Core Revision at UDM: Saving Philosophy and Religious Studies

An interview with D. R. Koukal

Concentrate your attention on whether what I say is just or not,
for the excellence of a judge lies in this, as that of a speaker lies
in telling the truth.

Plato, Apology, 18a

Can you tell us a little about your involvement with core revision at UDM?  Sure. I was involved in core revision from the start, ever since it began in November 2005. I served on both the Core Curriculum Task Force (CCTF) and the Core Curriculum Implementation Committee (CCIC), and my attendance record was near-perfect. I was chair of the philosophy department from 2013-2015. And I have also served on the McNichols Faculty Assembly (MFA) since day one of its inception so I’m very well acquainted with the deliberations and the official committee reports.

What was your complaint about this process?  There was a lot—a lot—that went wrong, almost from the start. There’s an unofficial history floating around that presents just a small glimpse of the scope of the problems encountered, complete with documentation. But today I’m more interested in talking about what almost happened to the philosophy and religious studies departments during this process.

So what was the source of your complaint there?  The crisis really came to a head on December 4th, 2014. On that day the president of the MFA announced a decision that in effect reduced the philosophy, religious studies, social science, and natural science requirements in the new core. The president also announced that the new spirituality and meaning outcomes would be diminished.

Were you surprised at this decision?  I was very much caught off guard.

You didn’t see this coming?  No.

Why?  Because there was no mention of such a reduction in the final report of the CCTF, and the final report of the CCIC actually recommended retaining the level of exposure to philosophy and these other disciplines. The MFA approved the CCIC report, with this recommendation. The charges of the Core Curriculum Reconciliation Committee (CCRC), which were also approved by the MFA, seemed to indicate that this recommendation would be taken seriously. Also, prior to this announcement neither the McNichols Faculty Assembly Executive Committee (MFAEC) nor the CCRC consulted with us about the effect this reduction would have had on our program. So yes, I was very surprised.

But in concrete terms this would have been the loss of a single shared elective for philosophy. Was this really that big a deal?  Yes, for two reasons. First, the loss of this shared elective would have put UDM among comparable institutions with the weakest philosophy and religious studies/theology requirements. This would have undermined our mission and who we claim to be as an institution of higher learning. Second, it was a big deal for our program because philosophy is not a “destination” major. We recruit almost all of our majors and minors through the core, after students have arrived at UDM. The shared elective makes every philosophy course in our catalog core-eligible. As the number of our majors and minors has risen over the past several years, this shared elective has almost eliminated the cancellation of our upper-division courses. If this elective had been removed from the core, the department would have had significantly less access to potential majors and minors. It would have had a harder time filling its upper-division classes. In the worst case scenario, we could have lost our major.

That seems like an overreaction.  I don’t think so. My colleagues and I know where our students come from. I don’t know why our professional assessment on this should be overridden by those less well-placed to be informed on the matter. Over the course of the core revision process, different colleges and departments would routinely claim that if the core was altered in one way or another their programs would be harmed, and these claims were always taken seriously and at face value. Philosophy was simply making the same kind of claim. All we wanted was for our professional assessment to be taken just as seriously.

But still, you couldn’t have known for sure that you would have lost your major or have trouble filling upper-division courses, right?  Well, let’s be fair. We were no more sure of this than were other programs that claimed imminent and irredeemable harm through core revision. What we don’t understand is why their claims were taken seriously and at face value, while ours were dismissed out-of-hand, at least initially. It seemed like a double-standard to us. We still don’t understand why philosophy and other departments were being forced to assume a burden that other programs were allowed to simply refuse.

So what would have the philosophy department done if the MFAEC/CCRC decision had prevailed?  If we had lost the shared elective it would have been a crisis imposed on the department by the MFA, which is charged with safeguarding curricular integrity at UDM. I think this would have had very serious repercussions for shared governance; I still believe the whole episode left the body with a black eye. But it we’d lost the elective, and knowing my colleagues in the department, we would have done everything in our power to maintain the viability of our program and avoid the worst case scenario—what other choice would we have had?

