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Education Reimagined: The Marsico Initiative has transformed DU’s undergraduate arts and sciences curriculum.

Paper sculpture of University Hall

"Old Main" by Jeff Nishinaka

In 2002, DU alumni Tom and Cydney Marsico presented the University of Denver with a $10 million gift to be spent over five years and directed toward the intensification of the undergraduate arts and sciences programs.

Made with no strings and few provisos, that gift launched an experiment—dubbed the Marsico Initiative—in which DU faculty devised an undergraduate experience reflecting their highest ideals and best ideas. It resulted in a host of new programs and significant curricular change, all while expanding educational opportunities for students across the disciplines. It added 24 new tenure-track faculty positions and 20 lecturers to key programs and created a number of new centers designed to reinforce academic priorities.

“It was a bold act of philanthropy,” says Provost Gregg Kvistad, one that resulted in a “renovated and renewed” undergraduate program. Just as important, he adds, it conveyed a powerful message to students, faculty and alumni: “that broad and deep learning, especially at the undergraduate level, is fundamentally important for a well-lived life.”

A cultural transformation

Just seven years ago, the Marsico Initiative was little more than a dream deferred, a half-formed notion that great things could be accomplished, if and when, when and if.

“When I was appointed provost by Chancellor Dan Ritchie in 2001,” Chancellor Robert Coombe recalls, “he and I began a long dialogue, which extends to this day, about moving the academic enterprise at DU forward. In those early days … we talked frequently about where the greatest challenges and opportunities were to be found among the many units and programs of the University.”

Ritchie shared these conversations with Tom Marsico, founder and CEO of Marsico Capital Management, who had expressed interest in supporting an academic initiative. “Dan asked which unit I thought we should propose for such an initiative, and I responded that … it should be for a major advance in the arts and sciences disciplines,” Coombe explains. “My reasoning was that if we were going to be a great university, we had to have top-of-the-line programs in these disciplines. These were the disciplines in which we had an extraordinary opportunity to blend a learning environment characterized by small classes and close student-faculty interactions, like those found at the very best liberal arts colleges, with great faculty and nationally competitive scholarship of the sort found at the best research universities. Our students could have the best of both worlds.”

Before the Marsicos would commit to funding, they wanted reassurance that their money would be spent on significant changes. Coombe was charged with fleshing out DU’s game plan. “To start this process, I appointed an ad hoc ‘idea group’ of about 20 faculty members from the arts and sciences disciplines to think through some initial ideas. We met for several weeks, bouncing ideas off one another. There were some really good thoughts, but the whole thing just wasn’t congealing,” he recalls.

“At the next meeting, I told the group that I thought we were being insufficiently bold, and asked that each person put forward a single big idea, no matter how off the wall, right then and there. We went around the table, and each person spoke. There were some pretty wild thoughts, or at least they seemed so at the time. I remember in particular that Gregg Kvistad’s idea was that classes be limited to 15 students, and everyone laughed. How could such a thing be possible?”

Once sights were set sufficiently high, and once the Marsicos issued a green light, the University plotted its strategy for maximizing the opportunity. Coombe and Kvistad—then dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences—believed that the faculty should play the lead role in shaping the initiative. After all, Kvistad says, “Curricular change, programmatic change, has to fundamentally involve the faculty, who do the conceptualization, who do the tinkering, who are responsible for the curriculum.”

Faculty leadership took the form of a steering committee made up of 12 members elected by their peers from the three divisions at the center of the initiative—arts and humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences and mathematics. The committee also included a handful of administrators appointed by Coombe.

Psychology Professor George Potts chaired that steering committee for the first three years of its existence. The first summer, committee members met frequently to define what they wanted to accomplish. “We really wanted to generate excitement about the arts and sciences. We wanted to stimulate this intellectual community. … It really was a cultural transformation that we had in mind,” he recalls.

Given the amorphous nature of transformation and the problematic dynamics of committees, the Marsico group could have floundered indefinitely trying to reach agreement on goals and strategies. Committee member Michael Keables, currently acting dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, feared just that. “Large committees tend to be fairly dysfunctional,” he says. “They take a long time to reach consensus. Sometimes they never reach consensus. But there was a commitment from this group to make this work.”

