Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — The word “transparency” gets bandied about a lot on campuses today, including those in the University of North Carolina system. One UNC school, Fayetteville State University, is 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 students should be able to see syllabi before registering for a course and so that the public can discover what is being taught.
Fayetteville State has implemented such a policy. By the fall of 2009, the Web page of each academic department had a link called “Syllabi” listing each course’s complete syllabus, as a PDF. (Not all are up-to-date, however, for this fall.)
Unlike the brief 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 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.
Fayetteville State wasn’t responding directly to the Pope Center’s recommendation when it posted its syllabi, although the provost and his staff were aware of the Pope Center proposal. Rather, says Jon Young, Fayetteville State’s 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. The campus 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 as a management tool that will help the school meet growing pressure for accountability. At Fayetteville State, the syllabi spell out the expected learning outcomes.
Professor Greg Rich’s section of Philosophy 110, "Critical Thinking," for example, has a long list of specific goals such as learning to distinguish arguments from “other sets of claims that are not inferentially related,” and to “identify the parts of arguments,” such as the conclusion and premise. By announcing expected learning outcomes, faculty can meet department-wide standards while at the same time have the freedom to design their courses as they wish.
Fayetteville State appears to be the only one of the 17 UNC campuses that has instituted a mandatory posting policy, even though UNC President Erskine Bowles has endorsed the approach and it 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, former interim provost at N.C. State University, told the Pope Center that the university is “committed to the underlying goals” of the Pope Center recommendation. He said that in early 2009, N.C. 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.”
• Harold Martin, chancellor of North Carolina A&T State 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. CJ
Jane S. Shaw is president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh (popecenter.org). Jay Schalin’s paper, “Opening Up the Classroom,” is available on the center’s site.