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Faculty Senate focuses on students’ first-year experience

Speaking at the final Faculty Senate meeting of the fall semester, Bruce Ronkin, Northeastern’s vice provost for undergraduate education, delivered highlights of a yearlong endeavor to improve the first-year experience for the university’s increasingly talented pool of incoming students.

“The freshman class is becoming an increasingly strong academic unit,” Ronkin said. “It’s important for us to recognize the needs of our students and find the best ways to meet them.”

Ronkin’s presentation comes after a lengthy examination of the Northeastern first-year experience aimed at exploring ways incoming students could be best served by the university. He first discussed the topic with the Faculty Senate last November.

Many changes focused on better serving the growing cohort of international students—who this year represented 14.6 percent of the incoming class, compared with 3.6 percent in 2006—and creating new opportunities for students in the University Honors Program, which has grown in recent years as the profile of students continues to rise. This year’s incoming class had an average SAT score of 1360, up 130 points from six years ago; honors students, who now make up 17.7 percent of the freshman class, have an average SAT score of 1459.

Ronkin presented university-wide responses to a series of recommendations from the Senate Committee for Enrollment and Admissions Policies, drafted early this year. Recommendations included initiatives to help colleges communicate their best practices for freshman-year education, diagnostic screening for students whose native language is not English, curriculum review to ensure courses meet the needs of the student body, and programs to further challenge students in the honors program or those who enter the university with a high number of AP or IB credits.

Much of the work, Ronkin said, has been done at the college level, allowing different disciplines to find ways to best serve their students.

“We had a committee in the college that looked at enriching the freshman experience and one of the things we kept hearing was ‘more undergraduate research sooner,’” said Murray Gibson, dean of the College of Science, describing one of the discussions happening in his academic unit. “While it’s a complex issue—there are questions of not just space, but ensuring there are faculty members and graduate students to mentor these students—we all understand that issues like these are essential to what we’re trying to do.”

Several faculty members, particularly those in the humanities, expressed concerns that an increased number of honors courses would lead students to focus their academic attention into their disciplines and would leave some courses with low enrollment.

“Is everything entirely student-driven or is there some direction that could range from suggestion to insistence that honors students take certain courses or perhaps a certain group of courses?” asked Senate Agenda Committee chair Richard Daynard, University Distinguished Professor of Law. “This could maybe go into the issue of distribution requirements and the goal of having students take courses across disciplines, versus just the field in which they’ve declared their majors.”