Potts attributes that commitment to faculty enthusiasm. “Faculty have been saying for a long time that it is wonderful that we are getting donations for buildings, but we really need money for programs,” he explains. “I felt from the start a real responsibility to show that when you do that, good things happen.”

The committee was also encouraged by the institution’s promise to develop permanent funding for the initiative’s best ideas. That meant the committee could contemplate long-term proposals, even those that involved hiring additional faculty and staff. According to Kvistad, “The message from central administration was, you produce a good program, and we will find ways to fund it.” Keeping that promise meant scrupulous review of expenses and revenue. To fully fund the Marsico Initiative, the University added $4.4 million to the base annual budgets of the divisions involved.

Thanks to faculty engagement and the promise of continued funding, consensus came early, with steering committee members settling on a handful of priorities and creating a “cell”—or subcommittee—for each. The cells focused on enriching the first-year experience; fostering intellectual depth; expanding opportunities for experiential learning; enhancing writing and rhetorical skills across the four undergraduate years; and developing quantitative reasoning skills. A sixth cell was created to assess the effectiveness of all programs introduced under the initiative.

The cells were charged with developing programs related to their topics. “We went with the pilot approach,” Keables says, noting that the committee asked the arts and sciences faculty to submit proposals. In keeping with the freedom given the steering committee itself, Keables says, “we issued a call to faculty with minimal guidelines.” That way, the committee could encourage experimentation and risk-taking. To ensure the proposals supported initiative-related objectives, the steering committee required that each include a mechanism for assessment.

Proposals were submitted by the dozens, some from individual faculty members, others from individual departments and still others from interdisciplinary groups eager to collaborate. Throughout the proposal evaluation and pilot phase, the steering committee sought input from the entire faculty. “One of the things that we decided very early on was that we had to keep faculty involved through every stage,” Potts says. To foster transparency, the committee launched a University intranet presence, where all relevant materials were posted for review.

Once the programs were piloted and evaluated, the steering committee recommended several for permanent funding. Recommendations were based on program effectiveness and on the scope of their impact. As Keables notes, “A lot of it came down to bang for the buck: Put your money where it will have the biggest impact.”

As Kvistad sees it, the bang has exceeded expectations. “This is, I believe, a textbook case for how academic, especially curricular, change needs to occur,” he says. “It happened at the University of Denver only because the faculty embraced the challenge of transforming the undergraduate experience and believed that the University would find the resources to make that happen if they actually did it. Boy, did they do it.”

Sending a message about academics

Thanks to the Marsico Initiative, today’s undergraduate students plunge into learning even before classes start.

Their education kicks off with an academically rich orientation period, continues with a topic-focused first-year seminar, gains steam with required writing and rhetoric classes, develops quantitative reasoning skills through an emphasis on numeracy and reinforces new knowledge through experiential learning opportunities. And that’s just the Reader’s Digest version.

Much of the initiative’s focus centered on the first-year experience. That’s because the first year is so important in terms of establishing expectations and setting tone, Potts says. “If you are going to transform the culture, you have to start from the beginning.”

At the Discoveries orientation program, students begin interacting with faculty, enjoying presentations about academic topics and meeting with the instructor who will lead their first-year seminar. Where the previous orientation program emphasized social and extracurricular activities, Discoveries reminds students they are embarking on an academic journey.

That message is reinforced in a new first-year seminar, capped at 15 students. This seminar replaced the required Campus Connection class, originally offered for one hour per week during the student’s first quarter. Under the Marsico Initiative, the seminar was expanded to a four-hour course focusing on a topic to be examined thoroughly. According to Keables, this move alone made a huge difference in the quality of the student’s introductory year.

He should know. Having taught Campus Connection classes and the new first-year seminars (his focus is on environmental issues), he finds vast differences between the two. Real depth simply wasn’t possible with the Campus Connection courses, where the 60 minutes per week were too often spent helping students acclimate to University life. The four-hour seminar, on the other hand, allows instructors to guide students through challenging topics, showing them how to approach college-level work.

“One thing it has done is it hits the students, from the time they walk in the door, with the message that academics are important,” Keables explains. As proof, Keables points to the change in attendance during his office hours. Today, he sees many more of his first-year students more often. They arrive with fewer questions about how to drop a class or change a grade and more questions related to academics. Not only that, they often continue their relationship with him long after the seminar has ended.

