What happens when you hear the phrase enrolment planning? Do your eyes glaze over and does your mind start to drift towards what’s in your fridge for dinner? I don’t blame you. But, like mammograms, paying parking tickets, and cleaning out your basement, at some point it’s just got to be done.
So it is that about eighty staff, faculty, students, and administrators from Memorial gathered last week to consider how to do it. We were aided by expert facilitator Lynn Morrissey from the Faculty of Business Administration where she teaches Communications. Almost everyone at MUN knows that Lynn is an advisor to the Enactus Memorial team which, for several years in a row now, has been able to boast first-class standing in international competitions. If Lynn can get a bunch of Memorial students from all over campus to shine so brilliantly in such an exacting competition how hard could it be to wrangle four score self-interested, willful individuals to agree on the best ways forward? A rhetorical question, of course.
But she did it. I know, I know, you’d think that the water we were drinking would have had to turn into wine for that to happen, but, by and large, consensus was reached. This had a lot to do with the careful thinking through by the planning team in the Provost’s office of how to frame the day’s conversation. AVPA Doreen Neville led that charge with her usual brio. When I hear the words “break-out groups” I usually want to run in the other direction, but this had to be one of the better, if not even the best, set of small group discussions.
Perhaps because we began with considering what we were all doing right and wrong regarding recruiting and retaining our undergraduate students, conversation was immediately lively. It’s relatively easy to identify what is working (powerful loyalty to MUN, small classrooms in some faculties, low tuition, strong support and advising culture, etc) and what isn’t (worrying demographic changes, infrastructure sucks, technology isn’t high performing or ubiquitous enough, narrow discipline-based pathways to degrees, too few course choices and cross-disciplinary flexibility, etc). I should add we focused exclusively on the undergraduate campus in St. John’s. Graduate studies and the campuses at Grenfell and the Marine Institute are proceeding with their own enrolment plans.
After a break we were encouraged to move around and sit at different tables, with newly configured groups. The second conversation focused on what we could do to make things better–that is, repair the problems and unblock the obstacles described earlier. This was actually fun. It gave us an opportunity to think big, but within the realm of possibility. In group workshop lingo, this is a “green field” or “blue sky” approach, depending on your colour or elemental preference. Although brainstorming at many different tables we were nonetheless all inching towards an agreement that we needed to shake up our undergraduate programming, and in particular speak to the hundreds, maybe thousands, of students who really aren’t sure of what knowledge path they want to pursue. Why confine these individuals to a nineteenth-century idea of the university, albeit some of that idea being pretty wise and helpful, when we should be offering flexibility, experimentation, and exploration? What of the student who wants a wide knowledge base, but is put into a discipline-coloured straightjacket from the word go? What about liberating that student from a restricted, prerequisite-determined minefield of potential failure?
Too radical for you? Really? Well, that’s where we were moving by the time lunch arrived, and so hold on to your cap and gown.
I grabbed my gluten-free tuna sandwich and soup and left for the office where duties awaited, but I was told the afternoon session continued in this manner, with growing excitement around a possible curriculum shake down. We won’t throw out the baby with the bathwater and I think it’s safe to say those traditional routes to a discipline-based degree will always apply (although, if I had my way…), but we will likely be proposing something new and completely different for all those drifting undeclared majors and anyone else out there, something along the lines of what one enthusiastic participant called the Bachelor of Everything. It’s a big bang theory that is probably way overdue.
Let’s see where we can go with this idea. It’s as old as “free school” models of the past and ongoing approaches to knowledge acquisition at many elite private colleges. Come on, it’s the twenty first century. Time to blow the dust off the chalkboard.
Such workshop sessions give me a lot of confidence. They are not always like this, but this one worked well. And we did all that without the benefit of a decent cup of coffee or tea. I hate to complain, but do we still have to drink our liquid stimulants from those brown plastic tub dispensers in the twenty first century? They make wine in a box look classy.
Enough said, we survived, and well!