Bernie Machen discussed Wednesday the three initiatives he is focusing on during his last year as University of Florida president.
Machen plans to focus on UF’s advance toward preeminence, change core curriculum requirements for undergraduate students and continue developing the new online institute.
Machen announced the initiatives at a luncheon for members of the Retired Faculty of the University of Florida at the Paramount Plaza Hotel and Conference Center.
In the past, different colleges have driven their own curriculum, but UF now has the authority to deliver up to 12 credit hours of core courses for all undergraduate students regardless of their credits coming in.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to – as we talk and really feel good about our movement towards preeminence and research and graduate education – to go back and put some new focus on undergraduate education,” Machen said.
He said most high school students have 20 to 30 credits coming in to UF, which they check off to their general education requirement.
“That really handicaps us as an institution to try and focus the students on some core courses,” he said.
Three of the 12 required credits come from the “What is the Good Life” course, which Machen said was created in an effort to try to bring the arts and humanities together.
The course took five years to get developed and fully implemented, and last year was the first year that the course was offered to all 6,400 first-time undergraduate students.
The other nine credits of the core curriculum are still under negotiation, he said.
Dr. Sharleen Simpson, a retired faculty member of the UF College of Nursing, said she hopes the new core curriculum will include more English writing, because as a former faculty member working mainly with graduate students, she saw a need for writing, communication and critical thinking skills in every aspect of the sciences.
“Basically, it’s how most people learn how to think,” she said.
Machen said another reason for the curriculum is for students from different colleges to be able to interact.
“If you’re really thinking about taking advantage of the opportunities on campus—getting the students to know one another across disciplines—is a huge plus for the students,” he said.
Dr. Anita Spring, president of RFUF and retired faculty member of the Department of Anthropology, said UF should continue to emphasize humanities courses because it helps with students’ verbal expression, and students across different departments are required to do reports and make speeches.
“I think everybody agrees that more in the humanities and social sciences are key to forming rounded and informed and educated citizens to take their place in society,” she said.
But the required core curriculum is not the only new asset to the university.
Machen discussed UF Online, which will be available to first-time undergraduate students in January.
“The world of higher education is experiencing some real disruptive innovations right now, and online learning is out there in a number of different ways in higher education,” he said.
At the graduate level, UF has about 7,000 online non-resident students, and Machen said the legislature, in an effort to keep costs down, wanted to offer online undergraduate bachelor’s degrees at a reduced-cost structure.
He said the legislature provided the university with a $10 million start-up fund with a recurring budget of $5 million to develop these programs and offer them to first-time-in-college undergraduates starting in January.
While some universities have created a separate online faculty, UF is keeping the online courses within the current faculty and departments.
“Our quality control is that the same full-time faculty that are teaching residential students will be developing these programs,” Machen said. “I think—based upon the response today—we’re going to have plenty of early adapters who want to do it, so we’re just going to let it unfold in a natural fashion.”
Simpson said she was most concerned with how humanities and liberal arts will be included in the online courses. She said she knows there is a tendency for liberal and fine arts classes to be the first ones cut from curriculum.
Tom Rider, the retired owner of the former Goerings Book Store and guest at the luncheon, said he is skeptical as to whether the online courses will lead to lower graduation rates for UF students.
Spring said the online courses will be excellent in terms of student credit hours, financing, scheduling and a lack of classroom space; however, an online situation is very different from a class situation.
“I think that anybody whose been a faculty member for any length of time…we would all listen very carefully to that and be a little concerned as a result of that initiative,” she said.
She said that with online classes, there is no way to control cheating, and there may not be enough feedback from professors and interaction with peers.
“The main concern is that they get degrees, but they get training without getting an education,” she said
Machen said that on any given semester, about 20 percent of the roughly 35,000 undergraduates on campus choose to take an online course.
“So that modality is here to stay,” he said. “The question is: how do we make it work best from a learning standpoint?”
Machen also addressed the new recurring state dollars and said he is pleased that UF will be able to hire new faculty who will focus on graduate education and research.
“We have every right to think we can be among the very best and our only hold-back has been resources,” he said.