Why we need a petition process for GE

by Harold Marcuse, 6/4/03

Problems because of the lack of a petition process.

I have served on the GE committee for several years, and have observed firsthand the detrimental effects of the lack of a petition process. Let me outline them:

  1. Proliferation of courses on the list. Al has persuaded past chairs of the GE committee (and initially, me as well) that because of the equity issue (see below), the only way an exception could be granted was to affirm that the course the student wanted to use for GE could be used by ALL students completing it. Therefore it would have to meet the standard that it could and would be added to the published GE list. Time and time again I have seen courses come before the GE committee solely because a student was attempting to structure his/her curriculum in a meaningful way. (The GE committee usually learns of these cases by chance, for instance when departmental staff call to check on status because of deadlines, or when a student has previously asked Senate staff how the petition process is initiated.)
    [Sidenote: I see two other mechanisms of proliferation: some faculty believe that they can boost enrollments by adding their course to the GE list, and there is no provision to hibernate or remove inactive courses.]
  2. Sinking reputation. Students who have fulfilled the spirit of a GE core area or special requirement with courses that are entirely appropriate EXCEPT for formal reasons (not offered often enough, for example), will come to see GE as a narrow and excessively bureaucratic program that forces them to take courses beneath their level.
    Faculty who, prompted by students, propose courses for GE that are then rejected, are often outraged that we reject their courses for such petty administrative reasons, without any content justification whatsoever.
    If the GE committee rejects legitimate content-based requests solely on formal grounds, we will soon have the reputation on campus of being intellectually inflexible. The already low regard for GE on campus will sink even lower in the eyes of the faculty.
  3. Student recruitment. Several faculty members have responded to the GE workgroup's outreach by noting concerns that our program is excessively inflexible and penalizes top-notch students who should be allowed to move quickly through the curriculum. This issue was raised with regard to granting credit for AP, for allowing students to fulfill literature requirements in a foreign language, and for students engaged in demanding research projects. All of these faculty have remarked that the best students will opt for schools with more flexible "breadth" requirements. Does UCSB really want to turn these students away? We would be penalizing them, and ourselves as faculty who enjoy working with excellent students, because we are designing a system with only rule-avoiding slackers in mind.
  4. Common sense. We all know that at some level, GE programs are arbitrary. UCSB has never offered, and will probably never offer, any substantial number of quality courses dedicated solely to GE. I venture to say that GE programs in general, and ours in particular, reflect more the politics and finances of campuses and faculty at the times they are implemented and reformed, than a truly cogent intellectual rationale. We may or may not have certain new or old core areas or special requirements, depending on narrow margins of faculty knowledge (or lack thereof) and sentiment. Additionally, at a campus as diverse as ours, it is impossible to design a "one size fits all" GE program. Even among the B.A. students in L&S there is tremedous diversity of need, interest and ability across the disciplines. Finally, why should we act like our requirements are ironclad when we know that there are all kinds of loopholes in the curriculum and inappropriate courses on the list (that will remain there)?

Reasons against.

On Friday, 5/30/03, the GE workgroup discussed whether we should have a petition process for exceptions to General Education requirements. Five reasons why we should not have such a process were persuasively outlined:

  1. Equity. If a course is approved for one student, then why shouldn't all of the other students taking that course receive GE credit for it as well?
  2. Circumvents the process of faculty governance. If the faculty decide that only certain courses should fulfill GE, why should a student be allowed to subvert that decision by obtaining an exception?
  3. Student responsibility. Students are given a copy of the GE booklet, with its checklist, when they enroll at UCSB. If they don't manage to satisfy GE, it is because of their own irresponsibility.
    Every year L&S sends out ca. 150-200 letters during the summer, informing students that they did not graduate because they did not meet some requirements. About 50% of these are "fixable" without the student taking additional coursework. The rest must return to school to finish. The junior and senior graduation checks are voluntary. About 40% of students take advantage of them. Our computer system is too antiquated to generate reports automatically.
  4. Complexity. We are creating additional complexity by opening an alternative route to fulfilling GE: by substitution.
  5. Publication and workload. If we decide to go this route and create a petition process, it should be published, so that everyone has equal access to it. However, if we publish it, this would create additional workload on top of the 11,000 petitions that L&S currently processes. There would be huge time costs to evaluate such petitions.

