Academic Affairs

Mellon Grant Supports Ursinus-Columbia Partnership

Two very different institutions that share a deep commitment to liberal arts education will work together on their core curricula, supported by a $300,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation.

Ursinus College and Columbia University in the City of New York, a large academic and research institution with a long-established undergraduate core curriculum, will embark on a unique collaboration in which the two colleges will exchange ideas on core curricula with the goal of strengthening their programs and learning from one another.

This exploration of both the Ursinus Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) and Columbia’s Core Curriculum will allow Ursinus faculty who have had experience teaching the CIE to offer expertise to Columbia post-doctoral students, will establish post-doctoral fellows at Ursinus, and will support visits from Columbia scholars whose expertise pertains to works in the CIE syllabus. The Mellon-CIE Junior Fellows, along with select first-year students, will accompany Ursinus faculty to Columbia’s campus to take advantage of Columbia’s and New York City’s resources, and a member of Ursinus’s faculty will teach in Columbia’s Core Curriculum.

At Columbia, Associate Dean and Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum Roosevelt Montás said he was looking forward to the collaboration. “We are excited to strengthen the links between Ursinus’s Common Intellectual Experience and Columbia’s Core Curriculum,” he said. “This partnership between two different kinds of institutions that nevertheless share a deep commitment to liberal education represents a unique opportunity for mutual learning and for the strengthening of both programs.”

Ursinus President Bobby Fong hopes that the Mellon-funded Ursinus-Columbia initiative “will enable Ursinus to continue to demonstrate that what higher education should impart is not only expertise in a particular field but individual growth in character and the ability to make sound judgments. This is the kind of education at which liberal arts colleges like Ursinus excel.”

The initiative complements the new Ursinus Center for Science and the Common Good. “We at Ursinus believe that an education in any expertise, science or otherwise, is of greater value when students understand it within the larger context of liberal learning,” said Dr. Fong.

In 2002, the Ursinus College faculty established a year-long freshman course called The Common Intellectual Experience (CIE), which has gained praise among higher education experts. The course challenges first-year students to examine basic questions of human existence in small, discussion-based classes, taught by faculty from every discipline. Students examine their own individual choices in light of those more universal concerns, and they develop the capacity to deliberate more thoughtfully about the choices they will face.

“In CIE, students develop the qualities of intellect and character that are conducive to making wise decisions about questions everyone will face: Which career might be most humanly rewarding? What are my obligations to friends, family, and community? What should be the bearing of God in my life?” said Professor of Politics Paul Stern, one of the creators of CIE. “None of these can be wholly resolved through some technical approach. Rather, they require careful attention to particulars, the ongoing weighing of evidence, and a willingness to revise views on the basis of more compelling alternatives. They require judgment, the capacity to thoughtfully apply general principles to complex, changing circumstances. The structure of The Common Intellectual Experience provides the conditions in which students can develop this capacity.”

The Columbia Core Curriculum, entering its tenth decade, is the set of common courses required of all undergraduates and considered the necessary general education for students, irrespective of their majors. Like the Ursinus CIE, the communal learning — with all students encountering the same texts and issues at the same time — and the critical dialogue experienced in small seminars are the distinctive features of the Core. Columbia’s Core Curriculum has been called not only academically rigorous but also personally transformative for students, and, according to its web site, “thrives on oral
debate of the most difficult questions about human experience. What does it mean, and what has it meant to be an individual? What does it mean, and what has it meant to be part of a community? How is human experience relayed and how is meaning made in music and art? What do we think is, and what have we thought to be worth knowing? By what rules should we be governed? The habits of mind developed in the Core cultivate a critical and creative intellectual capacity that students employ long after college, in the pursuit and the fulfillment of meaningful lives.”

Modeled after the Core Scholars at Columbia, Ursinus has named seven CIE-Mellon Junior Fellows. Emily Black of Horsham, Pa., a music and neuroscience double major, said the “CIE is the ideal college class which combines reading, discussion, and the opportunity to examine yourself and the world around you.” Another, Brian Kennedy of Cliffside Park, N.J., an International Relations and Politics major who studies Arabic, said that “discussions begun in CIE class have become catalysts for fundamental changes in both my worldview and self-image. I look forward to helping others gain the
same benefit.”