The University is one of a handful of national universities in this country. It continuously draws students from throughout the United States and its alumni can be found in every state. The University’s reputation is as strong in San Francisco and Miami as it is in Chicago or Detroit. The University, while maintaining an unparalleled reputation throughout the Midwest, has not become a regional university. This incredible advantage over schools that have lower student-to-faculty ratios and better attention to the needs of students, has propelled the University into a position as the university with the most research spending in the country and created a school that is wildly popular and well-known with students throughout the nation.
Too often this national reputation and the job prospects that await students after graduation allow the University to ignore undergraduates academic needs. Classes are too large, office hours are too short, GSIs are too busy with their dissertations and cross-disciplinary experiences and independent studies are too rare. Football Saturdays become the defining and most significant experiences for students at the University. These are the qualities that shape our educational experience here.
It is difficult to understand how the selection of Mary Sue Coleman as the 13th president of the University will fit into this problem. She attended Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school known for its dedication to teaching and attention to students. At Iowa, she championed undergraduate education and attempted to increase study abroad programs and interdisciplinary offerings.
But Coleman is also a professor of biochemistry, noted for her ability to raise large donations and strongly supported research. She earned a reputation for her attention to the University of Iowa Medical Center. While the relationship between research and undergraduate teaching does not have to be a zero-sum game, Coleman must recognize the centrality of undergraduates to the University. The University needs to use its resources not as an excuse to offer sub-par academics, but as a supplement to improve the worldview of its students.
That is what the President’s Commission on the Undergraduate Experience failed to recognize. The solution to these problems is not to assume more control over students’ lives by requiring students to live in the residence halls for longer extensions of time. The University is not a cloister, nor should it be. Students live on their own and deal with the pressures of adult life, experiences that create students with a maturity often absent in other schools.
The solution is to combine the unique freedoms that education at a large public university offer with the educational ethic and life of the mind that is synonymous with the nation’s best universities. Through the University’s national renown and the unique culture that its students have created, the University is one of the most popular colleges. The University now has an unmatched ability to change its direction and improve undergraduates’ academic experience.
With acceptance to colleges and universities becoming more difficult to achieve, a growing college-age population, increasing access to financial aid and an international body of applicants that is continuously expanding, the University can create a new model for education. A model that neither follows the cold and detached German research university or the collegial and caring of British undergraduate institutions. There needs to be a synthesis between the superior aspects of each system. A system that provides all undergraduates with a thorough knowledge of the humanities, while offering the possibility of specialization and advanced work in the sciences. Combined with a deep respect for students’ rights and freedoms, the University can produce students of intellectual depth with the worldly experience that is often neglected at the nation’s elite private universities.
To achieve this goal, Coleman must devote her attention to undergraduates and consider substantive changes to the curriculum. The implementation of a core curriculum for all undergraduates should be considered to correct the deficiencies and gaps in knowledge that the present curriculum does not address. Simultaneously, the University must not capitulate to the desires to increase in loco parentis or strengthen control over non-academic aspects of student life. Although the University of Iowa is known for its parental role and control over students lives, this history is much older than Coleman’s tenure at the University of Iowa. Coleman must do more to fight against these incursions into students’ autonomy.
The University is in a position to offer its students an education and experience that is unique amongst this nation’s institutes of higher education. The independence of students’ lives is central to this goal.
Zac Peskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.