Peer Review, Summer 2000

Vol. 2, 
No. 4
Peer Review

From the Editor

In higher education today, there is probably no buzzword busier than "change." Time and again, our journals and magazines and conference speakers announce dramatic shifts in the academic landscape. New technologies, new market pressures, and new enrollments, we are told, require colleges and universities to become truly innovative. To survive in an increasingly dynamic environment, campus leaders must dedicate themselves to the task of transforming their institutions.

In a recent book review, the political theorist David Kirp observes that one new volume on the future of research universities refers to change no less than thirty times in the introduction alone. The word no longer acts as a mere descriptor, says Kirp; it now functions as a "mantra" (The Nation, April 17, 2000).

Yet, for all the urgent, excited (and often despairing) talk of new paradigms and revolutionary technologies, not everybody senses transformation in the air. Ask anyone who has ever chaired a curriculum committee: profound cynicism is not unheard of among faculty and administrators. Teachers may go on line, the skeptics will tell you, but most teaching will continue to be didactic. The economy may demand new skills, but students will continue to memorize and fill in the blanks. Experts may call for an integrated curriculum, but most colleges and universities will continue to offer random courses and mix-and-match credits... The problem is that change remains an awfully fuzzy and elusive concept. In higher education, we constantly seek something called "transformation." We celebrate it. We launch major initiatives in its name... But we seldom bother to say what, precisely, we aim to transform. Do we mean to alter the balance of authority between teachers and students? To rethink higher education's public role? To put new content into the curriculum? To encourage the use of new delivery systems?

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but hyperbole seems to like it very much. Lacking any consensus as to what, exactly, is being changed, the success or failure of any reform project remains entirely subjective. Thus, one academic leader may claim to have brought about a great institutional transformation, while another sees nothing but tinkering around the edges. "We've completely redesigned the general education requirements!" one might exclaim. "The goals of the undergraduate curriculum haven't changed at all," the other might reply.

The topic of educational change will continue to invite exaggerated and incommensurable claims unless and until reformers begin to root themselves in the particular. Rather than asking whether "institutional change" can be achieved-as though this were an end in itself-we might ask ourselves how, precisely, we hope to change our institutions? What goals have we set for ourselves? Are those goals reasonable? What might count as evidence that we've reached them?

This issue of Peer Review looks specifically at the challenges facing those who hope to lead their campuses in revising the undergraduate curriculum. To this end, we've invited our contributors to offer lessons grounded in experience-historical, personal, and institutional. In what ways have colleges and universities changed their curricula, we've asked, and what practices have endured?

Our goal here is to avoid the sort of exalted but ambiguous language ("the seeds of innovation," the "imperative to transform," and so on) that colors much policy talk in higher education, as well as to challenge the excessive cynicism that saps the life out of many curriculum committees. This issue aims to open up a bit of room for direct and frank assessments (and you'll see that our contributors often disagree with one another) of the difficult tasks that lie before us as we seek to improve our general education programs, create learning communities, rethink our course requirements, and so on. Change projects do often fail, and established programs sometimes fall apart; but good ideas also win out on occasion, and persistence can pay off.

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