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Wakening Our Sleepy Universities: Student Involvement in Curriculum Change

by Robert Schwebel - 1968

The author is a student at Antioch who is much concerned with efforts being made by students to enrich and render relevant their own education. Here he discusses a range of current efforts to effect curriculum change: by working within existing institutional structures; by establishing "free universities" and by creating experimental colleges.

Robert Schwebel is a student at Antioch who is much concerned with efforts being made by students to enrich and render relevant their own education. Here he discusses a range of current efforts to effect curriculum change: by working within existing institutional structures; by establishing "free universities" and by creating experimental colleges. All are innovative; many are promising. Mr. Schwebel’s is a responsible student voice with provocative things to say.

Today's urgent problems—among them war, poverty, and racism—make it clear that rapid social change is essential to human dignity and survival. The problems also indicate a need for immediate creative action, demanding the full use of man's ability to reason. However, our fumbling efforts suggest that the American educational system has not adequately prepared students to meet this need. In fact, many students contend that colleges and universities are graduating people unprepared to manage their own lives, let alone solve important social issues. Increasing numbers of people suggest that a good way to begin confronting contemporary problems is by improving the educational system. One of the most interesting developments in the realm of educational reform has been the emergence of students as the newest and perhaps most vital force in efforts to awaken "our sleepy universities."

One student dissatisfaction with education has concerned the irrelevance of subject matter. By avoiding the crucial issues of our time, neglecting issues important to young people, and failing to show the interrelationship of knowledge in general, the institutions of higher education have provided a sterile ground for learning. Student reform literature speaks of "The intellectual bankruptcy and spiritual emptiness of the American educational establishment."1 They seek "to develop the concepts necessary to comprehend the events of this century and the meaning of one's own life within it." The structure of education further compounds the dissatisfaction with its content (in fact, they are nearly inseparable phenomena). Instead of an emphasis on problem solving and the ability to think, pre-processed "gospel" has become the content of "learning." One student program in experimental reform published the following statement:

When the process of learning becomes fixed and rigid, when the teacher becomes the grade-dispensing authority and the student the note-taking subordinate, when a course is defined by a fixed amount of knowledge transmitted in a formal lecture given in fixed hours, when the student becomes a basket which passively collects bits of knowledge from professors who collectively tie on pretty ribbons after four uneventful years, education has become no more than empty ritual in which individuals are prisoners of traditional role.2

Students in some institutions have responded to the "empty ritual" of higher education with exciting and dynamic approaches to curriculum reform. Their involvement, by its very nature, stimulates change—it introduces new experiences and outlooks, and provides a large supply of committed reformers. However, student "participation" threatens many of the people traditionally responsible for academic policy-making. Traditions do change slowly. Because of its "threatening" quality, student admission into policy decisions has been resisted, denied, or delayed. Reacting to this, students have become less passive, more indirect (taking initiative outside the traditional channels of innovation) and more angry (recent calls for "student power").

This paper concerns itself with three broad types of student-involvement in curriculum change: working within existing structures; creating new "parallel institutions (free universities); and creating experimental colleges (free universities from which regular academic credit can be earned, yet educational experimentation prevails).


Seeking to enrich their educational experiences, students often have attempted—occasionally with the support of faculty and administration—to operate within the present framework of an institution to bring about changes they deem desirable. Their efforts have assumed various forms, including seminars and conferences on higher education, curriculum and course studies and reviews, curriculum committees, programs to supplement the curriculum, and student-initiated courses.


At a few universities, in response to student requests, programs have been instituted aimed at giving students interested in participating in college governance sufficient background to do so well. One of the most far-reaching was instituted at the University of Texas at Austin. Here, the student-government-initiated seminar on "The Problems of Higher Education" was offered to some 35 students with demonstrated potential as campus leaders. Although no academic credit was awarded for participation, the university supported the effort in spirit—and a foundation grant of $1500 made it a reality. A seminar "coordinator" (faculty member at 1/3 time) and a graduate assistant were hired; the coordinator invited guest lecturers periodically and used different teaching methods in class.

