Ethan Allen Smith walked with his graduating class during Portland State’s 2013 spring commencement ceremony in the Rose Garden Arena in June. He wore a robe, donned a cap and carried with him years of hard work that landed him a job using his graphic design degree. But he left the arena that evening without a diploma. Because of an advising error, Smith has to return to PSU in the fall to take two University Studies courses to fulfill the junior cluster portion of his degree as required by the university.
Ethan Allen Smith walked with his graduating class during Portland State’s 2013 spring commencement ceremony in the Rose Garden Arena in June. He wore a robe, donned a cap and carried with him years of hard work that landed him a job using his graphic design degree.
But he left the arena that evening without a diploma. Because of an advising error, Smith has to return to PSU in the fall to take two University Studies courses to fulfill the junior cluster portion of his degree as required by the university. Smith is far from the first student to complain about the controversial program, but this time it appears that the university may take steps to improve the program for incoming students.
In cooperation with Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Sona Andrews’ reTHINK PSU program—put forward last fall to encourage student and faculty proposals to improve the university experience—the University Studies program will undergo a series of reviews and changes this fall that could reshape the program for future students.
Alongside changes to Freshman Inquiry courses, which will be implemented based on suggestions made by the Faculty Senate’s University Studies Council, the UNST is looking to retool many of its lower- and upper-division courses to include online options, including adding a new “ePortfolio” component to the program that will provide more course completion options to students.
“It is UNST’s goal by the end of the following academic year to be able to provide fully online pathways for students to meet their University Studies general education requirements,” said Sukhwant Jhaj, the vice provost for academic innovations.
The goal, according to Jhaj, is to eliminate redundancies during the four years that students spend working their way through the program, with the hope that a newly tailored online experience can better fulfill the program’s goals—which can often become mired in abstractions and distracting requirements.
“As an engineering student, I think the general attitude is they’re a waste of time,” said Daniel McCall, who recently graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. “We have so many required classes already that are difficult and time-consuming. I think a lot of students take the easy way out—not taking classes that might provide meaningful benefit, but simply taking classes that will be easy and give [them] relief or an easy A.”
Smith echoed the sentiment, frustrated both with the operation of the program and the way it functions for different degrees, all with varying requirements and coursework. Smith described meeting with an advisor during his junior year who highlighted which classes he should take to fulfill his junior cluster—only to find at the end of that quarter that they would not count toward his already completed sophomore-level UNST coursework.
“It’s frustrating,” Smith said. “Even the person who advised me incorrectly was just doing her job—she just didn’t seem to know the right courses to have me take,” he added. “And, honestly, the program is a fine idea. It’s the execution that is causing the problems.”
When Smith returns to PSU in the fall, he will take his remaining two junior cluster classes and finally receive his diploma. When asked how much additional debt he would take on, he replied, “I don’t know, and I don’t even want to think about it. I have a wife and three kids, and all of the sudden I’m going to have to be a student again.”
Frustrations such as these have been well-documented during the past few years, and the University Studies department is aware of the student take on the program.
“In UNST, we are very careful to continually assess what’s working, what isn’t, and to quickly figure out what we can do to address it,” said Yves Labissiere, the interim director of the University Studies department and a professor in the School of Community Health. In accordance with the findings of the University Studies Council, the department will look at student data in an attempt to improve the student experience and the future of the program, much of which will be done with Andrews’ ReTHINK PSU program.
“There is a lot happening in University Studies with the reTHINK PSU Challenge,” Labissiere said. “I think it’s a significant venture. We have developed some robust, nationally recognized pedagogical practices. But what does it mean for us to translate those practices into online practices, and what does it mean to be student-centered in an online context?”
In Smith’s case, it would mean improving communication and providing a clearer understanding of the program’s requirements.
But while the proposed changes to the framework of the University Studies program might make it run more efficiently, students like Smith and McCall still have doubts about the relevance of the interdisciplinary junior-year cluster courses, which require students to take 12 credits from a study track outside of the department of their major.
“Some students are just looking for the easiest classes to take,” Smith said, echoing McCall. “They just want to watch a movie or listen to music, and hope for that easy A. That’s not accomplishing the goal of interdisciplinary education. Or look at liberal arts students—they can benefit from the courses because many of their classes bleed into other departments.”
But even some liberal arts majors found difficulty contextualizing the meaning of the University Studies program within their broader educational goals.
“My capstone class did a great job of focusing and putting into practice the goals UNST wants students to be aware of, but up until that point I had no real idea [of] the impact communication or social responsibility had in the process of education,” film senior Clarke Leland said.
Still, a commitment to interdisciplinary education is paramount for the University Studies department, and many of the changes proposed under Andrews’ reTHINK PSU program look to change structure and not content. But Labissiere hopes the proposed changes will help improve student experience going forward, moving from improved online capabilities to having superior face-to-face experiences in UNST classes.
“This is a very dynamic curriculum that changes as a function of student need,” Labissiere said. “The themes change on a regular basis, the faculty change on a regular basis. It’s not like a traditional reading and writing program, where content stays tied to discipline.
“Our curriculum evolves with where our students are and where the needs of the community are.”