by Barry V. Qualls

Barry V. QuallsSince April 2004, we have been debating undergraduate education at Rutgers– New Brunswick, sometimes even shouting about it. At that time, President Richard L. McCormick and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Philip Furmanski convened the Task Force on Undergraduate Education to ensure that “undergraduate education is, and will be, a priority of discussion every year at Rutgers, not just when a committee has produced a report.”

They directed the committee to find the answers to two essential questions: “What is a Rutgers education?” and “What does it mean to be a graduate of Rutgers?” If we have not fully answered those questions yet, we have certainly put in place many changes and much that is new, all designed to provide our students, faculty, and support staff the incentives for answering them. The task force report entitled “Transforming Undergraduate Education,” the discussions that followed the report, the president’s recommendations, and the implementation process all led to the arrival, in September 2007, of the first class admitted to a reorganized Rutgers–New Brunswick. Not since Rutgers College become a co-ed college in 1971, and not since the colleges lost their faculties to the new Faculty of Arts and Sciences in the reorganization process of 1980, has the university witnessed such sweeping and revolutionary changes.

We now have a rationally organized system for all of Rutgers–New Brunswick—including the new School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) and, succeeding Cook College, the new School of Enviromental and Biological Sciences—and our students are enrolled in schools whose faculty are responsible for admissions, general education, and graduation policies.

I am convinced that new and returning students have seen the benefits at once. The Byrne Family First-Year Seminar Program, which offer courses limited to 20 students and are taught only by tenured and tenure-track faculty, have generated excitement among students, parents, faculty, and well-nigh everyone who hears about the seminar program. Last year, over 1,500 students signed up for one of over 100 seminars. For the 2008-2009 academic year, we are offering 130 seminars, enough for 2,800 entering students. In addition, we created a new Office of Fellowships and Postgraduate Guidance to assist students applying for external fellowships like the Fulbright, Rhodes, Marshall, Gates, Goldwater, and Truman. This past year, three Rutgers University undergraduates earned Gates fellowships to pursue graduate work at the University of Cambridge; only Harvard University equaled this number.

We now have SAS advising offices located on every campus, and, for the first time, a consistent set of arts and science requirements that allow faculty to be active advisers of students. We have a Douglass Residential College, succeeding and inheriting the distinguished histories of the New Jersey College for Women and Douglass College, and which annually enrolls a class of 350 students who share curricular and co-curricular experiences focusing on women’s leadership. We have more resources for the University College Community, and we have special offices on the Livingston Campus to welcome non-traditional and transfer students needing specific advising. These changes have not been simple; they have been and are stressful—but, ultimately, rewarding.

Our goal is to establish a research culture as the norm for the campus undergraduate environment at Rutgers–New Brunswick. For this reason, we ask our students to rethink their role as students and to engage actively with the resources all around them. We ask our faculty to assume more accountability for undergraduate students and to make connecting to students and their academic interests a priority. We ask our support staff to provide an environment of support, advice, and direction that sustains the undergraduate experience. To do this, all of us need retraining—I know I am doing things of which I was ignorant only two years ago, and I have been at Rutgers for 37 years.

At Rutgers–New Brunswick, we have been rethinking what we do and how we do it so that we can become more effective emissaries of the research mission that defines Rutgers as a great public university. Our work lives have changed. And this change is making a world of difference for our students.

Barry V. Qualls