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‘Ambitious’ higher ed reform proposal would fire substantial number of professors

General Education Act model legislation seeks to restore colleges and universities to original mission

Three higher education experts have authored new model legislation called the General Education Act that seeks to transform gen-ed requirements at colleges and universities.

The proposal includes creating at each university a School of General Education, which would likely necessitate firing a substantial number of professors specializing in narrow humanities fields to make room for such new schools.

The bill, which could be implemented by state legislators, seeks to establish a robust set of gen-ed requirements that give students a firm foundation in basic and vital knowledge and create a common culture, its authors said.

Under the act, the core curriculum would consist of a set of courses on western and world civilizations, economics, science, and U.S. history, government and literature — and universities may not add to it.

The act was co-authored by prominent higher education reformers Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Jenna Robinson, president of the Martin Center for Academic Renewal, and David Randall, director of research at the National Association of Scholars.

The act “proposes a thorough reform of the failed system of cafeteria-style distribution requirements geared to faculty research specialties, rather than to the true requisites of liberal education,” it states.

The new core curriculum teaches students “what they share in common as Americans — America’s ideals, institutions, faiths and civilization were born in the West, so students must know the history and the culture of the West to know the very language of America,” Randall said at a Nov. 16 webinar.

Some house cleaning would be necessary to create the new School of General Education, which would be responsible for the general education core curriculum.

“Any university that adopts this bill needs to hire a substantial new faculty with the sort of expertise and teaching philosophy suited to traditional general education,” Kurtz said during the webinar.

“But once you hire a large number of new faculty members you are going to be in a financially untenable situation without dismissing an equivalent number of existing faculty,” he said.

He added that esoteric humanities course enrollments would plummet since students are required to take the new core curriculum classes.

“So you are going to have to let go of many current faculty members, in some cases perhaps even to the point of closing whole departments and dismissing tenured faculty,” Kurtz said.

He added closing departments and firing tenured professors is legally permitted if a university is financially strapped and has to cut back or if a university undergoes a significant change of educational mission, which allows for “program discontinuance.”

Kurtz said it’s unknown to what extent each university would need to fire professors or end programs and that such decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis and faculty can also utilize options such as “joint appointments” to save their jobs.

Shannon Watkins, a research associate at the Martin Center for Academic Renewal, said that the current general education model “disadvantages students and gives them little guidance or meaningful structure.”

She cited courses at the University of Illinois students can take to fulfill their general education science requirement. There, students can choose from 89 classes, including “Race and Environmental Biology,” “The Science of Food and How it Relates to You,” “Killer Skies: Astro-Disasters” and “The Science of Pets and How to Care for Them.”

The GEA eliminates colorfully titled science courses and replaces it with a requirement of either Introduction to Biology, Introduction to Chemistry, or Introduction to Physics.

“The GEA contains the most ambitious legislative proposal for higher education reform in living memory. It could not be timelier,” wrote Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

“The Schools of General Education will be obliged to enact bylaws affirming the commitment to promoting rigorous intellectual inquiry in pursuit of truth; cultivating the dispositions and skills that produce independence of mind; maintaining intellectual diversity; and safeguarding free speech and nurturing lively discussion,” Berkowitz wrote for RealClearPolitics.

“Honoring these principles alone would go a long way to fostering the tolerance, civility, and public-spiritedness that is sorely lacking on American campuses and beyond,” he wrote.

In a National Review article, Kurtz noted such changes are necessary because “contemporary university faculty are either willing or able to teach courses along these lines.”

But one of the bill’s opponents, John Wilson, a 2019-20 fellow with the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, raised concerns with the legislation about what he believes to be a disregard for academic freedom.

“No one who believes in academic freedom could ever imagine that it is legitimate for legislators to impose an entirely new faculty chosen for their political viewpoints and then fire the existing tenured professors who teach the same subjects,” Wilson wrote in an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed. “Kurtz thinks a key virtue of this act is that it allows public colleges to keep an English major while firing most of the English professors who are too left-wing and replacing them with conservatives.”

But its authors say there is already precedence for such moves. At the Nov. 16 seminar, they pointed to initiatives such as the South Carolina REACH Act, which mandates that students must complete a general education course that includes readings of the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, five Federalist Papers and one document foundational to the African American Struggle, serve as a precedent for the GEA.

“There could be no more profound shift of educational mission than a return to traditional general education,” Kurtz said. “The GEA returns preparation for citizenship and thoughtful consideration of core moral and philosophical issues to the central position they once enjoyed at our colleges and universities.”

MORE: Four ways state lawmakers can reform higher ed: op-ed

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About the Author
Blake Mauro -- Clemson University