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How Curriculum Change Came to Yeshiva College (Part I)

Transformations in higher education are so rare and notoriously difficult to implement that academic folklore reckons “changing a college curriculum is more difficult than moving a cemetery.”

Universities comprise many moving parts and many participants, often working in tandem, but in some cases, progressing toward competing visions. Deans, professors, administrators, students, and the president have to contend with the vicissitudes of college rankings, the necessity of research, a boisterous tenured faculty, a rowdy student body (and newspaper) and, more often that not, a constraining budget.

Such competing visions create centrifugal force that ossifies employees into various decentralized departments, each to fight for his or her own departmental and individual interests. Advancement faces resistance. The status quo rules. Curricula that were created decades before to address the most critical needs of that time become outdated—and yet live on. In 1911, William T. Foster, the President of Reed College said, “the progress of the institution will be directly proportional to the death rate of the faculty.”

At Yeshiva College, change would seem impossible. Conflicting interests between the Yeshiva and the College and between departments and colleagues restrains real and enduring change. At YC, there are too many participants who can veto change, and few willing to initiative it. In an interview with The Commentator, President Richard Joel said, “The nature of the university is that there are so many different stakeholders who are passionate about what they are doing that change is difficult.”

Yet change did come to YC.

Facing daunting financial challenges, formidable departmental tensions, prolonged pay freezes, reductions in retirement benefits, and increased teaching responsibilities, the Yeshiva College faculty nevertheless rolled out a innovative interdisciplinary core curriculum.

The curriculum they adopted was radically different from what it had been, and represented “the first fundamental, comprehensive review since the founding of Yeshiva College in 1928,” said Dr. William Lee. Dr. Lee, who, according to President Joel, “performed in heroic ways,” helped spearhead the changes. However, efforts to develop the new interdisciplinary curriculum “was not one person,” President Joel acknowledged. It could not have occurred without the concentrated efforts of determined faculty members to research, develop, and eventually initiate the sweeping changes.

Three months of research reveals not only the story behind the academic makeover of the core curricula, but uncover the dissenting voices, current reception and future concerns about the biggest academic overhaul in Yeshiva College history.

Laying the Foundation

In early 2007, pursuing an initiative launched by then YC Dean Norman Adler, Dr. Will Lee led a team of faculty members to a six-day Institute run by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) dedicated to improving the curricula of liberal arts colleges in accordance with best national practices. The national gathering brought together leading voices in curricular development to help the participating colleges and universities review and reshape their own programs in accordance with best practices across the country. Before the intensive institute, individual faculty members had attended shorter conferences stretching back to 2002. This time, however, the six professors were charged with reporting and disseminating their findings to the YC faculty.

A growing voice within the faculty felt that the old curriculum was not only out of date, but was plagued with significant educational gaps. Dr. Gillian Steinberg said, “we believed that the education was too compartmentalized and that certain aspects of the old curriculum (two mandatory literature classes but no mandatory history class, for instance) privileged certain subjects over others rather than recognizing their interconnectedness.” Yeshiva College Dean Barry Eichler noted that as faculty hired in the 90’s matured, they increasingly felt that “students in the college are unique in many ways, and the curriculum was not serving their best educational interests.” Dr. Gabriel Cwilich said that “curricular change isn’t about thinking about what was wrong with the curriculum, it’s about an adjustment to the curriculum to fit our changing world.”

Other elite universities, including many liberal-arts colleges, had already adopted revised curricula intended to ready students for the increasingly interrelated fields of the 21st century, and more faculty members recognized the necessity of an up-to-date, competitive, and compelling curriculum. But curriculum change wasn’t simply intended to expose students to the latest interdisciplinary ideas; it was intended to expose students to viewpoints outside of the so-called parochial “day-school bubble.” “Sensitivity to diverse cultures was very important given that most of our students come from Jewish day-schools” said Associate Dean Raji Viswanathan.

In keeping with the best educational practices, faculty members conceived of outcomes-driven curricula, intended to both inculcate proficiency in writing and critical thinking and broaden outlooks. “The core curriculum isn’t about which books students should read when they pass through the gates of the college. It’s not about canonical survey courses. The purpose wasn’t to identify a catalogue of knowledge,” said Dean Eichler. “The curriculum is intended, in the short time that students are here, to create outcomes in skills and attitudinal development.”

