Fayetteville State Opens Up the Classroom

The word “transparency” gets bandied about a lot on campuses today, including those in the University of North Carolina system. Much of the time, it seems to be mere lip service. But one UNC school, Fayetteville State, is out in front of the rest when it comes to an important type of transparency: the public online posting of course descriptions.

In July 2008, the Pope Center recommended that the UNC system create a mandatory policy for online posting of syllabi, the full and detailed descriptions of college courses. In a Pope Center paper, Jay Schalin argued that faculty should post the syllabi so that students can see them before they register and so that the public can discover what is being taught.

Fayetteville State University has implemented such a policy. By the fall of 2009, the web page of each academic department had a link called “Syllabi” that lists each course’s complete syllabus, as a PDF. (Not all are up-to-date, however, for this fall.)

Unlike the brief course descriptions in schools’ catalogs, syllabi usually have several—sometimes many—pages. They typically include the schedule for classroom topics, assignments, and exams, tell the students how various activities (such as exams and class discussion) will be weighted in the final grade, and list the books or course materials that the students are expected to read. When they are well-written, these documents give a comprehensive picture of the courses they describe.

FSU wasn’t actually responding to the Pope Center’s recommendation when it posted its syllabi, although the provost and his staff were aware of our proposal. Rather, says Jon Young, FSU provost, the requirement is part of a long-term effort to make the university and its activities more transparent.

“We’re supported by the taxpayers of North Carolina. People have a right to see what we’re doing,” said Young in an interview. FSU, part of the UNC system, has an enrollment of about 5,500 students.

Not only do the public and students have a right to know about the school’s courses, but posting has another benefit, says Young. The policy “helps faculty to know there’s another—a public—audience.”

Young also sees the posting project as a management tool that will help the school meet growing pressure for accountability. In 2006, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, authorized by then-education secretary Margaret Spellings, recommended that colleges report “meaningful student learning outcomes.” Ever since, there has been pressure on universities to show that their students are actually learning, not just going through the motions of attending class.

At FSU, the syllabi spell out the expected learning outcomes along with complete descriptions of the class content. Dr. Greg Rich’s section of Philosophy 110, Critical Thinking, for example, has a long list of specific learning goals. Students will (among other things) learn to:

  • Distinguish arguments from other sets of claims that are not inferentially related.
  • Identify the parts of arguments, i.e., conclusion, premise(s) in a variety of examples, in simple arguments (one conclusion).
  • Identify the parts of arguments, i.e., conclusion, premise(s) in a variety of examples, in complex arguments (arguments within arguments). Identify and use conclusion and premise indicators.
  • Evaluate uses and abuses of language, i.e., emotive language, slanters, innuendos, weaslers, etc.

By announcing the expected learning outcomes, faculty can meet agreed-upon standards while at the same time having the freedom to design their courses as they wish.

Another problem that online syllabi are intended to solve is the excessive dropping and adding of courses as students “shop around” early in the semester. Young said that his school is addressing that issue more directly by limiting students to only five class withdrawals during their academic career. That rule has reduced withdrawals from between 12 to 15 percent of enrollments to roughly two percent.

Young says that getting all the departments to post syllabi for all courses was something of a “struggle—not so much philosophical as logistical.” Or, in the words of Perry Massey, senior associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, there is frequently “a little foot-dragging” by professors when it comes to submitting their syllabi for posting, “but they get it done eventually.”

Fayetteville State appears to be the only one of the 16 UNC campuses that has instituted a mandatory posting policy, even though the overall approach has the endorsement of UNC president Erskine Bowles and was discussed at a meeting of the system’s chief academic officers last fall.

Some officials at other UNC universities recognize that providing more information for students and the public is a legitimate need, although they haven’t made it mandatory.

  • Warwick A. Arden, the former interim provost at NC State, told the Pope Center that the university is “committed to the underlying goals” of the Pope Center report recommending syllabi posting. He said that in early 2009, NC State began a more information-filled system, which supplies to the general public: “longer more accurate course descriptions, links to required textbooks, restrictions and prerequisites.” The school also provides faculty with a web-based “syllabus tool” that facilitates the preparation of syllabi.
  • Harold Martin, chancellor of North Carolina A&T University, also agrees with the idea of posting syllabi. “I believe the Pope Center recommendation is a great idea and I am supportive of it,“ he wrote to the Pope Center.

While only one of the UNC system’s campuses has the policy, one state legislature has made it mandatory for all its state universities. In 2009, the Texas legislature unanimously passed a law mandating the publication of syllabi—one that even requires the posting of student evaluations. That law got its start, reported David Koon for the Pope Center, when a student at the University of Texas at Austin was surprised to discover that her course on “Communication and Religion” was about esoteric cults such as Wiccans and Heaven’s Gate. The student happened to work for a Texas legislator, who championed the reform.

The law, whose requirements go into effect this fall, has been somewhat controversial with faculty members. Writing in the Dallas Morning News, Leigh Munsil quoted Murray Leaf, a faculty member at the University of Texas at Dallas as saying that the law reflects “an insulting mistrust” of faculty.

In contrast, faculty seem to be upbeat about the idea in North Carolina. The Pope Center found that 65 per cent of the faculty members it surveyed favor posting syllabi. We hope it will become system-wide policy sometime soon.