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College Life Reconsidered
The Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience takes stock

Photos by Robert Schoen

Student members Charline Han, environmental engineering
major in the combined degree program with the Engineering School and Medical School, Rachel Rubenson, former editor
of the Tufts Daily and political science major, and James Blockwood, international relations major, in Tisch Library.
Every day more than 4,000 Tufts undergraduates transform the Medford/Somerville campus with collective chaos. They go to class, hang out in Brown and Brew over a cappuccino, research term papers at Tisch, log onto a PC at Eaton Computer Lab, work out at the fitness center, rehearse with the university orchestra. They ride the shuttle to Davis Square to catch the Red Line to an internship in Boston. They race from basketball practice to their poetry seminar, then huddle in the dorm for studying relieved by a 1 a.m. pizza break.

“Every day is a crazy day,” said Lauren Peach, A04, an American studies major who juggles classes with a work-study job, varsity lacrosse, and volunteering with a peer hotline. “But I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”

Many students, like Peach, are making the most of their college years. But could the experience be improved? How, for example, does a student shape a sense of identity out of their college experiences? Could Tufts do a better job heightening intellectual life on campus? How does Tufts instill a sense of community, while planting the seeds of a lifelong relationship to alma mater?

For the past year and a half, members of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience have been asking these and other questions as they relate to Arts, Sciences and Engineering (AS&E), while also generating considerable response to their initial proposals for change.

It’s been an ambitious undertaking: more than 20 Task Force meetings and nearly 70 meetings with students, faculty, staff, trustees and alumni. Outreach activities led to a round of proposals, open to community feedback via a website. Part I of an Interim Report, made public in December, provided initial feedback with a first set of possible initiatives to promote community and intellectual engagement on campus. In January, the Task Force followed up with additional ideas, primarily relating to the curriculum and research opportunities for students.

This dialogue has been as much about gathering information as about the process itself—an open exchange of ideas with the Tufts community, including offering the reports online and posting a Task Force “Question of the Week” on tuftslife.com. That feedback would help the Task Force refine their ideas and present final recommendations to President Lawrence S. Bacow in May.

Task Force Chair, Economics Professor Gilbert Metcalf, at the Campus Center.  
“We were charged by the president to present final recommendations in the spring that the community has not only fully considered but also collectively endorsed,” said Gilbert Metcalf, economics professor and Task Force chair. “Given the discussion generated by the Interim Reports, we can now hone in on ideas that achieve this broad-based support. For instance, while there were objections to introducing a college system at Tufts, we are finding some consensus for many aspects of that system: reconfiguration of class deans, creating a “cradle to grave” advising system, and doing a variety of things that promote increased faculty-student interaction. We also find that certain ideas such as need-blind admission, increased support for research, and a four-year writing program strike a chord.

“Some of the biggest impact we have seen so far is that the intellectual climate could be enhanced,” he added. “Just paying attention to that alone would bring a new vocabulary and a new discussion to Tufts that will continue well into the future.”

Bruce Reitman, A72, co-chair and Dean of Students, said that the Task Force’s mission reflects a shift toward more student engagement in the learning process, with the central aim of building a strong sense of community among faculty and students. Interaction among faculty and students should not seem contrived but rather a natural part of the daily routine of living at Tufts.

“When I was a Tufts student, we weren’t looking for community,” he said. “In the late 1960s, we were all going through something together: How not to be in Hanoi. Now there is a lot more individual direction and there is an expectation that we will create community and make everyone feel safe—not only physically, but in terms of expression of ideas. That’s why part of our goal is to create a community of diverse people and opinions that sustains an active intellectual community. There’s not enough of that interaction right now. We have classes and residence halls and various student activities, but the overlap is not obvious. Where the faculty and students come together is not obvious and there is a real hunger for that.”

It is a yearning that Charles Inouye, co-chair and Dean of the College for Undergraduate Education, said can be creatively addressed at Tufts, an institution with many strengths in place. In fact, he’s quick to point out that while the Task Force has necessarily focused on things to be improved, it is aware of Tufts’ many strengths and seeks to enhance them.

