Response to address by Dr. William Plater on the Learning-Centered University


March 19, 2004

On March 19, 2004, Dr. William Plater, Executive Vice Chancellor and Dean of the Faculties at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), addressed the campus on the learning-centered university. His presentation was followed by comments by a group of panelists from the university community. The panelists included (in order of their presentation):

Below are the prepared comments of the panelists (or click on one of the names listed above to go directly to a selected response).

Dr. Michael Neubauer

Since I am the resident "curmudgeon" on the planning committee on this issue, it was agreed that I should go first.

How many of you remember "Strategic Planning"? Countless hours were spent on what in the end didn't amount to much, except to the frustration and cynicism among faculty. So I ask, is this just the latest academic enterprise du jour?

After listening to Dr. Plater and reading some of the literature on the learning-centered university, I have come to the conclusion that shifting the paradigm from teaching to learning is a natural and inevitable move for CSUN, and one we are already making in parts of the university.

However, if we agree to move in the direction of a more learning-centered university we cannot just do it as an added activity. We need to agree what we will do less of. All of us have more than enough repsonsibilities already and adding yet more thing on top of those responsibilities will only breed the frustration and cynicism I mentioned earlier. If we do embark on becoming a more learning-centered university we need to make sure that we commit the resources that are necessary. Furthermore, much of this work has to be carried out by newer faculty who are subject to the RTP process on campus. We need to make sure that their work is adequately rewared in the RTP process. My last point is that moving to a more learning-centered university cannot be the sole responsiblity of the faculty. As faculty we need to keep asking the question, "How are other entities within CSUN going to change the way they do business in order to support the learning centered university?"

Dr. Patricia Watkins

Good morning.

In his address, Dr. Plater stated that the first step CSUN might consider in its journey toward becoming a more learning-centered university is to find ways to shift some current faculty tasks to other university employees. Mentoring is one of the tasks that he identified. Certainly CSUN, with its history of sponsoring faculty mentoring through the EOP program, will carefully consider whether it should eliminate mentoring as a faculty task.

I believe that every person at CSUN can mentor students on some level. When I participated in EOP's Faculty Mentoring Program, I learned that mid-level and high-level CSUN administrators mentor CSUN students. I have personally observed secretaries in the English Department perform important student mentoring. Still, only faculty can do certain types of mentoring. I'm mentoring an African American student whose career goal is to be a professor of African American literature, like me. She has asked me how to improve her chance of reaching this goal--e.g., asking me to tell her the courses she should take and the graduate schools she should attend. She wants me to tell her what it was like to teach at a historically Black university. She wants to know whether, as an African American faculty member, I experience the same feelings that she experiences as an African American student. I am uniquely qualified to answer her questions.

In fact, CSUN has an unusually diverse student population and faculty population. We will have to consider whether eliminating faculty mentoring would militate against our responsibility to our students--many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. Would eliminating faculty mentoring compromise students' learning and CSUN's mission?

My ears perked up when Dr. Plater stated that 40% of the full-time academic appointees at his institution are not eligible for tenure and that the percentage is likely to be more than 50% within the next five years. Should CSUN's goal also be to increase the percentage of full-time academic appointees who are ineligible for tenure? Would our doing so, no matter what the benefits to the University, create a critical mass of demoralized faculty who might decrease the overall faculty's contributions to students' learning and the University's mission?

I think that the state of California is already engaging in predatory behavior by putting a cadre of highly credentialled and talented part-time faculty in the position of teaching, concurrently, two or three courses at two or three universities with no chance of earning tenure. Would CSUN's creating a two-tier system of full-time faculty on top of a two-tier system of part-time and full-time faculty give our students and the community at large a satisfactory example of ethical behavior?

I have a suggestion. I am one of at least two CSUN faculty members who believe that we serve on too many University committees. This year I'm serving on two such committees, therefore attending three meetings a month at two hours per meeting, therefore attending 30 hours of meetings per semester on top of doing committee assignments at home, on top of doing very necessary committee work for the English Department, on top of teaching students and grading their papers. I know some faculty members who are allowed to serve on two, three, and four times as many committees as I do.

By way of comparison, before I came to CSUN, I was a faculty member at another university for 17 years--15 as a teacher and 2 as an administrator. While I was a teacher there, I never served on a university committee--and I cannot recall many faculty members who did. In fact, I didn't engage in any administrative work until I became an administrator.

