University board moves to make in-state transfers easier

Liz Farmer

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board adopted changes to required courses at state institutions at a meeting Thursday. The board denied UT Executive Vice-President and Provost Steven Leslie’s requested to delay adopting the new regulations.

The intent of the changes is to increase course consistency to ease the transfer of credits between institutions.

First-year signature courses do not fit into new regulations

Current state regulations require all students in Texas to take 36 hours of core classes in specific subjects. Individual institutions determine six more required hours for all students. At UT Austin, three of the six hours must be a first-year signature course.

The changes adopted Thursday, which will be implemented by 2014, mandate all 42 required course hours to fall within the specified subjects. Signature courses currently do not fall within any of those subjects. Coordinating board say this may require the University to reorganize its signature courses to continue requiring them for all students.

The University first offered signature courses in 2008 and in 2010 started to require all students to complete one of the courses.

Larry Abraham, Associate Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies, which provides the first-year signature courses, said he has serious concerns about the future of the multi-disciplinary courses because they do not fit under one category in the core curriculum. He said the courses benefit students by introducing first-year students to UT’s academic expectations and help students choose a major.

“We want students to study difficult and challenging questions with top professors,” Abraham said. “The strength comes from seeing multiple perspectives.”

Abraham serves on the Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee, which recommended the new changes. He said before he served, the committee did not contain a UT Austin representative for a few years and the recommendations had already been finalized by the time he joined the committee.

“Most of the work was done when we were not represented in the committee,” Abraham said.

Vice-Chair of the coordinating board, Fred Heldenfels IV, said there is time to further discuss first-year signature courses because the changes will be implemented in 2014.

“Clearly the classes are of great value, very innovative,” Heldenfels said. “I just fail to see how they won’t fit with these rule changes.”

Dominic Chavez, a Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board spokesman, said although the board adopted the change to mandate 42 hours of core curriculum, it is committed to work with UT to ensure the rule does not negatively affect first-year courses.

“I think it’s a matter of having more in-depth conversations about how those programs can fit into [the new regulations],” Chavez said. “We’re not looking to dismantle this system that UT Austin has set up.”

Changes emphasize specific skills in all core classes

Another change is the addition of “core objectives” professors will be expected to incorporate into any core curriculum classes. Under the change, professors are expected to “address” certain objectives required for specific course categories.

The new objectives for the core curriculum range from critical thinking skills, communication skills, empirical and quantitative skills to teamwork, personal responsibility and social responsibility.

Abraham said one concern is that the objectives may encourage professors to teach classes outside of the core curriculum so there might be fewer opportunities for students to earn core classes. Abraham said another concern is that the changes could cause professors to focus less on the material as they try to comply with the objectives.

Chavez said the core objectives should not change what the professors teach, but the professor should “infuse” the objectives into the course work.

“Regardless of what they’re majoring in there are certain key skills that students leaving higher education should have,” Chavez said.

One example, Chavez said, is the communications skills required in mathematics courses.

“When we say that a math course should infuse some communications skills, that’s very simple,” Chavez said. “How about every semester a student has to get in front of the class and present their mathematical formula?”

Printed on Friday, October 28, 2011 as: State education changes threaten signature courses