Rebuttal to reasons against.

  1. Equity. The easy answer is: because the other students don't need or want to use that course for GE, and don't care if another student does. But what about unfairness to students who have had to make compromises and sacrifices to take courses from the list, when they could have had an easier time by using other courses? Well, for one thing, those students benefit from the screening process of course acceptance and faculty focus on GE issues in listed courses. For another, we should try to get away from seeing this solely as a "course substitution" process. A student's entire profile in a core area or special requirement should be the basis for a petition.
  2. Circumvents faculty authority. If the faculty decide that exceptions can be granted, this is not an issue. And as I said, no GE program is absolute gospel, but the result of intellectual, political and financial compromises. For each faculty member who feels that their paternal wisdom is challenged by a reasonable petition, I'm sure I can find another who would agree that a student has indeed fulfilled the spirit of a requirement and should not be held back because of that.
  3. Student responsibility. Students should surely be held to a high standard. However, it makes little sense to penalize students inadvertently caught in exceptional circumstances, because of potential abuses by other students wishing mainly to lower degree standards. Why do we presume that many or most of our students are out to circumvent the rules (even if some, or many, are)? Many, many of them are honest and hardworking. I dislike the arrogance and prejudice evident in this mindset. I have met plenty of serious students who work hard to meet requirements but still don't quite make it because of circumstances beyond their control.
  4. Complexity. No, this is not a "standard" or alternative route to fulfilling GE. It is an exceptional one. The difficulty lies in making sure that students understand this.
  5. Publication and workload. This is a nice circular argument that really boils down to workload. Of course students should have equal access to this process, but NO one is proposing to write "any student may petition any one course substitution for fulfillment of one GE requirement." Rather, the wording might read: "A stringent petition process is available to students who can demonstrate BOTH that they were unable to fulfill a GE requirement with listed courses, AND that they have taken alternate coursework demonstrating their familiarity with the methods and content of the core area or special requirement in question. Documentation of extenuating circumstances is required."
    As for workload, we will just have to see how many students want to petition, and adjust our standards and wording accordingly. I would venture to say that if even as high a number of students as 5% of a graduating class (of 5000?), namely 250 students, petition, this would not pose an unreasonable increase in workload. These petitions would presumably be less labor intensive than the 150-200 post-graduation problem cases the registrar's office currently handles each year.

Problems and solutions.

Who should review the petitions?
Ultimately, this is a core issue of shared governance. If the administration is uncomfortable making judgement calls, then these should be made by faculty committees, who are comfortable doing so. Once enough cases have been evaluated that precedents have been set and standards established, routine decisions can be delegated back to the administration.

Single course equivalency.
The problem with the current system is that it does not distinguish between content suitability of a course for a GE requirement, and formal suitability for publication on a GE list. This raises the issue of a "second" GE list, of courses suitable in content and methods, but not for formal reasons. Personally, I am not averse to a list of substitutable courses (I'd probably prefer a list of non-substitutable ones). Basically, most of the courses on our current GE list that are apt to be removed under the new formal criteria have already been vetted for this second list. A suggestion: One might also say that any course that has a GE course as an enforced prerequisite, can be considered to fulfill the same requirement at that GE course. Again, such substitutions would NOT be automatic. They would be approved only if students can document why they were unable to take a listed course.

What extenuating circumstances would be acceptable?
I think this needs to be worked out in committee and in practice. Al indicated that he routinely grants exceptions for students called up for active military service. One might argue that our servicemen and –women are precisely the ones who most need breadth in their education (I think of our soldiers who watched the Baghdad national museum be looted). Is it the danger of possible death that makes it imperative that they receive a degree before leaving for combat duty, so that they won't die without a college degree? I personally would be more comfortable with routine approvals for academic reasons, such as for transfer students who participate in an Education Abroad program, or someone in a highly structured major who had to drop a GE course because of a research opportunity, or an accident or injury. In any case, I think we should see what kind of cases come up, and establish guidelines.

prepared for web by H. Marcuse on Oct. 22, 2003
back to top, UCSB GE Workgroup homepage, minutes of 5/30/03 GE Workgroup meeting