University Studies under inquiry

Some major changes may be on the horizon for Portland State’s University Studies program, according to a proposal from Interim Provost Michael Reardon.

While the proposal appears to suggest some drastic changes to the current program – like cutting the junior cluster course segment – sources close to Reardon say that the document was drafted only to stimulate conversation among the university deans about potential improvements, not as an official plan to alter the program.

"It was not meant to set off alarm bells anywhere," said Terrel Rhodes, vice provost for curriculum and undergraduate studies. According to Rhodes the proposal is simply part of PSU’s drive to constantly improve its programs.

"We’re continuing to look at ways to change and enhance what we are doing," he said.

"I don’t think it is his intention to have a wholesale change of the program," said Judy Patton, director of the University Studies program at PSU.

Reardon did not return phone calls Tuesday afternoon and could not be reached by press time.

Often viewed as a program pioneered by PSU, University Studies is now in its 10th year. Most undergraduate PSU students participate in the program in order to fulfill their degree’s distribution requirements.

The successes and failures of the program itself have been extensively studied through both externally and internally through student and teacher feedback.

The program’s multi-discipline approach to general education has been critically praised and many students report enjoying their experience. Other universities have adopted similar programs after witnessing University Studies’ success at PSU. The program also helped PSU receive a nod from U.S. News and World Report’s "America’s Best Colleges" under "programs to look for."

On the other hand, many students report that they find the program requirements difficult to navigate, that they do not understand how the classes fit into their educational goals and that the quality of teaching is inconsistent.

In his proposal, Reardon, who was provost when the University Studies program began in 1994, raises many of the concerns that have been voiced elsewhere by students and administrators. Among them, that Freshman and Sophomore Inquiry classes are not clearly articulated and that there are too many Junior Cluster courses.

"The University Studies Program at Portland State is now ten years old," the proposal begins. "It is now possible to consider what has been successful (and what has not been successful) and to recommend how the program could be improved."

The proposal goes on to suggest drastically altering three of the four major aspects of the University Studies program. Junior cluster courses would be completely eliminated. Freshman Inquiry would be revised to include more historical perspective and intensive writing practice. Sophomore Inquiry would be transformed to focus more on international and global issues. "Internationalization" has been a major curricular goal of Portland State President Daniel Bernstine. Only Senior Capstone classes would remain the same.

While Patton calls the proposal a "provocative document," she indicated that she does not fear that a major overhaul of University Studies is in the works. Instead, she said that she regards Reardon as someone who is "extremely knowledgeable about education," and sees the proposal as suggestions for how to improve a continually evolving program.

"We’re always trying to improve, " she said. "There are improvements that could be made, and we will always be open to that."

While PSU is looking to improve the University Studies program, it is not likely that students will see major changes any time soon, according to Rhodes.

"No curriculum changes happen very quickly," Rhodes said, pointing out that the process for making major changes requires many levels of administrative deliberation and review.

Reardon stepped in as interim provost when Mary Kay Tetrault left the post last spring. Reardon, a PSU professor since 1964, had previously served as Provost for seven years before retiring in 1999. The university is currently conducting a nationwide search for a permanent Provost.