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Undergraduate Education: Jenny Sharpe, Professor of English

I speak today as someone who has taught undergraduate students for 25 years (16 of them at
UCLA) and who has a close, mentoring relationship with my students. Undergraduate education
is the foundation on which the university is built, and compromising its complex and interactive
components can potentially undermine the integrity of the entire edifice. The proposal to get
students through more efficiently and effectively and thus increase the number of degrees
awarded (called “throughput” and “output”) does not capture the full range of what it means to
attend a research university. All of the questions having to do with increasing degree
production—offering courses on nights, weekends, summer, and intersession; giving credit for
high school courses; having students take courses at CSU’s and community colleges—fail to
recognize that an undergraduate education is more than the sum of its parts.

Due to its size, UCLA is often perceived as an impersonal university, but it is also a highly
desirable campus—we receive more applications than any other university in the country, and our
acceptance rate is around 23%. Despite our size, we are able to offer our students an education
that includes a mixture of large and small classes and which integrates learning into campus life;
we provide them with interactive, face-to-face contact with their instructors, and the ability to
participate in community-building organizations and activities.

There is some concern about “efficiency” as a goal, due to an essential contradiction between
established learning objectives, which are the requirements of WASC and which provide
measures of the quality and effectiveness of education, and simple numerical metrics such as
time-to-degree as measures of the university’s productivity, the primary accomplishment of
which appears to be a piece of paper for the student to hang on his or her wall. It is with the
undergraduate educational mission of UCLA as a nationally- and internationally-acclaimed
research university in mind that I now turn to some of the questions posed by the Commission for
its working groups.

• Would expanding the proportion of transfer students enrolled enable UC to produce more BA’s
at a lower cost?

UCLA is to be commended for having the highest number of transfer students out of all of the UC
campuses, having achieved the desired ratio of 60% freshmen to 40% transfers many years ago.
The transfer pathway provides greater access and affordability to an education at UCLA;
however, increasing the number of transfers beyond the 40% ratio will compromise our identity
as a four-year university. Transfer students have equivalents to but not the shared foundation of
lower-division coursework upon which the upper-division courses build, and they benefit from
sharing a classroom with a larger proportion of 4-year students. The question also has to take into
account that community colleges are suffering even more drastic cutbacks than we are, coupled
with a 15% increase in enrollment over the last 4 years. Shifting coursework over to them simply
passes the buck to a system that is, to use its chancellor’s own words, “already bursting at the
seams.”1

• Should UC consider using online instruction as a means of delivering more of its existing
courses in part or in whole?

Since the efficacy of online instruction varies between disciplines and requires an enormous
amount of start-up funds, its cost-saving benefits and relative merits as a substitute for the
classroom are unproven. In addition,
numerous studies have shown that a diverse student body


























































1
Press release from CC Chancellor’s office dated September 2, 2009.
Undergraduate Education: Jenny Sharpe, Professor of English

enhances learning in the classroom and provides students with the skills to operate in a diverse
workplace. With online education—even e- discussion sections, since discussion sections offer
many students one of the few opportunities to interact with each other—the benefits of attending
a university with a diverse student body like UCLA will be reduced.

• What disciplines are needed by society and what disciplines are most in demand by students?
Where are the intersections between the two?

I would like to reframe the question as: Can the university play a more active role in shaping the
future of education rather than passively responding to the present market?

UC finds itself in the position of downsizing language learning at a time when such skills are all
the more necessary in today’s global world. This move is especially paradoxical for UCLA due to
its location in a global city, where more foreign languages are spoken than any other urban area
and where language learning should be a means to connect with these communities and beyond.
If the university should decide to follow market demands and industry funding, it should also be
prepared for the public to respond, as it has to the proposed video-game degree at UCI, with such
comments as “The regents must have contracted Pac-Man fever” and “Who’s in charge over
there?”2

• • •

In the entire plan for making the university more efficient, there is no mention of streamlining
and simplifying a bureaucratic procedure that requires increasing levels of administrative
oversight. Hence, I would like to conclude by presenting the Commission with the challenge of
the following question:

• Should UC streamline and simplify administrative procedures and find a way of reducing
bureaucratic accretion? In other words, how can we improve the throughput and output of
administrative delivery?

By way of a response, I leave you with the following observation made in the November 19, 2009
issue of Inside Higher Ed:

“Declining funding is not the only problem. Equally important is the emergence of professional
fields that seek to transform academic support institutions into ends themselves. Across
universities, positions once held by academics have been taken over by professions increasingly
bound to autonomous fields . . . .The result is that academic support units are beholden to those
fields rather than the core purpose of the academy. There is a paradox here. In each of these fields
their defenders claim to be putting students first. In fact, they are undermining student learning by
removing the emphasis on the classroom.”

I turn the mike over to my colleague Steven Nelson, who is a Professor of Art History, to discuss
the value of graduate education.


























































2
Letters to the Editor, Los Angeles Times, Saturday, December 4, 2009.