Since Kansas University’s “Bold Aspirations” plan was unveiled last fall, many of its wheels have begun spinning, Provost Jeff Vitter says.
But in many ways, KU still will not be able to measure its progress for another year or, in some cases, several years.
“A lot of things have happened during this first year, and we’ve got a lot more to do,” Vitter said.
Vitter spoke with the Journal-World about the progress of the university’s strategic plan during its first year after officials presented an update to the Kansas Board of Regents earlier this month. “Bold Aspirations,” unveiled in September 2011, is a multipronged plan aimed at elevating KU’s stature among public research universities.
The biggest development in that effort during the 2011-12 year, Vitter said, was the effort to revamp the curriculum for KU undergraduates. That process is set to result in a new “KU Core” curriculum for all undergraduates that will go into effect in fall 2013.
“That’s a huge thing, because it’s the first time the university in its history has had a universitywide curriculum,” Vitter said.
A committee is still determining the exact course requirements for the new curriculum. But what’s clear is that the number of general-education requirements will be greatly reduced, and those requirements will now be oriented around meeting six specific educational goals. That hasn’t been the case under the current curriculum, Vitter said.
“There was never a direct connection between ‘Here’s what we’re trying to achieve in the learning process’ and ‘Here are the courses that will provide that,’” Vitter said.
Those learning goals are “critical thinking and quantitative literacy,” “communication,” “breadth of knowledge,” “culture and diversity,” “social responsibility and ethics” and “integration and creativity.”
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment the university could point to during the first year of the new plan was its improved student recruitment, Vitter said. The size of the incoming freshman class increased for the first time since 2008, growing by 5.3 percent, and the class also set a record for average ACT scores.
But in addition to recruiting more students, the university aims to keep them around and help them graduate. The strategic plan, which runs through 2017, lays out goals of 90 percent freshman retention and a six-year graduation rate of 70 percent. Right now, those numbers are about 80 and 60 percent, respectively.
Even if the university is doing its job, those figures will take some time to change, Vitter said — perhaps the entirety of the strategic plan’s time period.
That’s especially true of the graduation rate.
“We may very well have put into place what will then lead to that six-year graduation rate getting up to 70 percent,” Vitter said, “but it won’t likely actually reach there for a few years.”
But officials hope for an increase in freshman retention starting next year, when this year’s freshmen become sophomores, Vitter said.
KU this year introduced several new measures designed to help freshmen succeed and connect. Those include a new online early-warning service designed to help students keep up with their classes, a new common-book program and a pilot program of learning communities, in which students studying the same subjects live near each other in the same residence hall.
“If you have a bad opening experience, it could really sour you or keep you from succeeding, basically,” Vitter said.
During this academic year, Vitter said, some focus will shift from changing recruiting methods to changing the way students will learn once they arrive on campus.
That will include an effort to “flip” many courses from the traditional come-to-class-and-hear-a-lecture model, Vitter said.
He said a few classes are already shifting to a model where students can watch “lecture” videos online outside of class, then take part in discussions and deeper explorations during class time.
“Students actually will now come to class, because class is so valuable,” Vitter said.
This year, the university’s Center for Teaching Excellence and Center for Online and Distance Learning will help train more faculty members to make a similar transformation.
Other areas of focus this year will include the formation of a plan to increase research opportunities for doctoral students and an effort to form partnerships with corporations that could collaborate with faculty for research and offer job possibilities for students.
Vitter said he would be visiting corporations himself this year to attempt to form those partnerships. He said he hopes for deans and other administrators at KU to be paired with executives at a different companies to work together to spur research projects, internships for students and other collaborations.
“It’s a great way of building support for research, companies will get a great pipeline of students from KU, and we’ll have a lot of interesting collaboration opportunities as a result,” Vitter said.