A minute ago you suggested that this decision would have undermined UDM’s mission and who it claims to be as an institution of higher learning. What did you mean by that?  It’s a historical fact that Catholic colleges and universities, especially those in the Jesuit tradition, have traditionally deemed certain disciplines worthy of deeper study: the disciplines of the liberal arts and sciences in general, and the study of philosophy and religion in particular. The MFAEC/CCRC decision would have weakened the place of key humanities and science disciplines across the core. I don’t see how this could have done anything other than damage our proclaimed mission, identity, and values as a Catholic university.

What do you mean by “deeper study”?  “Deeper study” would be reflected in the requirement of more courses in given disciplines, based on the general principle that the more courses studied in a discipline, the more that is learned about that discipline.

Okay, but didn’t you raise this issue pretty late in the process? Why didn’t you bring this up earlier?  Actually, myself and others tried to raise this issue years ago.

So what happened?  About two years into the process a majority of those involved in core revision decided to adopt the practice of speaking of the new core strictly in terms of learning outcomes and not credit hours. Myself and others tried to point out that this would make it impossible to address the total size of the new core, which was of concern to professional programs with stringent accreditation requirements. We also argued that this would make it impossible to discuss how credit hours would be allocated to different disciplines within the new core. But the majority carried the day and there was no substantial discussion of core credit hours until December 2014.

But the new core’s learning outcomes are to be fulfilled by coursework, correct?  Yes.

And this coursework will carry credit hours, right?  Right.

So how could you talk about revising the core without talking about credit hours?  Well, in my opinion, you couldn’t. At least not in any intelligible way.

Why didn’t you try to force the issue?  I did. But when you’re in the minority you’re not well positioned to do so.

So you’re telling us that UDM spent almost ten years revising its core without talking about credit hours?  To be fair, it was more like eight years, approximately.

How could anyone believe this project could be undertaken without talking about credit hours?  I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the people who hold this view.

There are people who were involved in this process who still believe this?  Yes.

Who?  I’d rather not say.

Was this the source of the crisis for philosophy and religious studies?  There were a lot of factors that brought about this crisis. But in large part, yes. Everyone understood from the start that the new core would have learning outcomes. The majority’s mistake was in thinking it couldn’t also consider credit hours alongside the learning outcomes. In the absence of any consideration of credit hours, the number of learning outcomes multiplied to create an unmanageably large core. A reckoning was inevitable. But there was another important contributing factor to the crisis.

What was that?  The unfounded assumption of a one-to-one equivalency between each set of learning outcomes and courses.

“Unfounded”? Wasn’t this equivalency decided by the CCTF?  No. The CCTF report delivered the learning outcomes only. It was completely silent on the issue of total core credit hours, and on how credit hours might be distributed in a new core. Same thing with the CCIC’s “Guidelines” document. I urge you to look at both documents and see for yourself.

So how did this mistaken assumption contribute to the crisis?  Assuming this one-to-one equivalency, when the MFAEC/CCRC realized that the number of learning outcomes and the total number of credit hours were linked they finally saw the size of the new core: 54 credit hours. In response they capped the core at 48 hours; watered down the spirituality and meaning outcomes; and eliminated the philosophy/religious studies and science shared electives from the core, ignoring the CCIC’s MFA-approved recommendation to the contrary—all without any input from the affected departments.

The CCIC recommendation—you’ve mentioned that twice. Can you say more about that?  Sure. In the late fall of 2013, as a member of the CCIC, I started to become concerned that this idea—that there would be a one-to-one equivalency between learning outcomes and courses in the new core—had crept into the deliberations of the committee as an unstated assumption . . .

Wait. You didn’t become aware of this until almost eight years into the process?  That’s the trouble with unstated assumptions; the fact that they’re unstated makes them difficult, if not impossible, to address. Also, remember that this assumption had no foundation in any of the committee reports generated by the revision process. So I don’t think I should be held blameworthy for not anticipating this issue sooner.

So what did you do next?  I shared my concerns with the chairs of the other departments that would be affected by this assumption if it was put into practice. We decided to draft a joint letter of concern in case it would be needed, and I was charged with monitoring this issue on the CCIC.

