Shaw knew the University could become the "most student-centered of the most popular institutions in the country." This naturally raised the question: What exactly does it mean to be a student-centered research university? One could argue there is no definitive answer, because as improvements are initiated, the SU student experience evolves. What defines "student-centeredness" is not so much a chiseled-in-stone response as it is a way of working and sharing knowledge to ensure that students receive opportunities to explore their interests, to learn, and to grow. "The term student-centered defines to all who work at the University what our mission is," Shaw says. "The definition isn't so important as the action, which requires flat-out hard work and forces us to reevaluate a lot of the ways we do things. It isn't that the idea is so great, it's that the idea takes a lot of effort, resources, and commitment. The important thing is to take the great ideas we need and make them happen." |
What Syracuse University has accomplished in this pursuitand plans to achieve in the futureis reflected in A Report to the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. The intensive self-study is part of the University's Middle States accreditation process, which requires a major institutional evaluation every 10 years. A team of Middle States colleagues reviewed the final report in January 1998, after more than two years of work by a group of administrators, faculty, staff, and students. The team visited the campus in March 1998 to provide commentary on the study's findings.
The Middle States Steering Committee, chaired by Michael Flusche, associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, worked with three groupsInstitutional Overview, Institutional Initiatives, and Students' Experiences. Flusche describes the report as a planning self-study, a mid-course assessment designed to examine changes at the University since 1991 and to look ahead for the next five or so years. "The number of initiatives and significant improvements around campus in the last several years is really quite striking," Flusche says. "I don't think you can read that report without being impressed by the scope of our activities to make a change in the culture of the campus as a whole. Anyone with an awareness of the complexity of higher education will come away saying, 'These folks at Syracuse have been knocking themselves out.' It's anything but business as usual."
At the core of the changes were 33 initiatives proposed by the Chancellor in February 1992 to strengthen the University and give "concrete meaning to the concept of 'student-centered research university,'" according to the report. "The energy unleashed by these and other initiatives and the growing recognition that the University's immediate future would be different from its immediate past, is probably unparalleled in the history of Syracuse University." Indeed, such sweeping changes haven't been witnessed on campus since the University welcomed thousands of World War II veterans, which was certainly a noble student-centered venture at that time.
The initiativescategorically grouped under the five core valuesaddress such areas as total quality management, assessing academic programs, improving academic advising, hiring more African American and Latino faculty members, establishing new teaching awards, and creating a University Neighborhood Community Forum. The Middle States Report examines the initiatives' effects and assesses progress. These efforts have not gone unnoticed as the University continues to be recognized on numerous fronts. It has been ranked among the top 50 national universities by U.S. News & World Report,and received TIAA-CREF Theodore M. Hesburgh Awards for the Graduate School's Future Professoriate Program (1993), and for Faculty Development to Enhance Undergraduate Teaching (1996). In 1997, the University's Arts Adventure program, initiated in 1994 to involve new students in cultural activities, was honored with a New York State Governor's Arts Award for its outstanding contribution to the arts. "An undergraduate education is a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime experience," Flusche says. "If we are all more forcefully aware of the uniqueness of each momentrecognizing that this is a precious time for us and our studentsthen we will have an incredible impact." |
According to the report, the University community better understands today what a student-centered research university is than it did six years ago. However, "the central question remains," the report notes: "How can the University be significantly student-centered and simultaneously maintain a vigorous research program?" For SU to retain its stature as a research university, the University must remember that faculty members are held to the national standards of their disciplines and are judged by their peers, Flusche says. This responsibility, in turn, must be balanced with the student-centered emphasis on teaching and advising. "Our faculty members need to be very active on both fronts. Does that mean every individual has to be a star researcher and a star teacher? Well, it would be the case if that were possible, but that's not realistic because we all have different strengths and ways of contributing," Flusche says. "So faculty expectations need to be more tailored to an individual's strengths: What can this person contribute? But everyone on the faculty ought to be in the classroom teaching, because what they all have in common is the teaching mission."
Flusche also emphasizes report findings that stress the need to respect differences among the colleges and their own particular cultures and self-identities, and to elevate the status of graduate study on campus. "We need to find more ways to incorporate graduate students into the visible life and culture of the campus," he says. "I would like to see graduate student life and activities much more evident. We've taken enormous steps to make the undergraduate experience better, and graduate students would benefit by comparable sets of programs or projects."