Higher education administrators from around the nation came together at Samford University Thursday, Oct. 20, to consider curriculum matters during a Lilly Fellows Program-sponsored workshop.
“An opportunity to think about ways we organize and deliver the curriculum to students is important,” said program host Mel Piehl, calling curriculum change “one of the most challenging things college administrators do.” Piehl is dean of Christ College at Valparaiso University, which is home to the Lilly Fellows Program.
The session opened a two-day workshop for administrators, “Leadership, Mission and Meaning: Engaging the Curriculum.” The workshop is a prequel to the 21st annual national Lilly conference being hosted by Samford Oct. 21-23.
Piehl’s observation was underscored by workshop speakers Mary Strey and Paul H. Benson.
Strey, vice president for academic affairs and faculty dean at Central College in Pella, Iowa, said that while mission and curriculum is a topic that is both complexing and confounding, “The curriculum reflects the living mission of an institution.”
She told of a survey in which she collected mission statements from 95 Lilly network member schools. A “word cloud” search revealed that “community” and “student” were by far the most commonly used words. While words such as service, world, and faith also showed up frequently, “the emphasis is on the individual and the collective,” she said.
“It is about taking individuals and helping them form community, and connecting them to the community,” she said, adding that students typically want to be independent but also part of a community. “It’s that tension that we help them move through.”
“For while it is the character of the lives of our students that will help to determine the future vision of our communities, it is the character of our institutional lives that will impact the potential for change,” said Strey. “And the character of our curriculum is the mechanism by which that change occurs and through which our mission lives.”
Benson said that curriculum renewal is a complex task and high-risk project, but if a school’s curriculum doesn’t embody the mission “something is wrong.”
His advice for successful reform includes involving faculty in planning and implementation, and to think comprehensively, but act incrementally. “Begin with a broad vision and don’t rush to the nuts and bolts,” said Benson, who believes that few general education curricula can remain academically stimulating for faculty and students for more than 20 years.
New faculty advocates for curriculum renewal must be recruited constantly throughout the process to avoid the appearance of narrow support, and financial planning is needed to support redesign that may involve additional faculty and courses. He also advises to make regular use of resources from other colleges that have made curricular changes.
“The process of curriculum reform can teach us much about our mission and contribute much to the institution,” said Benson. Through the process, a school’s mission can come to light for students and faculty, “and become richer on campus and beyond.”
The overall theme of the Lilly conference is “Reconciliation in History, Literature and Music.” More than 150 representatives from universities that are part of the Lilly Fellows national program will attend. About 62 administrators attended Thursday’s program.