Q&A: Ian McNeely, new CAS associate dean for undergraduate education

Ian McNeely
Ian McNeely

Last summer, Ian F. McNeely, associate professor of history, was named the first Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the College of Arts and Sciences. In this Q&A, he discusses the challenges posed by the enrollment surge, the curriculum-development pipeline and the uptick in international students.  

Q: Why did the College of Arts and Sciences create the position of Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education?

McNeely: Someone needs to make sure that the quality of undergraduate education is maintained and improved. That’s the simplest reason why research universities nationwide have begun creating positions like this one.

At UO, undergraduate enrollment has grown by about 25% in the last five to six years. And CAS offers about three-fifths of all the instruction at UO. So all of a sudden, we have a lot more students to educate.

My own perspective is that of a historian – I’ve written about the ways knowledge institutions have changed over the last 2,300 years. In this new position, I’m now looking at the last five years and asking if we’re at some historical inflection point, due to the impact of the Great Recession on higher education nationally.

I think we’re at a critical moment where the short-term prosperity brought by enrollment growth here and at other universities is going give way to some tough decisions over the next five to 10 years. Student tuition is skyrocketing out of control, and that's not sustainable.

Q: Tell us about the scope of your position.

McNeely: The four main responsibilities of my job are enrollment planning, curriculum development, advising, and improving the quality of teaching. It's a lot of nuts-and-bolts work.

With enrollment planning, I'm asking questions like: Are our students getting the classes they need? How do we accommodate the amount of growth given stasis in the number of classrooms we have? How do we go pound the table to get the resources to build state-of-the-art classrooms?

Also: Why are certain departments booming—like human physiology and psychology—and why are there surprising pockets of low demand, like history and political science? What accounts for these patterns?

Q: And what have you learned about these patterns?

McNeely: We are just beginning to roll out analyses that allow departments to see how they’ve fared during the enrollment surge, and then asking them to tell us what’s happening in their fields—whether they’re exploding and can’t handle the enrollments, or they’re noticing drop-offs and can’t figure out why.

In general, we’re a more data-driven, information-driven, metric-driven Dean’s Office than ever before—but that doesn’t mean we’ve become bean counters, or are just looking at the bottom line. Instead, the budget model gives schools and colleges the central role in matching financial resources to academic goals. So we’re subjecting our own College to study, and inviting our partners among the department heads, and their faculty, to help us figure out the trends.

After all, we’re a research institution—but we don’t research ourselves nearly as much as we should. There’s a huge amount of intellectual firepower on campus, and if we focused it on our own problems, we could solve them. That’s not something that's going to happen in one year, so I'm starting in small ways to open conversations about how our institution is coping with its challenges.

Q: What other trends do you see in the data?

McNeely: Over the last five years the ratio of tenure-related instruction to non-tenure-related instruction has shifted dramatically. We want to rebalance that ratio, making sure each group of faculty is respected and taken care of. This means looking at both student credit hours—because that’s what the budget is tied to, and it's a commonly accepted index of instructional output—and also the number of classes taught by a given faculty member. If you teach a small seminar, that can be as much work, if not more, than teaching a large lecture course. Also, each discipline has its own way of delivering instruction, and so we look at the way other institutions in the same disciplines do things, to compare apples to apples.

This all speaks to the teaching quality portion of my job—to maintain rigor and quality in the face of pressures to cut corners, at the same time so many more bodies are coming into the university; we want to make sure they get the education they need.

Q: How does curriculum development factor into this?

McNeely:  Curriculum development is one of the biggest problems we have at the UO: the extreme difficulty of getting new courses through the pipeline and into the catalog. It's no one’s fault in particular, but it's almost as hard to get a new course on the books as it is to tenure a faculty member. A new course is vetted by department committees, college committees and a university-level committee, all of which leads to a long turn-around. It can easily take over a year—up to fifteen months—between the moment you come up with a course and the moment it enters the catalog.

We need to fix the workflow and communications problems in the course approval process. My plan is to get everyone in a room to hammer out a way to make sure that the courses we offer reflect the dynamism of our faculty—in other words, to make sure faculty who have new ideas for new courses don’t get ensnared in red tape. And to also ensure that those few faculty who either don’t know the standards and policies—or, in a very few cases, try to evade the standards and policies—are brought back into line.

This is a university-wide problem, but one where CAS can be a natural leader.

Q: What about advising—what are the challenges there?

McNeely: Right now we have a couple things going on. All students who come into the UO undeclared, without a major—there are 2,000 of them each year—are under the umbrella of CAS for advising. So we’re trying to support them better.

But the real hot-button issue this year has been the huge uptick in international students. They have particular advising needs and in many cases an insufficient level of English language preparation. So we’re collaborating with the Teaching Effectiveness Program and the American English Institute on how best to cope with these students when they parachute into large Gen Ed lecture classes. TEP has a dynamic new director, and AEI is brimming with expertise, and in early February they’ll convene a workshop inviting teaching faculty to generate some concrete recommendations.

Q: How would you characterize the balance between proactive and reactive in your job?

McNeely: There's a lot to react to, but I've also got some proactive things I’m working on—sticking to advising for a moment, I’ve been talking to some software developers about a Netflix/Amazon-type course selection app.

We’ve got 777 Gen Ed courses at the UO (the vast majority of which are in CAS) and right now the main way students can search the class schedule is to say “I want to sleep till noon and take a class that satisfies the multicultural requirement.” You can’t say “I want to take a class in the Middle East; what’ve you got?” As for the course catalog, it’s virtually inaccessible. So my dream is to find some way to gather together all of the content that we have on our courses and present it to students in a way that harvests information in the same way that Amazon can guess what book you might want to read.

The more we study ourselves, the more we can identify simple, practical steps to publicize and enhance what our faculty are already doing so well—in the classroom, in their research and at the interface between the two.

— interview by Lisa Raleigh, College of Arts and Sciences