The seminar addressed itself to an analysis and broad survey of the problems which face today's university, grouped within three areas: a theoretical approach to the academic community (goals and methods of higher education, administration of a university, student roles in a university, etc.); specific problems (dormitory needs, discipline, advising, grading, orientation, etc.); and recent and long-standing policy decisions of the administration of the University of Texas (with first-hand accounts from the participants). The Student Association President reported that "to this date (November 22, 1966) it has been successful in its original goals. We are merely trying to better prepare a wide diversity of students for participation (later in their college experience) in some aspects of the governing of the university."3

The National Students Association prepared a list of "Readings for Student Participants in Academic Policy Formation" to aid students in colleges and universities seeking involvement in decision-making on their campuses. These lists were distributed at several of its regional conferences devoted to this topic in the fall of 1966.


The most widespread form of student involvement in educational policy-making has been at meetings of curriculum and academic committees. Student status on such committees ranges from observer to full member. At the University of Delaware the provost and vice-president stated that:

Students have long held membership on committees relating to student life and extracurricular affairs, but we are now inviting their participation in discussions of other matters where they have keen insight and a considerable stake in the results. Two such areas are the committee on instruction and the committee to study the impact of the university on its undergraduates.4

In addition, students were to become members of the committee on undergraduate courses and curricula.

A joint student-faculty committee to reexamine the "teaching situation" has been formed at the University of Wisconsin for the purpose of studying new teaching methods and curricula, interdisciplinary programs, and the role of students in academic decisions.

The Harvard-Radcliffe Policy Committee, an organization of students, faculty, and administration, also deals with educational issues. It is composed of fourteen undergraduate students (eleven from Harvard and three from Radcliffe), the Dean of Harvard College and the Dean of Radcliffe College, and three faculty members selected by the rest of the group each February. The committee handles college-wide issues: it proposed a modification in language requirements; it discussed the feasibility of a pass-fail grading system and considered ways to avoid "the sophomore slump." A second category of action engaged in by the group includes seeking ways of gaining influence in faculty hiring and tenure decisions. Most significantly, the committee established an Educational Audit which evaluates a department, every four years, in regard to general examinations, tutorials, distribution requirements, range of courses available, weighting of senior theses, and content of required courses.

All-student committees, functioning either as subcommittees to the faculty, or autonomously, exercise various degrees of influence. Such committees advise faculty and administrators on student views at Temple University and New York University's School of Education. At Temple, the faculty senate recently approved the creation of a student subcommittee of the University's Educational Programs and Policy Committee. The five students chosen meet monthly for deliberation, discussion, and recommendations to the parent committee.

The NYU School of Education student committee was formed to aid in the evaluation and development of curriculum. The Dean of Instruction related that his early hesitations about the committee proved unfounded:

I obtained the names of "intelligent, articulate students" from our student activities people, knowing very well in doing this I would, in all probability, be getting students who were not highly antagonistic toward the policies of the school and fearing that they might even be too supportive of the establishment. As it turned out, and even during the first hour of the first meeting, it was clear that the students had very sharp criticisms to level at the school and they were feeling free enough to do so.5

As a first step in reviewing the program of offerings, the NYU committee felt a need for criteria. They examined the statement of purpose published in the school's Bulletin and found it wanting. They prepared a new statement which avoided what they considered an overemphasis on vocational goals and an underemphasis on the development of the student and which was adopted by the faculty. In regard to the curriculum, the committee criticized: over-compartmentalization of courses to the exclusion of discussion of the interrelationship of knowledge; lack of freedom in course selection; instances of inadequate faculty advising; narrow range of methods courses; and insufficient field experience.


Students sometimes perceive the faculty and administration as being antagonistic toward or uninterested in student participation in curriculum planning and reform. At several schools such perceptions were so compelling that students set up committees independent of the academic structure, to review and criticize the curriculum. Comprehensive curriculum and course reviews of this nature were carried out at the University of Pennsylvania and Maryville College of the Sacred Heart.

