“Father” of University Studies still teaching

The “father” of the revolutionary University Studies program at Portland State is still teaching in the program as it marks a decade from its earliest beginnings.

Charlie White bowed out as director of University Studies two years ago, after shepherding it through its conception and implementation. Now, as a professor of University Studies and political science, he continues to teach a section of Freshman Inquiry titled “Chaos and Community.”

From his office in East Hall, White recounted the beginnings of the model, the early questionings, the controversies which still rumble around it and the nation-wide fame it brought Portland State.

White has spent his entire career at Portland State. He came here as an assistant professor of political science in September 1971.

“It’s a wonderful institution,” he said, “a very good place to be.” His career embarked on a new course in the fall of 1992. He volunteered to serve on a working group to consider general education requirements.

“Much to my surprise, I was asked to chair that working group.” The group also included representatives of community colleges. The result of the group’s work was the University Studies program. White was then asked to provide the administrative leadership to implement the concept.

Neither the university president at that time, Judith Ramaley, nor the provost, Michael Reardon, formed the program. It came out entirely as a product of the faculty-driven committee. White recalled, with a chuckle, that Reardon expressed surprise at the innovative proposal. The provost commented that if he had been creating a general education program “this is not what I would have designed.”

The group compiled a written report in the summer of 1993. The All-Campus Symposium of 200 faculty and 100 students reviewed it that summer. It won faculty approval in November 1993, by more than 80 percent vote. The first Freshman Inquiry class convened fall term 1994.

From there, year-by-year programs emerged one by one as that 1994 freshman class progressed through the university. The design reached its culmination in the senior capstone the fourth year. White called the capstones “enormously successful” in relating students to the community.

To White’s satisfaction, University Studies became “the primary vehicle to put Portland State on the map.” When he first came to PSU, he recalled, the university was neither well known nor highly regarded. As a result of University Studies, Portland State became recognized and respected as a national academic leader, he said.

The overarching philosophy of University Studies, he said, was to place student learning at the center. “It’s very clear that student learning improves if they feel they’re part of the community.”

Recruiting faculty presented problems. The budget restrictions imposed by the property tax reductions of Measure 5 left some departments reduced in faculty. However, he found people who shared the vision. Some came from the academic departments, some he hired. He conceded that the program has undergone some criticism.

“This is an academic community and we don’t necessarily agree, and that’s fine.” The design was never intended to be set in stone, he added. With a faculty of more than 600, not every single faculty member is going to agree with anything, he asserted. “It’s part of being a university.”

He questioned the sometimes-heard comment that inquiry classes tend to become left-leaning. He sees the University Studies faculty and students as dedicated to study topics “we like and know about.” Whether that could be construed as left-leaning, “I couldn’t say yes or no.”

He sees University Studies continuing to grow, change and adapt, “which I think is perfect. I never envisioned that after I left my position it would be exactly the same as when I left. It shouldn’t be.”

He added, “The sheer growth of the student body by itself brings about change.” He finds parents very enthusiastic about this kind of learning.

Variations of this style have been adopted by other universities, he said. The closest he sees as the University of Idaho. He also sees influences in the University of Indianapolis, Georgia State and Temple.

He believes the significance of the Portland State program is that “We have a four-year curriculum which ends with community-based learning. Community-based learning is a key part of an undergraduate education in an urban university. It contributes to student learning when students have the opportunity to apply their knowledge in the community.”

He pointed out that University Studies is not the only part of the university with this orientation. Many departments offer courses related to community involvement.

He resigned the first of August, 2000 to return to the classroom. He plans to continue leading classes in Freshman Inquiry.

“I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I’ve had the privilege of working with wonderful people and the opportunity to see a vision shared by a number of people become reality.”