We are living in an era of the “learning-centered” university. That is, CSUN is diligently working to create a campus environment that is especially attuned to student learning. But this is not a new concept; the CSUs have always been thought of as teaching universities. In fact, over the course of my years teaching at CSUN, I have discovered that CSUN possesses a great many educational strengths that have, quite nicely, served to meet the needs of our diverse population of students.
As I have become acquainted with a great many CSUN students, I have discovered that a significant number of them were initially admitted to “prestigious” UC schools. Some of these students, however, opted for CSUN because of the stature of programs such as business, deaf studies, and cinema and television arts.
Other students have chosen CSUN instead of a UC because of its smaller classes and greater access to actual university professors. After spending her freshman year at UCLA, for example, one such student became disenchanted with the enormous class sizes, her inability to interact with professors, and the mean-spirited nature of the UC campus culture. In an attempt to garner a higher ranking in their courses, a number of her UCLA pre-med peers were sabotaging each other’s science experiments.
Frustrated and demoralized, the student subsequently transferred to CSUN. And, as a result of smaller class sizes, greater access to her professors, and a general collegiality among students, she was quite a bit happier.
While all of the students I teach at CSUN are bright, not all of them are prepared for the kind of work expected of them at a university. Writing, for example, can be especially problematic. Every semester I encounter students who cannot write simple sentences and or do not know where to make paragraph breaks. But the smaller classes, which CSUN has traditionally offered, has served to meet the needs of students with academic deficits as well. When classes are small, professors can better assess a student’s weaknesses and work with them to strengthen their abilities. Instructors can also refer their students to the Learning Resource Center for additional assistance. In doing so, students have a better chance of acquiring the skills needed to complete their college education.
Unfortunately, these advantages (smaller class sizes and greater access to college professors) are slowly disintegrating. While the CSU system has been under funded for decades, recent California state budget shortfalls have accelerated this process exponentially. To cope with these budgetary constraints, CSUN administrators have been forced to institute a number measures antithetical to a “learning-centered” campus environment. They have canceled courses, increased class sizes, and have enlisted poorly paid graduate students to teach an increasing number of courses. So when it comes to providing students with the academic advantage of smaller class sizes and greater access to professors, we are losing our edge.
Sadly, our students are feeling the effects of these trends. Graduation rates are dismal, and those students who do manage to complete their degrees often take five to six years to do so.
At the beginning of each new semester, faculty members are often flanked by as many as 30 extra students attempting to “crash their courses.” Because of our faculty’s strong sense of caring and concern, a large number of them choose to go above and beyond their class limits to admit a number of displaced students. This, however, does little to help solve the underlying institutional problem, and a significant number of students are still left without courses.
The university has further attempted to combat its problems by reducing the number of general education courses needed to earn a degree. This, too, detracts from a student’s overall quality of education. A solid education, in the classical sense, entails more than completing specialized course explicitly linked to a particular occupation. It also involves broadening a student’s horizons and assisting them in becoming cultured, well-rounded individuals. Cutting general education requirements, however, weakens this mission.
It is thus difficult to fathom a truly “learning-centered” university in this era of severe budgetary constraints. So what will it take to truly put the universities “learning-centered” plan into action? Money.
The state of California must round up the funds needed to 1.) offer a greater number of courses, 2.) reduce class sizes, 3.) hire professors with the qualifications required to provide their students with an exemplary educational experience. California is the fifth largest economy in the world. Surely state officials can find a way to come up with the funds needed to create and maintain university system that is truly conducive to learning.
Kristyan Kouri has a doctorate in sociology and teaches sociology and women’s studies. She is also co-vice president for lecturers for the CSUN chapter of the California Faculty Association.