At Pennsylvania, the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (SCUE) outlined the purpose of its rigorous study as follows:

This report should by no means be considered as an anguished plea for small classes or a new student union; it is an attempt to define, however implicitly, a new concept of education at the University of Pennsylvania. We believe that institutionalizing the recommendations that SCUE has made in this report will not, in itself, make Pennsylvania a great university. Without such changes, however, we can never achieve this greatness. Primarily we seek to establish a new spirit, to begin a constant dialogue among all members of the university. We are not attempting to define an academic Utopia, but an atmosphere in which every member of the university community will be constantly aware of the mutuality of our enterprise. Crucial to this new spirit must be an increased respect for the opinions and freedoms of every member of the university, from the newest and most inexperienced freshman to the oldest and most famous member of the faculty.6

One of the most carefully planned curriculum studies has been performed by students in Maryville College. As an example of process, this program merits attention. Activity began in the fall of 1962, when students prepared and distributed a questionnaire to ascertain "the intellectual climate on campus." It served the dual purpose of stimulating interest in educational reform and determining possible support for future student curriculum evaluation. A student curriculum committee was formed following tabulations of the questionnaire's results. Through its activities (mostly opinion questionnaires, sometimes comparative studies with other schools) during the next two years, the committee presented sufficient data to the faculty-administration Educational Policy Committee to influence them to alter several requirements particularly unpopular with students.

In 1964 there occurred a breakdown of sorts at Maryville. In February the Student Council addressed a request to the Educational Policy Committee asking that the decision to abolish the Study Abroad Program be reconsidered. However, the request was channeled to the Academic Dean, who simply responded with a note explaining why the program had been terminated. Student dissatisfaction with the procedure was expressed immediately. In April, the students called a joint meeting with the faculty on the topic of "Communications." In November of the same year the Student Council again called a joint meeting, this time to discuss the possibility of student representation on the Educational Policy Committee. The student position was discussed, their serious interest reflected in their curricular questionnaires was noted by the faculty, and their request was finally granted. This opening of a direct channel of communication to complement the indirect ones with the faculty and administration has furthered student participation in curriculum studies.

Probably the most prominent example of student evaluation of courses is the Confidential Guide to Courses published by the Harvard Crimson since 1925. At Berkeley, the SLATE Supplement to the General Catalogue evaluates courses by student polls. A large number of schools are calling upon students to evaluate courses for the benefit of students and faculty alike.


Students in recent years have been learning how to exploit better the prevailing college structure and available resources to enrich their curriculum. The importation to campus, by student groups and governments, of interesting lecturers and visiting fellows is a notable method.

Student representatives on the Temple University Lectures and Convocations Committee help select lecturers-in-residence to visit their campus. At the University of Texas, the Students' Association inaugurated a visiting fellow program in 1963-1964. Speakers at both of these campuses, during their brief stay (not more than week), undertake various activities ranging from attending lectures and leading lectures to counseling individual students with interests in their field of competence.

The Community Council at Antioch College (composed of six students and three faculty members) hired a full-time "activist-scholar in residence," for an initial period of six months. The original proposal called for: "Open interchange and community dialogue, and especially, different points of view."7 And the program committee emphasized that the "value of the program must come from a process of open partisanship which means the exchange and serious consideration of differing views, and a common willingness to be critical of our own commitment to values and to a social movement."8 The first community government activist-scholar, Carl Oglesby (author and former president of Students for a Democratic Society) was given leeway to define his position as he wished. In addition to leading informal seminars, presenting single lectures and lecture series, he also planned and supervised independent study for thirty-four students per quarter. Although Oglesby was not given power to grant academic credit directly, students engaged in independent study could petition for credit under the "Student-Initiated Courses" plan (to be discussed).


In many schools channels have been opened and utilized by students to initiate courses not offered by their institution. It is generally agreed by members of the academic community that some of these courses fill genuine gaps in the curriculum. However, some faculty administrative people argue that other student-initiated courses, especially those dealing with drugs and sex, are nothing more than "dormitory discussion topics." But students disagree, claiming these topics to be relevant to their lives. Students attempt to get courses that speak to their interests included in the school's curriculum. However, if this is impossible, the courses are offered independently, with the hope that through exposure their merits will be weighed and that they eventually will be integrated into the regular program.

Undergraduates at Cornell University, which has no religion department, arranged to offer seminars on "The Death of God Theology" and "Islamic Culture" (the latter taught by Moslem students). Likewise, a student-initiated course on jazz, a subject not covered by the University's curriculum, was developed. At least one faculty member enrolled in the seminar as a student.

