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W&M Board discusses new general education curriculum

Three words come to mind when Todd Stottlemyer thinks about the new general education curriculum: innovation, relevancy and currency.

“I think this is very much in the spirit to be innovative,” said Stottlemyer ’85 who serves as Rector of the William & Mary Board of Visitors. “As the president likes to say, we’re always an institution under construction. Any great institution is always under construction, always changing, and what was relevant when I was on campus or others were on campus may not be relevant today. So innovation and  relevancy are important, as well as currency – currency in today’s times.”

Todd StottlemyerStottlemyer spoke at the conclusion of the Board’s Feb. 6 meeting of the Committee on Academic Affairs. His remarks followed a briefing by Provost Michael R. Halleran and comments from Vice Rector Robert Scott J.D. ’68, chair of the Committee on Academic Affairs, and other board members about the new general education curriculum adopted by the Faculty of Arts & Sciences in December.

General education requirements at William & Mary make up about a quarter of the 120 credits an undergraduate needs to graduate. The remainder is divided between elective credits and requirements for majors. William & Mary will pilot new general education College Curriculum (COLL) courses in fall 2014 and fully launch the curriculum with the fall 2015 freshman class. The new general education curriculum will be introduced over four years in stages, with each succeeding year in place and ready as the initial class of students moves toward the senior year.

Advancing goals of the strategic plan

The COLL curriculum, Halleran said in his remarks to the Board, advances three fundamental goals in W&M’s strategic plan: that a W&M education become more interdisciplinary, international and committed to engaged learning.

Beginning in the freshman year, COLL 100 courses will provide a foundation in critical thinking within the liberal arts by emphasizing inquiry on overarching ideas and introducing W&M’s rigor and resources. COLL 150 seminars will strengthen written and oral communication through intensive focus on a topic.  Starting in the sophomore year, COLL 200 courses, at least one from each of three broad knowledge domains (arts and humanities, social sciences and natural sciences), will expand a student’s exposure to various disciplines and different modes of inquiry.  Junior year, COLL 300 will ask students to consider their expanding knowledge base from a global perspective.  Finally, senior year, COLL 400 will provide a culminating experience to all four years of study through capstone work in the major, such as an honors thesis. Students must also take three additional courses, one from each of the domains, and demonstrate proficiencies, as they currently must, in writing and a foreign language as well as complete a new quantitative skills requirement.

The provost’s overview

Halleran gave the Board an overview of the revised curriculum, including context for the change, the process that led to its adoption by faculty in December, as well as anticipated costs and next steps.

Universities typically revisit and modify their general education curricula once every 20 years or so, he said. W&M last adopted a new general education curriculum in 1993, so such a review was timely, he added.

“General education curricula change over time,” Halleran told the Board. “What Thomas Jefferson studied at William & Mary in the early 1760s is not what students study today. And our students today arrive with different preparation than did students 20 years ago.”  

The review process, led by faculty, launched in 2010 and included more than two years of discussion and debate, Halleran said. The Curriculum Review Steering Committee developed a draft plan after frequent meetings, focus groups, public fora and lively discussions. In 2012, Arts & Sciences faculty approved a set of guiding principles and overall framework and, over an additional year, considered, debated, modified and ultimately voted to adopt the proposed curriculum. Halleran said the final affirmative faculty vote (101-83-1) was close for a reason.

“The final vote … was not a run-away victory, although by political standards, 55 percent/45 percent is a mandate,” he said. “The vote obviously reveals differences of opinion, but this, too, is no surprise when the changes are not just nipping at the margins, and when we consider general education curricula are aspects of the academy about which all have a view, often deeply held.”

The provost explained several key differences in the revised curriculum:

  • COLL courses will be taken at W&M and not satisfied by AP/IB courses. They will be true college-level, W&M courses. Students will continue to receive credit for appropriate scores on AP exams and in IB courses. What will change will be how the students apply those credits. Core COLL courses will be taken at W&M, but AP/IB credits will continue to count towards electives, major requirements in some cases and other parts of the general education requirements.
  • In addition to taking a freshman seminar, which focuses in depth on one topic, all incoming students will take a 100-level course that takes up big ideas and challenges students to think critically, clearly and creatively, while also developing their communication skills.  
  • Students will also take one course in each of the three broad knowledge areas that intentionally integrate disciplines. Instead of a student taking a course on Greek tragedy, she might take a course that studies fifth-century Athens from the perspectives of art, religion, anthropology and literature. In the new curriculum, in addition to these integrated courses, students will still take “regular” departmental courses as part of their breadth requirement.
  • Every student will expand their global understanding, ideally by studying abroad (the goal is to reach 60 percent of all undergraduates) or through the new COLL 300 courses taught on campus. 
  • Every student will have a culminating or “capstone” experience, most typically in their major.  

In terms of costs, Halleran said there will be some development and transition costs as faculty design and implement the new courses, and some modest increased permanent costs in expanding the engaged learning model that characterizes a W&M education.

The development costs will be $850,000 over a three-year period, and Halleran said W&M expects to fund most, if not all, of that through grants from private foundations. Transitional costs for the first two years of the curriculum (2015 and 2016) will be about $150,000 annually, he said. When fully implemented in 2019, annual costs of the new curriculum will be an additional $700,000, mostly to fund increased research opportunities for undergraduates.

Rigor and next steps

Robert ScottIn his concluding remarks, Scott, the Board’s vice rector, followed up Halleran’s comments by focusing on what he considered a mischaracterization in some media reports that the rigor of a W&M education would somehow be diminished in the new curriculum. Scott said “the rigorous quality” of a W&M education is a celebrated part of the university’s brand.

Scott said it is important to remember that rigor is not a function of the title that is given to a course. “Rigor is a function of three things: the quality of the instruction, the quality of the students and the character of the demand that is placed on those students by the faculty,” he said. “I just would like the world to know that this Board … is absolutely committed to maintaining our justly deserved reputation as providing the most rigorous and quality undergraduate education of any college in the United States.”

Scott added that the Board’s bylaws are clear -- changes to the curriculum are within the purview of the faculty, with oversight, consultation and eventual endorsement by the provost and the president. The Board, Scott added, does have a responsibility to do their own due diligence, and they have.

Stottlemyer added that he has met with many people on and off campus to discuss the new general education curriculum.

“I am confident in our leadership that we will continue to maintain the rigor that a William & Mary education is known for,” said Stottlemyer, “and we will continue to be very relevant in today’s society moving forward to produce the absolute best students and prepare them to be very successful in a global economy.”

In terms of next steps, Halleran said four faculty fellows at W&M have been appointed to the new Center for the Liberal Arts to help guide efforts to develop the new curriculum. The fellows will work with their faculty colleagues to move the curriculum “from blueprint to physical structure,” Halleran said. This fall, pilot versions of new COLL courses will be launched, and others will be created, he said. The Arts & Sciences Dean’s Office is also in full gear on grant-writing to support the developmental phase of the new curriculum, Halleran added. 

Later, President Taylor Reveley said the faculty put in an enormous amount of work to get this far. He said it was an intense, transparent and inclusive process.

“In my judgment, what’s planned for the COLL curriculum will take our general education curriculum – that’s 25 percent of the whole – to a new level of rigor and prove to be an important contributor to William & Mary’s preeminence in the liberal arts,” Reveley said.