“Tufts now takes its place among the very best universities precisely because we build on a strong foundation,” said Inouye. “Tufts is a lot of things that other institutions want to be. We stress both teaching and research. We are international. We are diverse and friendly. We are committed to engaged learning and to giving back to the community. In many ways, this exploration has reinforced these qualities, and our strategy for the future is simply to help Tufts be more clearly Tufts.”

Fostering Interactions
The Task Force got down to business in the fall of 2001 after President Bacow charged it to “work hard to achieve a consensus for change” that would shape priorities for undergraduate education in the next capital campaign. The 11-member committee, in addition to Metcalf, Reitman and Charles Inouye, includes Professors Frances Chew (biology and American studies), Lee Edelman (English), James Glaser (political science), Karen Panetta (electrical engineering), and Maryanne Wolf (child development). The final three members are students James Blockwood, an international relations major, Charline Han, an environmental engineering major in the combined degree program with the Engineering School and Medical School, and Rachel Rubenson, former editor of the Tufts Daily and a political science major.

The Task Force set out to examine the strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum and in teaching methods; residential and co-curricular life; and how each undergraduate year contributes to students’ intellectual and personal growth. According to Metcalf, the scrutiny was timely.

“The economic forces out there are such that when you have college costs close to $40,000 a year, parents rightfully want to know why they should send their children to Tufts rather than to an online college,” said Metcalf. “Obviously, we think we’re providing a terrific education, but we ought to be constantly examining what we do to see what we can do better. One question that drives us on the Task Force is: How do we make sure that the rest of the students’ Tufts experience contributes to their education? How can we improve opportunities for the out-of-class experience to support and enhance the in-class experience?”

The answers started coming last spring, as the Task Force met with more than 500 students, faculty members, staff, trustees and alumni at more than 30 sessions, reviewed existing surveys of students from the Office of Institutional Research, conducted a survey of faculty in AS&E, and collected information from some 30 other colleges and universities. Three primary themes emerged: community, climate (the intellectual, co-curricular and social atmosphere) and coherence. Those themes led directly to three goals that shaped particular proposals: academic excellence, community building and a continuing commitment to diversity.

Of the proposals so far, the most radically new surround residential life. Initiatives put forth in Part I of the report included, for instance, constructing a Tufts College System comprising four colleges that would create smaller, more intimate communities in which all students could maintain a connection to a core group of faculty, staff and other students throughout all four years. Two colleges would be located uphill and two downhill.

The report also suggests “building community and strengthening diversity” by completing Phase III of the Campus Center to create an improved new social center—construction that would add significantly to the building located conveniently between the uphill and downhill campuses.

“The Campus Center was designed to be the social anchor of the Medford-Somerville campus. I think it could be; I don’t think it is yet,” said Metcalf. “But we have the ability to create a vibrant social and intellectual center there. Right now, there is no place that you feel confident that you will see students on a daily basis. We’ve also proposed a café in the library or—better yet—on top of the library, something that is symbolically important in that it merges social interaction and intellectual engagement; it’s a powerful symbol of intellectual life at Tufts.”

Improving the physical space of Tufts, specifically, increasing opportunities for students to congregate with each other and faculty, said Metcalf, would foster connections that could have enormous potential to shape a student’s college years. No less important is providing more interaction between faculty and students in a non-classroom setting. “Last year I started inviting my students home for dinner,” said Metcalf, “and one thing I found was that they immediately loosened up in class and felt more relaxed and started asking questions and responding. So here was a purely social event that had a direct intellectual payoff. We heard from students that they would like to see the faculty out of the classroom more, for example, in the dining hall or at events in the evening.”

Educating Life-long Learners
As with the co-curricular and residential proposals, curricular proposals put forth in Part II of the Interim Report were presented to generate discussion. In short, those initiatives promote “engaged learning”—intellectual engagement in the classroom, in students’ independent or group study activities, or in research opportunities that connect students with faculty. “We wish to provide an environment in which students will become enthusiastic lifelong learners, creative producers of knowledge and effective communicators,” according to the report. “The richness of dialogue, instruction, experimentation and experience that Tufts provides will enable our students to become leaders in the diverse and increasingly interconnected world they will inherit. This is an ambitious aspiration, but the intellectual transformation of young adults is itself the ambitious enterprise at the heart of the mission of the university.”