At Harpur College an independent study course emphasizing Vietnam was attempted at the suggestion of a student. One of the faculty members responsible for Harpur's Vietnam seminar reported: "I conclude that the project must be deemed to have failed and I would not recommend repetition under similar conditions." He discussed some problems—the initial group of interested students had "no clear focus for the seminar" and “no notion of how the seminar could or should be structured." In a covering letter for the report about the seminar, Harpur's Vice-President for Academic Affairs concluded: "I do not expect students can be made responsible for their own education. I thank God we do have a responsible faculty."

At Antioch College a student-initiated course met with considerably more success. Entitled "Revolution in Black and White," the areas of study included the history of the civil rights movement and value changes in general. Extensive reading, guest lecturers, and field trips were methods of learning employed. One of the more interesting papers developing from the seminar concerned value changes among the seminar members during those three months.

In fact, Antioch has developed a far reaching program in the area of student-initiated courses. It has clearly delineated the communication and consultation necessary for initiating the courses. To aid in planning courses, the dean of faculty keeps available a list of interested faculty members (and their areas of competency), and a file of approved syllabi indicating, concretely, the criteria for acceptance of a student-initiated course.

Most important, Antioch has recognized the possible significance of such a program:

The . . . teacher is expected to be a man of many parts and to play many roles: the informer's, the motivator's, the evaluator's. As things now stand, he is primarily responsible for deciding what is to be studied and how, and for setting up standards whereby the excellence of a student's performance may be judged. The introduction of Student-Initiated Courses (SIC) will significantly change the teacher's role, for he will now share with students his responsibility for deciding what will be studied and how it will be studied. The benefits of such an innovation seem obvious: the curriculum will be broadened, provisions will be made for interdisciplinary studies, and a framework will be provided within which educational experiments can take place. On the other hand, if the demand for such courses should prove great, large-scale (and therefore painful) institutional changes are likely to follow. Such a far-reaching innovation should be carefully evaluated.9


In response to the same dissatisfactions which prompt students to work within institutional frameworks to change and/or to enrich the curriculum, students in recent years also have been turning outside of the university structure to establish their own loose-knit, often free-wheeling, "free universities." For both students and faculty these free universities provide new and different subject matter, serve as possible sites for experimentation, and as a source of innovation. The parallel schools are either related to or independent of their "parent" institution. Independent free universities have either of two goals: to influence the parent school or to serve as an alternative to it. Free universities related to the parent institution can either provide experimental education opportunities with parent support and without credit, or in addition may acquire the power to grant parent credit (in which case the parallel institution is generally considered an experimental college, to be discussed).

Often as not, the student decision to establish a free university is predicated on nonacademic bases as well as academic ones. Students have established parallel institutions at various locations for reasons ranging from intense dislike of the bureaucratic ponderosity of established universities, to judgments (often correct) that reforms they would like to initiate within the ongoing institution will not be well received by "The Establishment." Free universities have been created at numerous spots across the nation, including Dartmouth; University of California at Berkeley and at Davis; Princeton; Stanford; University of North Carolina; University of Pennsylvania and surrounding schools; within the New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit areas; University of Florida at Gainesville; University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee; Ohio University; Ohio State University; Bowling Green State University; the University of Colorado; and the University of New Mexico. Another is a joint effort combining students, from Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and the University of Massachusetts. Though all these efforts differ from one another in some ways, most are similar in at least a few respects: the types of subject matter, the atmosphere desired within the classroom, and the various functional aspects of the classroom setting.

Free University Subject Matter Most free universities subscribe to the policy approximating that of the Free University of Pennsylvania, that "any subject matter is considered valid and will be offered if an instructor wants to teach it and there are students who wish to take it."10 The range is broad enough to include topics which might be rejected as "Student-Initiated Courses" within other universities.

