related to the overall life of a university, while consistent with the best of the liberal learning tradition, also no doubt accounts for some of the heightened tensions that tend to characterize debates about diversity in the curriculum. Over time, debates at KSU, in fact, shifted from the loftier question of moral imperatives and community building to more practical concerns about what students need to know and be able to do once they graduate. As one early leader in the process put it, "If I were to do it over again, I'd do it differently. I'd encourage the committee to move away from the idealist discussions more quickly to the more practical questions of a curriculum that directly addresses KSU's institutional mission."

As on many campuses, certain departments questioned the relevance of diversity to their disciplines. Faculty expressed concern about their own preparation to teach new courses on diversity issues. Some individuals expressed concern that new diversity courses would lack rigor, suppress dissent, or be too ideological. Through many sub-committee meetings, KSU faculty worked collaboratively to examine existing course offerings, develop precise language to describe the goals of the requirement, and provide support to faculty interested in teaching diversity courses. Ultimately, many of the concerns and fears expressed initially were addressed over time.

The committees developing the requirement struggled with clarifying the parameters of the requirement and the substantial challenge of incorporating the requirement into an existing general education program without increasing required numbers of credits. The requirement implemented at KSU was incorporated into an existing liberal education program of required courses. One of the two required diversity courses replaced one of several arts and humanities courses already required of all KSU students. The other required course could also satisfy other requirements either within a student's major or within their general education program.

One of the thornier issues with which KSU faculty grappled was the dual goal of teaching students about diversity issues here in the U.S. and preparing them with the knowledge and skills they need in an increasingly interconnected world community. The committee believed firmly that students needed different curricular experiences to meet these different goals. Taking its lead from the earlier KSU diversity report, the subcommittee working on the requirement believed that "students will need to be better prepared to live successfully and comfortably in the multicultural community of America and that our society will need citizens and leaders knowledgeable about diverse cultures and our global community and who possess the skills to communicate and deal effectively with individuals from diverse groups to build a sense and a fact of community in our world."

After a review of their existing curricula, however, the subcommittee worried that KSU lacked enough courses that focused on issues of diversity within the U.S. to insist that students take one of their required courses on U.S. diversity and the other on global issues. They chose to phase this element into the requirement as new courses were developed. Starting with the 2001-2002 year, students will now be required "to take one course addressing domestic (U.S.) issues and one course addressing global issues."



Keys to Institutional Change

After much discussion, faculty at KSU developed a requirement now accepted by students and faculty alike as a core component of the
KSU degree and an element that adds considerable value to a KSU education. Leaders in the change effort attribute their success to several key elements essential to any institutional change effort. First, KSU had very strong leadership especially among academic leaders of the institution. President Carol Cartwright initiated campus-wide discussion about diversity issues and charged campus-wide committees to explore the issue and make recommendations. She also hired Provost Paul Gaston who similarly demonstrated unwavering commitment to the educational importance of diversity within the Kent State curriculum. Both Gaston and Cartwright provided catalysts for change and support along the way, but trusted in the process and their faculty leaders to work their way to a productive set of recommendations. They also initiated an office of diversity and located it within the Provost's office.

KSU leaders also identify as key to their success efforts to minimize disruption to existing structures. They worked methodically through their faculty governance procedures and devised a system that didn't impose additional burdens on a curriculum perceived by some to already include too many required courses.

Finally, KSU chose to define diversity very comprehensively for the purposes of their requirement. This allowed individuals across a wide array of departments and divisions to see the relevance of the requirement to their own work. A careful system of reviewing courses that would satisfy the requirement was devised and continues to be refined.

While all recognize that two individual courses will only have a limited impact on the students who take them, the existence of a diversity requirement sends an important institutional message of commitment. KSU faculty involved in the process are very proud of the requirement they have developed and are anxious to see the results of an upcoming five-year review. They recognize already, however, that the world continues to change and the curriculum will need to reflect those changes if KSU graduates are to truly be prepared for the future that awaits them.

For more information, see www.kent.edu.


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DIVERSITY AT KENT STATE UNIVERSITY

Diversity Requirement

The purpose of Kent State's Diversity Requirement is to help educate students to live in a world of diverse communities, many of which are becoming increasingly permeated with cultural and ideological differences. The study of diversity is intended to promote awareness of local and global differences, to identify shared values, to improve understanding of one's own culture, and to encourage people to explore and respect differences.

The Diversity Requirement if part of the university's broader efforts to encourage, both at the university and beyond, the development of communities in which all members and their contributions are recognized and valued. Diversity courses provide opportunities for students to learn about such matters as the history, culture, values and notable achievements of people other than those of their own national origin, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age gender, physical and mental ability, and social class. Diversity courses also provide opportunities to examine problems and issues that may arise from differences, and opportunities to learn how to deal constructively with them.