The report addresses aspects identified as key to a Tufts education, including how to improve writing and oral communication skills, enhance research opportunities for students, provide opportunities for culminating academic experiences, enhance the intellectual community, and rethink Tufts’ approach to curricular requirements.

The Task Force also presented “large-scale” suggestions for ways in which the Tufts community can think about, among other things, how to keep students from losing touch with the academic community in their junior year, when so many of them study abroad; how to integrate intellectual achievement into the social life of the campus, for instance, a “World Day” event in which juniors who have been away from campus share their experience with sophomores.

“We know that in the first couple of years, students do build loyalty and affection for Tufts, but then something happens,” said Metcalf. “Part of it is because we send students out into the world during junior year abroad. Part of it has to do with our housing; we have difficulty housing as many students on campus as we’d like. When they come back as seniors, we don’t do as good a job of reconnecting them to campus as we could.”

Planning for the Future
When asked about their impression of these and other ideas, the student members of the Task Force agreed that the work carried tremendous potential for changing how Tufts approaches undergraduate education. “Students seem to understand the impact that the Task Force efforts will have on the future of Tufts,” said Rubenson. “Overall, the feedback we have received has been very constructive.”

Many of the initiatives of the Task Force speak to the fact, added Rubenson, “that we have a marketing problem. We have a lot of strengths, but we don’t seem to be good at telling students about the amazing projects that their fellow students or professors are doing or the opportunities they have to engage in academic and co-curricular activities. Proposals like a World Day, Majors’ Day, and the research and internship clearinghouses are aimed at solving that problem.”

Han agreed that the Task Force has set in motion ideas that would change “the whole dynamic of the college. Greater student and faculty interaction, for instance. We’re taking Tufts’ strengths and accenting them and making people take pride in them.”

Whether or not that message was getting through, however, was doubtful, said Blockwood.

“Overall, the students probably don’t understand the profound impact this report could have on Tufts’ possibilities,” said Blockwood. “You have a few students who get it, but I don’t think it’s at the point where the entire campus says ‘This is what Tufts needs to be doing.’”

Another concern is the price tag that comes with whatever the final report recommends. But because the Task Force has presented proposals that range from being very expensive (requiring five to ten years to bring about) to inexpensive and capable of being put into place immediately (what the group calls “low-hanging fruit”) the momentum from the Task Force’s work can be carried over in subsequent years while the resources are gathered.

“Our biggest challenge is the endowment,” said Metcalf. “We need to pull together the resources for the kind of education we want to provide. As we’ve gone about our work, we’ve tried to create a compelling package of initiatives that will be exciting to alumni and other supporters as we go into the next capital campaign.”

Metcalf is encouraged, however, by the alacrity with which some new ideas have already been taken up. The final report will be made to President Bacow in May, but Bacow has already addressed a recommendation concerning the enhancement of the campus intellectual climate.

Daniel Dennett, University Professor and noted member of the philosophy department, will host monthly dinners with colleagues across the campus to compare notes on their research, heighten intellectual exchange and promote cross-disciplinary discussions.

The administration will also soon launch initiatives aimed at increasing opportunities for undergraduates to do research with faculty across the University.

“I think the energy that President Bacow and Provost Jamshed Bharucha have brought to Tufts, and their expectations for academic excellence, are very exciting,” said Metcalf. “That excellence is not only about faculty but our students as well. What’s remarkable to me is the caliber of Tufts students who matriculate every year. We need to take full advantage of our students’ capabilities by offering them the exciting and challenging experiences they need to make the fullest use of their vast talents.”

For an online version of the Interim Report by theTask Force on the Undergraduate Experience, visit the web at ugtaskforce.tufts.edu. Feedback is welcome by email to ugtaskforce@tufts.edu.