And then?  By midsummer 2014 I had confirmed that this was in fact an unspoken assumption of many members of the CCIC. In response, I placed this issue on a CCIC meeting agenda so it could be openly discussed. After debate and discussion, the following motion passed by majority vote: “That the current level of exposure to philosophy, religious studies, the natural sciences, and the social sciences be retained in the new core.” This language was appended to the CCIC final report as a recommendation, and this report was, in turn, approved by the MFA in Fall 2014.

What, in your view, was the significance of this?  Well, it marked the first time in this long process that any committee involved in core revision had made any official recommendation as to how credit hours were to be dispersed within the new core.

But the motion actually talked about “level of exposure,” not credit hours.  That’s true. This motion was adopted during the period of time when the majority strongly discouraged the discussion of credit hours.

Could “level of exposure” be reliably measured in ways other than credit hours?  Not that I know of.

And the MFA approved the report containing this recommendation?  Yes, despite an effort to have it stripped out. This was very encouraging to me. And, as I mentioned earlier, the MFA-approved charges of the CCRC seemed to indicate that this recommendation would be taken seriously. I should also mention that, in the weeks leading up to the December 4th announcement, a member of the MFAEC had been reassuring me—with a great deal of confidence—that the core elective shared by philosophy and religious studies would be retained. Taken together, I thought all this indicated that the bad assumption had been corrected.

So what happened?  I have no idea.

Did you make your concerns known to members of the MFA leadership?  Yes, on several occasions.

When was the first occasion?  The department of philosophy, along with religious studies, first registered our concerns about the possibility of our shared elective being eliminated in September 2014, from the floor of the MFA.

Were you contacted by either the MFAEC or the CCRC to discuss these concerns?  No.

When was the next time you voiced your concerns?  On December 5th, the day after the MFA president announced the elimination of this shared elective.

Wait. This elective was eliminated without discussion, despite the concerns raised by the philosophy and religious studies departments back in September?  Well, there may have been a discussion, but our departments were left out of the loop.

Are you kidding?  No.

How did you voice your concerns on December 5th?  I sent the president and select members of the MFAEC/CCRC an email briefly summarizing how this decision would negatively effect the philosophy program.

What was the response?  I received an email response from the president of the MFA the same day. In my view it showed that the president didn’t fully understand our concerns. It was also clear to me that the president held to the flawed “one-to-one” assumption that I’ve been talking about. At first I assumed that the email represented the president’s views only; I don’t think the committee could have convened to discuss the issue, given that the president’s response came a scant two hours after my initial email. Because of this, and I think reasonably, I really didn’t regard her email as an “official” response, at least initially.

Did you ever receive any other response to your email?  No. In fact, according to CCRC minutes, my email was never discussed by the committee.

Did you hear from any of the other recipients of your email, even unofficially?  Not a word.

Was there another opportunity to make your concerns known?  Yes. There was a “second reconciliation” phase in March 2015. This time I put our reconciliation report in writing. It included four possible resolutions to the crisis that would have respected the 48-hour cap and placed no undue burdens on any one program. This time I sent it to every member of the MFAEC/CCRC, and requested a meeting so the department could communicate its concerns directly.

Did you get your meeting?  No. Eventually I got an email from the president of the MFA telling me I could arrange a meeting with the CCRC if I desired, but that since it had completed its work its members technically had no obligation to continue as a committee.

So the MFAEC/CCRC basically ignored your department’s concerns?  Yes. Between December 2014 and early April 2015 there was a complete breakdown of communication, despite our best efforts to initiate a conversation.

During this crisis did your department consider other ways it could have offset the effect of losing its shared elective? For instance, why not just submit more philosophy courses for inclusion in the core?  The problem is that almost all of our courses list PHL1000 as a prerequisite, for sound pedagogical reasons. So just adding more philosophy courses would have been pointless.

Did you consider making up some of the difference in the new integrating themes outcomes?  Oh, we’d already had some courses accepted to these areas of the new core, just like we had some courses dispersed among the thematic sections of the outgoing core. Of course, not every philosophy course can be revised to fit an F theme; there has to be a “good fit” between any given course and a theme, for obvious reasons. So you can see how this would’ve in no way make up for the loss of the shared elective, which makes every philosophy course potentially core-eligible.