I'm not saying that my old university provided the ideal. In fact, the lack of faculty participation on university committees may have been the main source of the high level of enmity between the faculty and the administration. Still, I do think that CSUN might consider finding a middle ground between my old university's and CSUN's current practice (which was in place, I hasten to add, before CSUN's current administrators arrived). The elimination of some University committee obligations would improve the faculty's quality of life, thus surely improve the quality of the faculty's contributions to students' learning while not compromising the University's mission.

Dr. Plater, thank you for contributing to this very necessary dialogue.

Dr. Terry Piper

I want to thank Dr. Plater for his comments. He has offered us much to reflect about. I also want to express appreciation for the opportunity to participate today. I believe my presence affirms that whether we work with students in the classroom or outside of the class room, a focus on learning is what binds us together and allows for a synergy that magnifies our individual contributions to students' learning.

Dr. Plater's comments and my reading of Greater Expectations, as well as number of other, documents including a report entitled Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-wide Focus on the Student Experience, that will soon be released jointly by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the American College Personnel Association, lead me to ask: How do students fit into a learning centered university?

Dr. Koester and Dr. Plater referenced the Association of American Colleges and Universities' report, Greater Expectations. The report posits three key learning outcomes that are fundamental to the development of intentional, life long learners in the 21st century:

A. Students should become empowered through the development of intellectual and practical skills

B. Students must take responsibility for their own learning and their participation in the civic processes of democracy

C. Students must become informed about conditions that affect their lives in the US and as citizens of many wider communities

The second outcome provides an answer to my question, i.e., students must engage in the educational experience through a personal understanding of and commitment to making the effort necessary to be a successful student. This, however, leads me to another question: What is our responsibility to assist students in developing an understanding of our expectations of their roles and responsibilities as a student? Obvious within my question is my belief that we must partner with students. Another way to say this is that becoming a more learning centered university is something we do with students not to or for students.

Marcia Baxter Magolda, a leading researcher on learning and intellectual development, states that "the successful educational experience simultaneously increases cognitive understanding and a sense of personal maturity and interpersonal effectiveness." According to Baxter Magolda, the way in which students go about knowing is intertwined with their sense of self and the nature of their relationship with others.

If Baxter Magolda is correct, then we must validate students as capable of developing knowledge, situate our expectations and pedagogy in the students' experience, and share with them in the process of teaching and learning.

I think these challenges are implicit within the multitude of reports focused on student learning and the learning centered university. They may represent part of the transformational change which we have been encourage to consider. As we move forward I look forward to explore these ideas as well as the many, many others that will emerge through our discussions and reflection on becoming a more learning centered university. Thank you.

Dr. Linda Bain

Two quotes:

  • "What is important is the success of individual students ­ the learning achievements of one student at a time."
  • "Learning must be organized and integrated from the perspective of the individual student's life experiences, not from normative standards and averages that mask the incredible variety and richness of individual lives."

How can CSUN focus on individual student learning? It is complex in any institution and especially in universities the size of IUPUI and CSUN.


1. Individual students need to feel seen and heard, not lost in the crowd

Current examples:

  • First Year Experience & Freshman Seminar
  • EOP


  • How do we scale these experiences up to reach all students?

2. Each student's academic program is coherent and meaningful

Current efforts:

  • Learning Communities
  • Service Learning
  • TNE: linking education & arts & sciences
  • GE Task Force


  • How do we link general education and the major?

3. Smooth transition from HS or community college

Current efforts:

  • Articulation agreements
  • New Valley High School
  • CSU Early Assessment program

How do we build communication and trust with high school & community college faculty?

4. Each student's degree is based on achieving learning outcomes, not just passing a set of courses

Current efforts:

  • Assessment embedded in program review process
  • Accreditation of professional programs


  • Can we assess and document individual achievement of learning outcomes? e.g. portfolio? Comm Disorders checking specific competencies
  • Can we develop a system that grants "credit" for learning separate from courses? Can a student test out of part or all of a course?

We have many efforts underway that support a learning-centered university. Our goal is to build on those efforts to become more learning-centered.

Dr. Marilynn Filbeck

How do we get faculty engaged?

