Ursinus Receives $500,000 Grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded Ursinus College $500,000 over three years to implement a new core curriculum designed to cultivate an inquiry-driven academic experience for students.

“The new core and new first-year advising programs will work in concert to provide students with a strong liberal arts foundation, one focused on inquiry informed by reflection,” says April Edwards, interim vice president for academic affairs and interim dean of Ursinus.

“The generous funding provided by the Mellon Foundation will support faculty as they develop innovative and exciting curricular offerings that focus on student success,” Edwards says.

In addition to curricular changes, the funding will support more robust advising and faculty development opportunities, and an expanded student consultant program.

Ursinus faculty are developing a new core curriculum that dramatically re-envisions a liberal arts education and infuses each student’s college career with a focus on inquiry. It asks students to thoughtfully develop answers to four central questions throughout their four years at Ursinus: What should matter to me? How should we live together? How can we understand the world? What will I do?

“We’re trying to build a bridge between the general education curriculum and each student’s major, so that, regardless of major, each student should be able to think through these themes,” says Nathan Rein, assistant dean for academic affairs at Ursinus, an associate professor of religious studies, and co-director of the Ursinus Institute for Student Success.

For two decades, Ursinus organized its core curriculum around two main components: the Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) — an inquiry based first-year seminar introducing students to the liberal arts — and a set of topic-based distribution requirements.

A question-based core curriculum is more effective in accomplishing this goal, says Rebecca Kohn, associate dean of Ursinus College and a professor of biology.

“The current curriculum has particular ideas or topics for students to address, and certainly CIE poses these ideas as questions already, but this new model infuses that concept throughout the entire curriculum,” Kohn says.

Missy Bryant, assistant dean of students and co-director of the Ursinus Institute for Student Success, adds, “It’s easy to fall into the mindset of simply checking off boxes for requirements, and I think an inquiry-based approach is going to be more conducive to conversations that students can now have with advisors in terms of why and how the courses they are taking tie together.”

The Mellon Foundation grant will additionally support the development of new a new advising model. Faculty advisors will work with cohorts of students as they take ownership of their educational experience and carefully choose courses to meet their individual goals.

Furthermore, Ursinus’s Student Consultant Program, which pairs trained student observers with faculty members for a semester-long partnership, will be expanded to include the consultants in the creation of courses for the new curriculum.

Finally, a more robust faculty development program will be instituted to include workshops, conferences, and symposia to help faculty brainstorm new ideas and construct courses to be incorporated into the new curriculum.

The Mellon Foundation takes as its mission the strengthening, promotion, and defense of the humanities and arts for diverse and democratic societies. To date, it has awarded more than 15,500 grants totaling more than $6 billion. —By Ed Moorhouse