Conversations with students often challenge our preconceptions of how knowledge is best transmitted within a university. A common lament that I hear is that the organizational barriers to accessing knowledge outside of one’s unit are too large. The students question why they are prevented from enrolling in a course of great relevance to their life’s ambitions that is offered in another unit.
Of course, there are quite legitimate reasons for restricting the enrollment in some courses to a subset of students. First, the course may be a second or third in a sequence of classes that successively build upon one another. Taking the second course without the knowledge from the first course would produce unusual challenges for the student. Second, sometimes a course is required for a certified major or specialty area. Giving some preference to those students in the major makes sense. (However, if the demand for the class from other students is large, it’s incumbent on the university to consider opening another section of the course.)
But there are also reasons for restricting enrollment that are difficult to justify, at least from a provostial view. One of these is a culture of strong identity within a school, which breeds a belief that all the resources of the school should be limited to those students pursuing a degree from the school. While such esprit de corps is laudable, permitting it to breed an exclusivity about course offerings is misplaced, I’d argue.
The second reason that is offered is that the budget model of units does not permit reacting to student demands from other schools or units. This is the common concern across universities, but it merits attention among those who make these budget allocations. All academic specialties have required courses and elective courses. The university should eliminate barriers for a student to take relevant elective courses wherever they are offered in the university, to the maximum extent possible. The revenue flows should be worked out in an equitable way.
There are also reasons why permitting such movement is good for both students and faculty. A class with diverse backgrounds brings with it differing perspectives. When those perspectives reveal themselves in group assignments, class discussions, or study groups, everyone in the class benefits. Faculty are encouraged to use diverse examples to illustrate theoretical points, and students learn faster when heterogeneous reactions to the material guide class discussions.
Today’s students are active consumers of their education. They seek novel assemblies of classes to fulfill requirements of a degree. They push for more flexibilities in the curriculum.
One step in fulfilling these expressed needs would be to reduce the constraints on students moving among different departments and schools.