In late 2007, the entire faculty came together in Furst 501 to ask, “what are the goals of an undergraduate education?” The faculty-wide workshop was the first crucial step in determining the desired outcomes of the new curriculum. Instead on focusing on specific course requirements, the faculty was asked to envision what an ideal graduate of the college should look like. Associate Dean Viswanathan recalls the central questions included, “What should a Yeshiva College graduate know? What skills should he have mastered? What modes of inquiry should he have pursued?”

Those initial deliberations were eventually distilled into sixteen goals of a Yeshiva College education. Those goals included “Citizenship in multiple communities; a sense of belonging and responsibility to a cultural and intellectual world both within and beyond the University—including New York City,” “The ability to identify, locate, interpret, evaluate, and use the information currently available in print and in the multiple media of the 21stcentury world” and “The ability to make connections and integrate knowledge both within and across disciplines.”

By March 2008, the faculty had formally approved those goals as the “Curricular Outcomes for Yeshiva College.” Task Forces were established and were given one year to generate courses that would fulfill those conceptual conclusions.  Dr. Lee and Dr. Adam Zachary Newton, for instance, chaired the task force on “Social, Cultural, and Historical Fluency.”  Eventually, their Task Force produced lists of criteria for core courses under three umbrellas:  “Interpreting the Creative,” “Contemporary World Cultures,” and, with the help of additional social scientists, “Human Behavior and Social Institutions.” Task Forces on the first year, quantitative and scientific education, and improvements to the majors were also inaugurated.

“When the Frustrations Started”

In 2009, the task forces presented their abstract findings to other faculty members. It was at this point that major contentions were voiced. Concerns about the adoption of the new curriculum circulated among members of the faculty. “How do we go from a list to a set of courses was when the frustrations started,” said Associate Dean Viswanathan.

Concerns about staffing the new curriculum were central to the debate. “The process began during a period of growth,” said Associate Dean Viswanathan, “but once we came to the implementation phase, we hit a financial fiasco.” “What was a great idea in 2007 wasn’t such a great idea after the crunch of 2009,” said director of the Yeshiva College Honors Program, Dr. Gabriel Cwilich. “In an ideal world they would hire someone to make sure this is was all working as smoothly as possible,” said Dr. Rachel Mesch, the chair of both the languages department and the “New Curriculum Oversight Committee.” The college was forced to “rely on the goodwill of faculty,” she said.

The college, which had relied on seven to ten new instructors or faculty members per year, was now forced to make do with just one. The reduction in staff, in addition to the introduction of the new courses, meant that individual departments had to cut elective offerings.

Dr. Gavriel Cwilich admitted that, during the initial discussion stages of the core curriculum, “We were afraid of the nightmare this would do to the Honors courses. We didn’t know who would want to teach the Honors. We were worried sick.” The language department also worried about its place within the curriculum. “The faculty struggled to find a place language courses, knowing that students won’t take them if they don’t fulfill a requirement,” said Dr. Mesch.

Smaller departments worried that the new requirements would inhibit freshman exposure to their faculty members and their courses. “Student enrollment always becomes a big issue, because the more students you have the better arguments you have for greater resources,” said Dean Eichler. Because students no longer had the option of fulfilling distribution requirements by taking “Intro to Computer Science” or “Intro to Sociology,” for instance, many professors were justifiably anxious about the future numbers in their major. “Someone majoring in Economics, for instance, would never be exposed to political science or sociology unless he went out of his way to take a course in one of these fields as an elective—highly unlikely in a school where most students have no credits to spare,” said Dr. Lauren Fitzgerald, the coordinator of the curriculum review committee and a key faculty member involved in the changes.

Adopting the new curriculum also meant that departments could no longer hire adjunct professors to teach a core course. “That places strains on departments,” said Dr. Cwilich. “The best instructors in the school are teaching those courses.” Some senior professors were unhappy about teaching a majority of their courses to freshman instead of focusing on the students in their majors, yet many were convinced to adopt the new core because of a longstanding problem with introductory courses.

With the launch of the new curriculum, general introduction courses could truly become gateway courses for majors instead of doing “double duty” satisfying the divergent needs of students in the major and students taking the course to fulfill general requirements. “The big blending between general education and education in the major,” Dr. Gabriel Cwilich points out, “meant that there were classes, especially in the natural sciences, which were not taught by scientists—they were taught by adjuncts.” Students also suffered because classes “would be a mix of students with strong backgrounds in the field and those without,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “Sometimes this would work, but many times it would leave students at either end of this continuum dissatisfied—and faculty unsure how to navigate these very different needs.”