Courses offered at free universities usually deal with contemporary or nearly contemporary issues, and approach them in a multidisciplinary way. For this reason, classification under traditional frameworks would be misleading and perhaps impossible. Following, however, is a sample of the diverse courses taught at free universities: "The Beat Movement in Literature," "The Modern Novel," "The Literature of the Russian Revolution," "Walden 11," "Existentialism," "Marxism," "The Conscience of a Christian," "The Lost Generation," "War and Peace," "The Negro in America," "American Higher Education," "Southeast Asia," "Modern Urban Development," "Conflict Resolution and Non-Violence," "Fascism," "The Cinema," "Human Sexuality," "Interpersonal Relationships," and "Technology and the Needs of Man."


Reports from free universities indicate that teachers and students meet in a relaxed atmosphere, free from a hierarchical relationship, and proceed to design and develop courses. They are equal participants in a shared educational experience. Free university literature explains, "The assertion is that you can start learning anywhere, as long as you really care about the problem you tackle and how well you tackle it."11 Released from the pressure of exams, grades, degrees and their requirements, and credits and major areas of concentration, students and teachers are free to experiment and innovate. Student reformers wrote, "It is not the transmission of factual data by authorities, but a process of creating learning situations."12 New areas of study, new approaches, and new forms of communication are opened at free universities, according to their student architects.

Since there are no outside rewards (such as salaries for instructors, credits and degrees for students), motivation must be more completely internalized than within the regular university programs. The intrinsic rewards, however, appear to make such experiences worth the time and effort devoted to them. Instructors teach material that they enjoy and want to teach; they are given the opportunity, which they are often denied within the traditional college classroom, to experiment with new approaches to specific topics. Students find the problem-oriented courses (rather than discipline-oriented) to be more stimulating, especially since the subject matter is likely to be more relevant to them than is that of the regular academic university. For many participants, learning appears to become exciting and enjoyable, "no longer a world of 'grinding' and 'partying' which bespeaks ignorance of the pleasures of learning."13 In addition, education takes on a new dimension of commitment which necessarily accompanies the self-motivated learning of relevant material. The importance of this cannot be overemphasized.


A relatively large amount of energy at some free universities has been devoted to the same questions concerning faculty credentials, class size, and so on, which regularly beset traditional academic institutions.

At the University of New Mexico's parallel institution, for example, debate on teacher qualifications has been heated. On one side of the fence, those favoring the establishment of criteria for choosing teachers argue that the student might be jeopardized by contact with an unqualified teacher (e.g., in a seminar on hallucinatory drugs). They claim that the University of New Mexico, with which the free university is affiliated, would have its reputation hurt by the use of unqualified personnel. On the other side, it is argued, there is no valid way of judging qualifications, and that attempts to do so would tend to stultify the program. Furthermore, (and more important), the argument goes, students are mature enough to form their own opinions about their teachers.

A second debate centers about optimal class size. At the Free University of Pennsylvania there is no limit to enrollment; each class is allowed to reach its own equilibrium. Several free universities set a maximum class size (usually about 15), and a few leave the decision up to the instructor.


Perhaps the best known student venture in academic reform is the Experimental College at San Francisco State. Initiated by students and offering the opportunity to earn regular academic credit, this institution is unique. Students may design courses, decide how they will be taught, choose an enrollment limit and select their own texts at the Experimental College.

In its first year of existence (1965-1966) about 350 students attended seminars. Approximately 20 professors from 13 departments sponsored and gave credit for seminars. The President of the College, the Associate Dean of Activities and Housing, the Chairman of the Academic Senate, and the Associate Dean of Academic Planning expressed support for the program. In the fall of 1966 some 650 students enrolled in the Experimental College. Some 240 of these, in 27 different courses will receive credit from San Francisco State for their work.

Through the Experimental College, new subject matter divided into six areas labeled Styles of Thought, Black Culture and Arts, The Institute for Social Change, Interpersonal Communications, Arts and Letters, and Urban Communities and Change has been made available. If there is an instructor for a seminar (and there isn't always one), it might be a San Francisco State student or faculty member or perhaps even both. The Experimental College can: "For the person who feels that the standard program does not meet his needs . . . tell him how the existing college regulations permit him to: write his own major, substitute courses he wants for required general education courses, organize his own course, get credit for individual work in which he is interested, and obtain a waiver for almost any college rule or regulation."

