Berkeley faculty, deans ‘re-imagine’ undergraduate education

By virtually any measure, UC Berkeley undergrads rank among the most talented, most motivated and most innovative students to be found at any university in the world, public or private. And Berkeley itself is consistently ranked with the world’s most elite institutions for its educational excellence.

Mark Richards, executive dean of the College of Letters and Science — far and away the campus’s largest college, with 60 academic departments — believes Berkeley can do better.

That’s why, beginning in the spring of 2010, Richards spearheaded an 18-month examination of teaching and learning at Berkeley, assembling a group of L&S deans and outstanding teachers from different disciplines to come up with ideas for innovation in undergraduate education.

The result is a new report, “Re-imagining Undergraduate Education at Berkeley,” a sort of roadmap to the future — which, in Richards’ view, has already arrived.

“We’re trying to enter the 21st century with a curriculum that reflects what the world is like now,” says Richards, a geophysicist and dean of mathematical and physical sciences at Berkeley. “At some point, every institution has to take a hard look at itself, examine what it’s doing. Undergraduate education has to adapt to the changing world around us, and Berkeley wants to remain a leader.”

The report, now posted on the L&S website, offers 15 recommendations in the areas of curriculum innovation, excellence in teaching, academic integrity and improved standards in basic skills such as writing, quantitative reasoning, and foreign-language and cultural fluency.

Richards hopes the report will jumpstart a campuswide conversation, and says he and his co-authors — the L&S Faculty Forum on Undergraduate Education — will be actively seeking input from groups and individuals from every corner of the campus. 

 “It’s time for other people to weigh in and think about it,” he says. “It’s not a done deal.”

The recommendations fall into four main categories:

— Curriculum innovation. Among other proposals, the report suggests reducing the number of breadth courses students must take to graduate, and replacing some current requirements with so-called “Big Ideas” courses, to be team-taught by faculty from different disciplines in order to open undergrads to “broad intellectual horizons.”

— Excellence in teaching. The group would establish a teaching “boot camp” for new L&S faculty, and provide resources to aid and encourage “co-teaching,” where all course instructors participate in every session.

— Higher academic standards. Proposals aim to raise the bar for basic underlying skills for successful leadership, such as quantitative reasoning, writing and communication and in-depth understanding of foreign cultures and languages.

— Academic integrity. “The issues of plagiarism and cheating have become more challenging in the Information Age,” notes Richards, “and we want to make sure that our students feel they’re immersed in a culture where they are rewarded for their honesty and integrity.”

 Many of the recommendations, Richards says, are “low-hanging fruit,” while others require extensive consultation and buy-in and could take several years to fully implement.

“The Big Kahuna, the thing that will be hardest to execute, is the phasing in of the Big Ideas curriculum and the changes in the breadth requirement,” he says. But faculty are already submitting what Richards describes as “amazing” ideas for new courses, and he hopes to have five or six up and running by fall 2012.

“We want to get on with the experiment,” he explains. “Instead of plopping down this big theoretical construct and asking the Academic Senate just to sign off on it, we figured that while the campus is thinking about the broader recommendations, let’s go out and create some of these courses as examples, so people have something concrete to consider.”

Of the new proposals, Richards says, “There’s nothing particularly revolutionary, except the totality of the change. The bottom line, for me, is that Berkeley is doing something exciting for undergraduate education.”

To download a copy of “Re-imagining Undergraduate Education at Berkeley,” visit the L&S website.

Feedback is welcome. To comment on the report and its recommendations, send an email to