The new curriculum solved this longtime problem by centralizing classes around eight topics. All students would be exposed to a variety of studies within their first year before specializing into their intended path of study. Students pursuing a major in psychology, for instance, would now take their introductory classes with students intending to go into the major. “The only students who will lose,” insists Dr. Cwilich, are “students with lots of APs who want to get out of here as fast as possible.”

Deemphasizing introductory courses meant that professors could experiment with more engaging teaching methods and topics. Instead of cramming in theoretical foundational concepts in “Economics 101,” for instance, students in new core courses could be exposed to more general and timelier courses on the current financial crises, philosophical foundations of modern economics, or personal finance.

Dr. Cwilich, a physicist by training, was excited about developing courses for a more general audience: “We are teaching students what’s exciting and interesting about physics, not physics for a specific audience of students who will go on to more advanced courses.” Dr. Jess Olson, Assistant Professor of Jewish History, said, “the new curriculum is exciting to me because I have had the opportunity to teach material in which I have long been interested and engaged, but which is outside of my specific area of expertise.”

For some faculty members, constructing courses was a source of anxiety. Dr. Fitzgerald said, “Faculty teaching at both YC and Stern College were concerned about having to develop a new set of courses for YC, courses that wouldn’t fit well in the Stern curriculum and vice versa.” Developing new courses, including Honors courses, also meant that “some professors were challenged to come up with a different course for a different audience, and some weren’t too comfortable,” said Dr. Cwilich. To help faculty develop new courses, YC brought in AAC&U experts to workshop curriculum design with faculty members.

Moving Forward

The first-year program, designed to orient students to intellectual life in the college and life in New York City through the first-year writing and first-year seminar courses, was piloted first after its approval by the faculty. The courses not only “enable students make the transition to college, to the kind of writing that is expected here, and to the kinds of knowledge and thinking that academics value,” said Dr. Fitzgerald, a member of the first-year writing faculty, but also ask students to “reflect on this very process of transition, especially in the rapidly changing landscape of the twenty-first century.” The success of these first-year seminars had many in the faculty convinced of the viability and necessity of the 21st century curriculum.

By 2011, the faculty and administrative leaders of the review process, with the support of Dean Barry Eichler, felt that the faculty had warmed up to the idea of the specific curricular changes being considered and were confident that a faculty-wide vote would usher in the new curriculum. The elimination of Advance Placement opt-outs and the promise of more advanced students in introductory courses convinced many in the faculty.

Against the recommendations of outside experts, administrative leaders decided not to vote on each part of the curriculum, but to approve, in principle, the entire structure. “You have to balance faculty consensus, discussion, and meeting upon meeting” said Dr. Mesch, but then the moment comes when you “just have to go forward.” Relying on an online ballot in the spring of 2011, a robust majority of the faculty voted in favor of the overall structure of the new curriculum and its individual pieces.

Yeshiva College took a gamble. “It is in a sense a pilot program,” Dr. Mesch told The Commentator.  “There is no reason everything should be written in stone.” “This is an experiment,” said Dean Barry Eichler. “We don’t know how exactly this is going to turn out.”

In the end, Dr. Cwilich’s fears for the honors program were unfounded. This semester, the Honors Program offered the highest number of honors courses ever. “Since we are teaching just for the major, it has been much easier to sit down with departments and create small honors courses.” The new core has “reinvigorated the program.” And Dr. Cwilich remained “optimistic about the relationship between the new curriculum and the Honors program.”

Dr. Mesch’s concerns were also assuaged when the faculty chose to count 4 semesters of Spanish or French as 3 semesters of core courses. Because literature, history, and culture are introduced in those language classes, the faculty felt they fit in with the general goals of the curriculum. “It’s offering a different but important skillset, and it was deemed too important to exclude languages entirely from the curriculum,” said Dr. Mesch. Compromises among the faculty, in the languages and the honors programs in particular, made the implementation of the new curriculum possible.

The adoption of the new curriculum was a testament to faculty coming together to “put students before departmental needs,” said Associate Dean Viswanathan. With the exception of Academic Jewish Studies, departments negotiated and voiced their concerns but also embraced concessions and change. The new curriculum is also a testament to the vision of faculty members who worked untiringly in the face of far-reaching budget reductions and staff-cuts, low faculty morale, and historically low enrollment to bring momentous and much needed change to Yeshiva College.

The New Curriculum Part II: The Next Steps