Acknowledging that undergraduate education is "something of a neglected child" at the University of California, a faculty task force is calling for "the most brilliant and effective teachers, regardless of title and rank," to take a more active role in undergraduate education, including the teaching of large, introductory lower-division courses.
Among the proposed changes that the faculty will be asked in an upcoming report to impose on itself is the reorganization of departments so that more freshmen and sophomores would have the opportunity at least once in their educational careers to enroll in small classes and to take required courses in a timely fashion.
Also under the plan, temporary instructors and graduate-student teaching assistants would be more closely supervised. For the first time, foreign graduate students would be required to pass an oral examination in English before being allowed to teach undergraduates. Requested last fall by UC President David P. Gardner, the task force's study is part of an overall effort by UC to revitalize undergraduate education and to improve coordination with California's other two public systems of postsecondary education--the California State University and state's community college system.
Written by the task force's chairman, Neil J. Smelser, a noted professor of sociology at Berkeley, the report of the committee's nine-month study has yet to be released publicly. It is scheduled, however, to be discussed at the UC Board of Regents' first educational policy meeting in October, and numerous informal meetings are already being planned on individual campuses for the fall.
Because only a handful of faculty members and administrators at UC have seen the task force's recommendations, few could comment on it specifically. The report nonetheless is being touted by many state policy-makers and faculty members as particularly important because it comes largely from the faculty, which at UC has ultimate authority over the curriculum. As a result, the recommendations are considered likely to serve as a blueprint for much of the discussion about higher education that will be carried on in the state this year.
"The report, besides being excellent, could not have come at a better time," said Watson M. Laetsch, Berkeley's vice chancellor of undergraduate affairs.
"This will be the educational debate of the year," Laetsch predicted.
Several national reports highly critical of American higher education have been released over the past year and, at the instigation of the California Legislature, a commission established to review the state's Master Plan for Higher Education began hearings last spring to consider whether the state's three-tier system of public colleges and universities needed major structural or budgetary changes.
Convinced of the seriousness of the UC faculty task force's proposals, the UC administration is already moving forward with plans for budget requests to carry out some of the proposals, according to William B. Baker, UC's vice president for budget and university relations.
"The good news is that many of these changes can be made by simply redirecting our energies. . . . The other good news is that many of the things discussed (in the task force's report) are already beginning to happen on some of the campuses. But there are areas in which we aren't doing enough. Where we are not doing enough, we want to address it right away and go for it."
Perhaps the most costly recommendation of the report--and one of the most critically needed changes--is a new, comprehensive training for graduate students who teach. According to the task force, recent surveys on the Berkeley and Davis campuses have revealed that graduate teaching assistants are fully responsible for teaching as much as 30% of lower-division courses, mainly in elementary writing and introductory language instruction.
"This somewhat stark figure," the report said, "raises questions about the selection, training, supervision and evaluation of teaching assistants."
Although graduate students are supposedly supervised by their departments and in some cases are put through rigorous training programs, in reality "a significant proportion of teaching assistants are not supervised at all; in other cases the supervision is only perfunctory."
Besides offering training and careful review of graduate teaching assistants, the university should also more closely monitor its temporary, part-time faculty, the task force said. A substantial portion of the UC teaching faculty--an estimated 34%--is composed of temporary appointees who are not now subject to the stringent reviews that are imposed on regular faculty, the task force found.
Regular faculty members should also be evaluated for their teaching abilities, not just their research skill, and rewarded for excellence in teaching, the task force said.