Rice: The Next Century

Report of the Strategic Planning Committee


To meet this goal we need to provide a learning environment that emphasizes the process of intellectual inquiry, broad fundamental knowledge, the development of critical skills and interdisciplinary collaboration.

How well-positioned are we to address these aspirations? Rice is justly acclaimed for the high quality of its undergraduate education. Nevertheless, there is room for improvement. Students enrolling at Rice have already demonstrated ample potential for intellectual achievement and leadership. Yet once they are here, we offer too little programmatic guidance to them to acquire a broad-based, liberal education in letters, sciences, and the arts that they will need as a foundation and scaffold for life-long learning. This deficiency may pose an impediment on their careers and outlooks later in life when more will be required of them than the circumscribed knowledge of their own field. Similarly, we do little to develop further the writing and speaking abilities our students bring to Rice. This view, expressed by many faculty, has been corroborated recently by Rice graduates themselves in a many opinion survey in which they rated their growth in expression as the least satisfactory aspect of their undergraduate careers. Finally, once students focus on a major we provide them with too few opportunities to be involved in genuine research projects with faculty researchers and advanced graduate students. Many Rice undergraduates could benefit immeasurably from such participation. They would be stimulated and their intellectual maturity fostered in ways that go beyond information-based classroom experiences. One of the great attractions of Rice for undergraduates is that it is a research university. But only recently have we begun to capitalize upon all the possibilities that a research experience might provide for undergraduates.

We propose the following as the best response to this situation:

Initiative 1. To pursue Rice's commitment to a liberal education, the faculty and the administration will develop a program of general education as a required component of the education of every Rice undergraduate student.

Foundation courses at Rice should expose students to the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences, and the arts, as well as to different approaches to learning about themselves as individuals and as part of society, about other cultures, and about their physical environment. Our responsibility is to enhance their capacity to think critically and creatively in a wide range of contexts as well as to provide them in-depth knowledge in their chosen discipline.

Our debates about foundation courses and distribution requirements suggest that no single pedagogical strategy works in every situation and that we must be attuned to differences across disciplines and divisions. In keeping with the differing traditions of inquiry in each area, we expect these courses to incorporate teaching strategies that vary. In the interim, many questions remain unresolved. What kinds of courses and experiences are most likely to teach students to think critically? How can we balance, in general education courses, the need for broad exposure to a range of disciplines and methodologies with the need to work systematically through complex and sophisticated ideas and problems? Is there a body of knowledge or group of skills that all students need to possess at graduation? What should an English major know about engineering, or a biologist about music? Although it is difficult to design a general education curriculum that responds well to all these questions, the task is crucial.

The Strategic Planning Committee acknowledges the recent efforts of the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee in this area and endorses the 1996 decision of the President and the Faculty to establish an ad hoc curriculum committee to develop further plans and to present them to the faculty. We expect that courses that will allow all entering students to fulfill a general education requirement will be in place by Fall 1998.

Because the aims of foundation courses are not identical to basic departmental introductory courses, incentives will be needed to encourage faculty to create courses with genuine liberal arts or interdisciplinary orientations, suitable for intelligent students whose major interest lies elsewhere. The need to provide support for faculty to develop such courses and the requirement that they be taken by all undergraduates will call for additional resources by the university, as well as some support from funds already available to departments.

Initiative 2. The Rice curriculum must incorporate a composition requirement expected of all undergraduates. Stronger writing and oral communications skills must be a university-wide goal, their practice encouraged throughout the curriculum .

In an era of rapid changes in both domestic and global society, communication skills of all kinds will be even more vital than now. If our students are to be effective participants in the international world of science, politics, business, or the arts, we must ensure that they develop the capacity to communicate their knowledge and insights to wide and diverse groups of people, to express their ideas clearly and persuasively. Currently, Rice has no writing requirement for those able to pass a test of minimal proficiency taken by all entering students. Few of our courses, except those devoted entirely to public speaking, emphasize oral skills. We therefore recommend that Rice develop a program to address this problem. We also urge that writing assignments be an integral part of courses, wherever feasible. Concerted efforts should be made throughout the curriculum to encourage students to devote themselves to the important tasks of thinking, writing and speaking clearly and interestingly.

Initiative 3. We will involve undergraduates in our research programs wherever possible. These opportunities will be open to all undergraduates and in all academic divisions.