An associate professor at the regular school (and instructor at the Experimental College) remarked on the "turnabouts" that take place with Experimental College students. "Some, who have thought of themselves as ordinary students, suddenly come to life before your eyes. That's what makes it worthwhile. There also are some who have always thought of themselves as very good, academically, and they now find that no one cares about their dutifulness or dexterity."14 The significant benefits reaped by individual students at San Francisco State have received their due recognition by educators and this recognition, in turn, has provided the school widespread and favorable publicity. This is a prime example of the ability of students to reform their curriculum, and the institutional gains associated with it.

Last year I was involved in the newest, most radical, and perhaps most unusual form of student participation in the academic community. Along with five others—two from Antioch, one from Goddard, one from San Francisco State College, one from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Stony-Brook drop-out—I served as a "student-consultant" on the planning committee of the State University of New York's new experimental college in Nassau. This concept of student involvement developed from an address delivered in February, 1967, by Samuel Gould, Chancellor of the State University, in which he said henceforth "the State University of New York will, as a matter of policy, seek to involve students in the planning and development of each new college." He added that he had been "convinced that students are able not only to identify faults in the educational system but also to spell out practical steps to reform." What impressed me most about this experience, working together with several administrators and two faculty members on the staff in planning the new college on every level ranging from student governance and the "generation gap" to curriculum and physical facilities, was the tremendous amount we could and did learn from each other. I can personally attest to the change of values and intellectual outlook, cognitive growth, sense of excitement and satisfaction as well as the frustrations and disappointments which arise when students, faculty, and administrators take on a mutual task. For me, the high degree of accomplishment and positive personal development has already outlived any moments of disenchantment.


How can all this student involvement be explained? A convergence of factors seem to have led to these developments. For one thing, the loosening of repression following the McCarthy period together with the rising tide of the civil rights movement gave wind to the flag of student activism. Suddenly, students had an issue thrown before them, civil rights, in which they could have some power over their environment. The desirable feeling of powerfulness accompanied by the continual undesired escalation of the Vietnam War led to an increased activism and social awareness. Student activists began to see that many of the problems on campus were simply microcosms of phenomena created by similar structures in their society. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley accelerated the process of recognition. Student involvement in curriculum change evolved largely at institutions where students were highly socially conscious. It also seemed to appear at schools where conditions were so poor, education so backwards, that only a faint degree of awareness was necessary for student discovery of serious problems. Now, student involvement occurs in just about every type of institution conceivable: large, small, urban, rural, "beat," "straight," denominational, secular, private and public. Probably the only safe generalization is that the largest proportion of active, critical students are enrolled in either small progressive liberal colleges or large public universities with rigid bureaucratic structures.

By reviewing the theoretical underpinnings of higher education, critically reviewing the curriculum, supplementing the curriculum with new programs and courses, and creating free universities and experimental colleges, an aroused group of students have revealed the following: that they are interested in the policies and practices of their institution because they recognized that what the institution offers and how it offers it deeply affects their lives. They have demonstrated substantial powers to be innovative and that, given the opportunity, they can work in effective collaboration with the faculty and administration; and that not given this opportunity to cooperate they will work just as hard (and make twice as much noise if necessary) to bring about the changes they deem necessary.


1 Bulletin of the Free School of New York, Winter Quarter, 1966-67.

2 The Experimental College at Princeton, "A Crude, Preliminary Philosophy of Education."

3 Letter to R. Schwebel from Cliff Drummond, President, Associated Students, November 22, 1966.

4 The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 23, 1967.

5 Letter to R. Schwebel from Associate Dean Milton Schwebel, November 30, 1966.

6 Rose Ann Alderson, Working Paper on Education Reform, prepared for USNSA Regional Conferences, Fall, 1966.

7 Antioch College Record, September 13, 1966.

8 Antioch College Record, September 30,1966.

9 Antioch Committee on SICs, "Policy Recommendation on Student-Initiated Courses."

10 The Free University Coordinating Committee, "The Free University of Pennsylvania."

11 Leaflet, "Experimental College at San Francisco State College."

12 "A Crude, Preliminary Philosophy of Education."

13 The Experimental College at Princeton, "What is the Experimental College?"

14 San Francisco State College, "Experimental College Advising."

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 70 Number 1, 1968, p. 31-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1893, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 4:51:40 PM

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