According to Kvistad, that kind of relationship makes the DU experience transformational. The new seminar puts a caring professor in a central role at a critical time, when they can serve as teacher, mentor, advocate and adviser. The professor can also demonstrate the pleasures of discovery fueled by intellectual passion and curiosity. “This relationship is intended to last the entire year,” he says. “As it happens, because we are human, it goes on longer than that.”

The Marsico Initiative also replaced first-year English classes with a two-quarter writing and rhetoric sequence. To develop and administer that sequence, the University launched a comprehensive Writing Program, directed by Doug Hesse, a nationally recognized expert on writing pedagogy and author of the Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers. Recruited from Illinois State University, Hesse was charged with creating a program that treats writing both as a discipline and as a foundation of serious work in other disciplines.

Hesse began by building a team of 19 full-time lecturers—all experts in writing and rhetoric, all versed in DU’s ambitious goals for student achievement. Members of the writing faculty collaborate with one another and the rest of the faculty about the best practices for developing writing skills. They deploy those practices in more than 70 first-year classes offered each quarter and capped at 15 students. This approach differs dramatically from traditional writing programs, which typically enlist adjunct instructors who often have little sense of institutional priorities. By contrast, all of DU’s writing lecturers are full-time faculty, and their chief priority is working with students.

Writing efforts at all levels and in all majors are supported by a new Writing Center directed by Eliana Schonberg. In addition to tutoring students, the center lends support to professors teaching writing-intensive classes for juniors and seniors. These classes—another component of the Writing Program—are offered in the core curriculum and throughout the majors. Tutoring also is available to graduate students.

Finally, says Hesse, the Writing Center aims to create a writing-appreciative culture on campus, not just through rigorous instruction but also through programming that showcases different kinds of writing. “Our goal is to get people to see the whole breadth of writing,” he explains, adding that today, DU students of every major are writing far more than they were just five years ago.

The Writing Program is attracting national recognition for its thorough approach. In 2008, it became one of only 23 programs internationally to have earned a Certificate of Excellence from the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Other programs implemented under the Marsico Initiative are equally ambitious. For example, a series of math foundations courses, proposed by the math faculty for non-science majors, aims to develop quantitative reasoning skills. Focusing on topics like cryptography, these courses are designed, Potts says, to explore the math behind the topic while helping students become “numerically wise.” A quantitative reasoning laboratory, installed in Sturm Hall, offers state-of-the-art software to help students develop their analytic skills.

Outside the classroom and the laboratory, a Visiting Scholars Program helps create what Chancellor Coombe calls a campus culture “bubbling and percolating” with ideas. The program brings experts from all over the world to campus to share their insights with students. Stays range from two days to a couple of quarters. Long-term visitors generally teach or co-teach at least one course. All visitors are asked to engage undergraduates in lectures, special programs and activities.

The Visiting Scholars Program provides opportunities, Keables notes, for undergraduate and graduate students to interact with some of the thinkers who are shaping their fields. In fall quarter, the program (in conjunction with the Department of Mass Communications and Journalism Studies, the Center for Multicultural Excellence and Partners in Learning) brought filmmaker Beverly Seckinger to campus for a panel discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and a screening of her documentary Laramie Inside Out—a chronicle of how her hometown reacted to the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

To foster experiential learning, an Arts and Sciences Internship Program develops opportunities for students to test their knowledge and develop their skills in a work setting, while an Undergraduate Research Center, currently under development, will promote hands-on research opportunities with faculty members. Among its many responsibilities, it will coordinate funding for undergraduate research projects and support students working on capstone and Honors thesis projects.

Complementing the University’s emphasis on internationalization and study abroad, a Language Center, also under development, will make it easier for students to prepare for a future in the global marketplace. By 2009, the center is expected to host a Summer Intensive Language Institute.

Reviewing the initiative’s accomplishments, Kvistad takes pride in their sweep and ambition. “The curricular changes wrought by the initiative,” he explains, “demonstrate the seriousness of the University’s commitment to liberal learning—not to one discipline, to one profession, or to one body of knowledge, but rather to developing the capacity of each student to think broadly and deeply, to write with skill, to understand quantitative data, to view the world as a classroom, and never to stop learning.”

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