Such learning opportunities enhance the close faculty-student interactions we seek at Rice. They also expose undergraduates to leading-edge research and involve them in the process of experimentation, independent thinking and scholarship, and intellectual inquiry that will serve them well throughout their lives. We believe that these possibilities exist in all fields. We have the research faculty, the graduate students to provide additional support, and the facilities to make the research experience a valuable one for undergraduates. The Fall, 1996, issue of Sallyport depicts numerous outstanding examples of undergraduate research. But much more needs to be done. To begin with, the university should develop an incentive fund for faculty and departments to create undergraduate research opportunities. Individual faculty and departments should be encouraged to apply for these funds on a competitive basis and a faculty committee should be formed to select the best proposals for funding.

Initiative 4. We will encourage collaborative, interdepartmental, inter-divisional and even inter-institutional courses.

In all disciplines, from the humanities to the sciences, recent changes in our approaches to problem solving have blurred the boundaries between traditional disciplines. Many of the issues that scholars want to examine and those that society asks us to address are amenable only to interdisciplinary approaches. To educate our students by means of such approaches will not only expose them to the latest developments in the academy, but will better prepare them for the world beyond. This point was made recently by Phillip A. Griffiths, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, with reference to graduate education in the sciences and engineering. But his statement applies to all academic areas and at all levels. Because it touches on matters that go to the heart of this report, it bears quoting:

Current changes in the conduct of science present a challenge for the traditional department structure found in most universities. The organization of science is becoming more flexible, and the boundaries between fields are becoming more permeable. Employers are seeking scientists and engineers who not only are well grounded in their fields but who can also communicate, collaborate, and work across disciplines . . . . New Ph.D.'s must be prepared to meet a variety of challenges in fields as wide-ranging as industrial and technological development, health care, environmental protection, secondary-level education, and urban planning and development. Yet many employers are highly critical of recent graduates' qualifications for nonacademic jobs. They describe students as over-specialized in relation to the variety of tasks they will confront and ill-prepared in areas such as communication and team skills.[4]

Rice should further facilitate the creation of interdisciplinary programs, including areas that enhance the interaction of the three professional schools - architecture, business, and music - with the rest of the university. Our students would benefit enormously from such programs. The appointment process for new faculty can play a central role in fostering inter-disciplinary research. In addition, to encourage interdisciplinary and inter-divisional teaching, the university should create an incentive fund to help faculty teams develop interdisciplinary courses and to help departments and divisions fill the curricular voids created by interdisciplinary collaborations. These funds should be allocated by a faculty committee on a competitive basis. Also, care should be taken to seize opportunities for collaboration in instructional programs involving other institutions including those of the nearby Texas Medical Center, NASA, University of Houston and others.

Initiative 5. We will establish a Center for the Study of Languages that will encourage students to learn a second language and help faculty implement innovative methods for teaching students to communicate in languages other than their own.

The university should emphasize to our students the need to acquire proficiency in a foreign language and an understanding of foreign cultures. To support this aim, a language center should be established where faculty may study and implement innovative methods for teaching students to communicate in languages other than their own. It is clear that knowledge of a foreign language would enhance our students' experience during their years at Rice as well as later. During their time at Rice, proficiency in a foreign language will broaden our students' options for study abroad. After graduation, Rice graduates will be involved in ever more abundant international relationships of many kinds - personal friendships, business associations, educational cooperation, cultural exchanges, governmental policy formation, diplomatic negotiations. International travel will doubtless be a regular part of life for many, and some will live abroad for extended periods. If they are skilled in one or more foreign languages, the richness and efficacy of these experiences will be considerably enhanced.

Initiative 6. We will develop a comprehensive program to enhance the international experience and perspective of Rice students through study, travel, and direct interaction with scholars and fellow students from all regions of the world.

The Baker Institute, our area studies programs, programs of study abroad, visiting professors from other countries, cooperative arrangements with foreign universities, and closer ties with Houston's many immigrant communities are valuable vehicles, and should be used to inform students about the need to prepare themselves for career experiences of international scope. Where appropriate, the curriculum should be enriched to reflect the international character of many fields of contemporary study. Faculty exchanges should also be pursued more aggressively, along with joint international projects. Assuring that the Rice undergraduate student body includes a number of foreign nationals, not to exceed 5% of our undergraduates, will provide broadened social exchanges.


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