This seems to have been a seriously flawed process. Given these flaws, and the lack of response to your concerns on the part of the MFAEC/CCRC, did you talk to the academic vice president and provost about any of this?  Actually, I had a long meeting with her back in December 2014, and we discussed the issues raised here in some detail.

So what did the vice president/provost think of all of this?  I really don’t know. To the best of my knowledge she never intervened in this crisis.

She did nothing?  So far as I know. I really haven’t talked to her since January 2015.

She ignored your concerns?  I really don’t want to speak for her. You’ll have to ask her yourself.

Okay. So why do you think the MFAEC/CCRC ignored your concerns?  Due to the lack of communication I can only speculate, but I think there were at least two reasons. First, apparently a majority of this committee had internalized the “one-to-one” assumption that has no foundation in any of the official core documents. And second, the committee kept behaving as if credit hours didn’t matter when it clearly understood that they did.

What do you mean by that?  The moment the committee announced that it was reducing the total credit hours of the new core from 54 to 48 they, in effect, admitted that credit hours—and not just learning outcomes—did matter as a consideration in core revision. Credit hours couldn’t both matter and not matter. They couldn’t possibly have it both ways. It would’ve violated the law of noncontradiction.

Did you have any other misgivings about the MFAEC/CCRC’s decision?  Yes. I was surprised when the committee decided to cut back on the spirituality and meaning part of the new core. This was one of the few unique things to come out of this process, and it is obviously central to our mission.

But didn’t the MFAEC/CCRC reverse this decision?  Yes, and I was glad to see it. The reversal showed that the committee could be flexible and sensitive to mission issues.

Do you know what prompted the reversal?  I’ve heard rumors, but nothing official.

Earlier you said there was a complete breakdown of communication between December 2014 and early April 2015. What happened in early April?  I don’t know for sure. But in the space of about a week the tone changed and the MFAEC publicly stated that it would initiate discussions with philosophy, religious studies, and other programs to address their concerns before the core was implemented.

Did this lead to a more constructive dialogue?  For a while, yes. Over the summer of 2015 the departments of philosophy and religious studies held a series of meetings with the MFAEC and other core stakeholders. These meetings culminated in an agreement with the MFAEC that the philosophy/religious studies shared elective would be restored for all UDM undergraduates. But unfortunately this agreement fell apart roughly two weeks later.

What happened?  As far as I can tell, the MFAEC didn’t have an accurate accounting of which programs could honor this agreement.

Not long after this the president of the MFA resigned. Was it the collapse of the core process that prompted this resignation?  I have no idea. But in September 2015 a suggestion was made from the floor of the MFA to explore the feasibility of mapping the new learning outcomes over the current core curriculum while retaining as much work as possible from the last decade. This suggestion was taken up by new leadership, and due to its hard work it was able to accomplish this goal in roughly four months.

So in January 2016 the MFA unanimously accepted this proposal with only minor amendments?  Yes. It’s hard to overstate what an accomplishment this was. Given the divisiveness of this long process, I would’ve never expected a unanimous vote.

What happened next?  Between February and June 2016 the new MFA president and her team was able to shepherd this proposal through different levels of the university’s administration, culminating in the unanimous approval of the new core by the board of trustees on June 24, 2016.

So are you glad it’s finally over?  I can’t even begin to tell you.

And the philosophy and religious studies shared elective was left intact?  Yes.

So obviously you’re relieved. But are there other features of the new core worthy of praise?  Oh, sure. The spirituality and meaning element also remained fully intact, which was also good news. The new Reading-Writing-Research Across the Curriculum requirement is also an excellent addition.

Are there things in the new core that are a disappointment to you?  We now have a required statistics course, which, so far as I know, gives us the strongest math requirement among Jesuit universities.