Last night I was driving home after Dr. Plater's presentation at the President's dinner event. So much to think about and a lot on my mind. I was thinking about ways to incorporate Dr. Plater's ideas in my interactions with students, faculty, administrators and staff. I turned on the radio to let my mind rest. I was flipping through the stations looking for the perfect tune and came upon an interview with retired UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. The interviewer was just asking him "what was your secret to success as you took your team to the championships ten years in a row?"

Wooden's response was to "start small." He said that critical to the structure of any venture is the foundation, and it is built carefully and respectfully. He said "that is the key to great success." This resonated with the concepts I'd heard about at dinner, and though I'd turned on the radio to rest my mind, now ideas were whirling.

I thought about how Wooden's concept matched the strategies we had used in building University Assessment practices. Back in 1993, Dr. Roberta Madison and Dr. Margaret Fieweger invited interested faculty to join them for discussion and idea development. We started small with monthly discussions over dinner with pizza, and became known as the "Assessment Dinner Group." We discussed assessment, how it was different from evaluation and created the policy that drives our assessment practices today. (The policy can be found on the Assessment website.)

We now have an Assessment Coordinator, an Assessment Office, and every department has identified an Assessment Liaison who meets with the Assessment Coordinator monthly. This policy has proved beneficial in our self study practices as well.

The College of Health & Human Development created a Learning Centered Study group by "starting small." The day after President Koester's address at her convocation in August, 2003, "Mapping the Future for a University on the Move" the dean and I were planning the upcoming college meeting. We were identifying priorities for the year, and in the college meeting, the dean invited faculty to follow the president's initiative and discover what Learning Centered means and how to become a Learning Centered College.

At the end of the meeting, twelve faculty members approached us saying they wanted to join the study group. One might assume it would be new faculty who would take on a project like this, but the group consisted of a lecturer, assistant professors, associate professors and full professors representing five of the eight departments in our college. We've been meeting monthly since September.

What we've accomplished:

First, we read the literature. I went to the CELT office and to the internet and got every piece of information I could find on the subject. We all read and discussed what it means to be a Learning Centered University.

At the same time, our college was working on a revision of its Mission, Vision and Goals. The group recommended incorporating this concept into our Vision and to use as a foundation for one of our goals.

The College has three goals.

Goal #2: To become a Learning Centered college, providing optimal learning-centered educational environments.

  • clearly define student learning outcomes for courses and programs and relate to accreditations as appropriate
  • identify appropriate assessments of student learning
  • explicitly state students' responsibilities in the learning process
  • foster student participation in active, meaningful and collaborative learning experiences
  • provide frequent and timely feedback to students
  • use assessment data to inform improvements in programs and services for students
  • demonstrate a commitment to learning

The group decided to create a presentation for the upcoming Faculty Retreat in January. To prepare for the retreat, we selected and shared reading materials, and created presentations for each other. All this led to the development of a Learning Centered lesson based on a strategy featuring inquiry, problem solving, reflection and assessment.

Dr. Mary Jo Sarisscany (Kinesiology) talked about the successes she'd had in using a Learning Centered approach in one of her classes. Dr. Terri Lisagor (Family and Consumer Sciences) identified this exercise ideal for a presentation the retreat and all agreed.

Dr. Sarisscany identified three of the students who had learned this approach in her class and invited them to facilitate the lesson at the retreat. Now that our presentation was taking shape, we created a logo and adopted the definition of Learning Centered Education as described by Terry O'Banion:

 "We have shifted from an identification with process to an identification with results. We are no longer content with merely providing quality instruction. We will judge ourselves henceforth on the quality of student learning we produce. And further, we will judge ourselves by our ability to produce even greater and more sophisticated student learning and meaningful educational success with each passing year, each exiting student, and each graduating class."

At 1:00 this afternoon, the Learning Centered Study Group from HHD will repeat the retreat presentation for college faculty in the Matadome.

Next steps:
At this point we want to conduct case studies to examine the qualities of effective Learning Centered practices that could be included in a college portfolio. This information could also be used as a baseline study.

As CSUN becomes a Learning Centered University, we hope to embrace the concept of "starting small." It worked wonders with the "Assessment Dinner Group" ­ we now have university-wide representation, and Assessment is integral to the culture of the university. Think what can happen if we employ the same principle to this exciting new venture.

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Posted March 2004