So what’s wrong with having a statistics requirement?  Given that the new learning outcomes already require all core math courses to expose students to statistics, I thought the addition of a separate statistics requirement redundant and excessive, and thus a waste of three credit hours. One could argue that those three credit hours could’ve been used to bolster areas where we’re weak when compared to similar Jesuit institutions, like history, philosophy, or religious studies—areas that are far more central to the Jesuit educational tradition. Also, when you look at our new core requirements you get the impression that “reasoning” is exclusively quantitative, symbolic, or statistical. That’s just not true.

But won’t the new Critical Thinking requirement cover non-quantitative reasoning?  Not necessarily. If you look at the courses listed under this requirement the vast majority of them will not teach critical thinking. Only one course—namely, “Critical Thinking”—will spend an entire semester actually teaching the art of reasoning in ordinary, everyday language. In other words, how most people, including mathematicians, reason most of the time.

What about the other courses under this requirement?  They may assign critical thinking, but they won’t teach it. And that’s a crucial difference. Look, there’s not a college instructor in any university anywhere who wouldn’t claim that they teach critical thinking. But here’s a dirty little secret: the vast majority of them refuse to recognize the distinction between assigning and teaching it, or can even agree on what critical thinking is.

This “Critical Thinking” course—it’s a philosophy course, right?  Yes.

What would you say to those who have claimed that you’re just a noisy partisan for the philosophy department?  [Laughs] First, let’s get one thing clear: the idea that my department is the only one that acted in a self-interested way in this process in laughable on its face. From day one there’s been plenty of programmatic partisanship to go around. We just had to make more noise than most because we were getting steamrolled by the leadership of our own faculty assembly. But I would also add that being a partisan for the well-being of my own department did not preclude me from also being a partisan for other things.

Such as?  Most generally, I tried to speak on behalf of the university’s mission and identity, as I’ve already mentioned. More specifically, I also advocated for a stronger history requirement. And remember that I was the one who brought the elimination of the shared electives to the attention of the chairs of other effected departments, including many outside my college. Which kind of brings me to one of my biggest disappointments about the new core.

Which is?  UDM actually reduced its science requirements. Many folks in the hard and human sciences indicated at one point that they were opposed to such a reduction, but in the end most of them didn’t fight it. I was one of the few voices who opposed this reduction on the floor of the MFA.

Why did you oppose it?  At present in this country we have one of our two major political parties routinely dismissing the findings of science as “just opinion.” In this environment it struck me as short-sighted and irresponsible in the extreme to reduce our commitment to provide all UDM students with a basic level of scientific literacy so they can appreciate why good science produces claims that are whole lot more than “just opinion.”

Why do you think the science faculty went along with this reduction?  I really don’t know; if you would’ve told me that this was possible at the start of core revision I would’ve dismissed you as delusional. But there was one comment made during this debate that caught my ear.

Can you share that with us?  Sure. During a lively discussion about the elimination of the philosophy and religious studies shared elective, I pointed out to the science faculty on the floor that this same structural change to the core would also eliminate their elective, and I asked how they felt about that. One of them replied, “Well, our students will get plenty of science.”

How did you understand this comment?  Well, it misses the point, doesn’t it? Of course science students will get more science than students outside of the science majors. But when you’re talking about the core curriculum you have to be concerned about the education of all of our students, not just those in your department. In a way, it goes back to the issue of self-interested partisanship—in effect, the faculty member was saying “Look, I’m not interested in teaching students outside of my department.” But that’s exactly what a core curriculum requires many faculty to do. If anything, it’s been exactly this kind of self-interested, myopic partisanship that all too often distorted our discussions of core revision. All too often, the discussion centered on how the core would effect individual programs, and not on what all of our undergraduates should learn in the core. When all’s said and done, this has been my biggest disappointment with this whole process. And in fact, in the end, the philosophy department had to adopt this same myopic attitude just maintain its place in the core.

Over the course of this interview you’ve made lots of assertions. Can you back them up?  Yes. It’s important to me that people know I’m not just fabricating all this. So I’ve created an up-to-date timeline with links to source material for those who are interested.

What did you learn about UDM over the past decade?  Many hard lessons. But I’m not ready to share them just yet.


Originally posted March 10, 2015
Last updated July 1, 2016

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