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October 10, 1996

New CGS dean tackles problems of low enrollment, transformation of General Studies' mission

Robert L. Carter, the new dean of Pitt's College of General Studies (CGS), earned all three of his academic degrees — B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. — in classics. He's spent much of his academic life studying the words and deeds of ancient heroes. And the hero with whom he most identifies is Hannibal.

The great Carthaginian general was an African. Carter is an African-American. Hannibal defied the overwhelming might of Rome. Carter, as a long-time administrator of programs for non-traditional college students, likewise has fought an underdog's fight on behalf of people who take (or teach) classes part-time and/or in the evenings and on weekends.

Carter has one hesitation about Hannibal as a role model. "He fought against great odds, and he accomplished great things," Carter notes. "But in the long run, he still lost the war." And Carter doesn't intend to lose. "I did not come to Pittsburgh to preside over a dying school," he emphasizes. "The provost and the chancellor brought me here to build, to find ways to restore enrollments and also to help chart a new future for the College of General Studies." Between fall 1983 and fall 1995, the total number of CGS students declined by 47.7 percent, from 6,672 to 3,487. Full-time enrollment actually increased by more than 400 students to 1,406 during that time, but the number of CGS part-time students dropped from 5,676 to 2,081.

CGS enrollments declined further in spring 1996. In response, Provost James Maher cut the school's $3.2 million annual budget by $200,000. CGS's interim administration instituted a reorganization that eliminated the jobs of 17 of the school's 51 staff employees.

Fall 1996 enrollment numbers for the college aren't final yet, but they appear to be about equal to those of last spring, CGS Associate Dean Robert Comfort said this week.

Provost Maher has given Carter a Jan. 1 deadline for submitting a CGS strategic plan.

"The No. 1 priority for this college must be enrollments," the dean says. "I don't want to mislead people into thinking that we're going to develop some elaborate plan to take care of the needs of students we don't even have." Beyond its focus on enrollment, the plan will outline marketing goals and a strategy for transforming CGS into a central University unit providing student services for other Pitt schools, Carter says.

CGS will continue to offer its current range of courses, most of which are taught by faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). But for students who enroll at Pitt next fall and beyond, it will no longer be possible to earn the same degree from CGS and CAS (or any other Pitt unit). Students who enroll in a CAS program will graduate from CAS, whether they take classes on weekday afternoons or on weeknights and Saturdays.

General Studies will maintain programs that currently are offered here only through CGS, such as the college's majors in legal studies and the administration of justice. And CGS will seek to expand its offerings, Carter says. Currently, the college is awaiting a response from Provost Maher on its proposal for a new bachelor of science program in dental hygiene.

Ultimately, Carter says, he would like CGS to employ its own faculty to teach in programs unique to the college. Throughout the college's history, CGS has borrowed faculty from other schools to teach its courses — a situation akin to Hannibal being forced to rent his war-elephants.

"That's where we've really been at the mercy of the other schools," Carter points out. "Now, I'm still new to the University of Pittsburgh and I'm not in a position to evaluate the quality of people who have taught for us, but I think it's only human nature for a dean of another school to think, 'I'm going to keep my [faculty] stars at home in my school, and you [CGS] can have what's left.'" Increasingly, CGS will serve other Pitt schools rather than competing with them for faculty, students and resources, according to Carter. "I'll give you an example of what I have in mind. Let's say the Arts and Sciences wants to offer a sociology course at an off-campus site in the North Hills. The Arts and Sciences would provide the faculty, and the tuition income would be theirs. But somebody has to find an appropriate site, whether it's rental space or whatever. Somebody has to administer that site. And someone has to take care of student services on-site. Those are the kinds of services that this college could provide.

"Basically, we want to take some of the methods we've developed for serving non-traditional students enrolled in CGS, and extend those services to other schools in serving their non-traditional student populations. We're going to promote the philosophy that we're good citizens of the University of Pittsburgh." Carter says he hasn't worked out details of a marketing plan yet. But he says it will emphasize Pitt's comparatively affordable tuition, the attractions of studying in a big (but not crime-ridden) city, and the value of a degree from a comprehensive research university.

"Let me put it this way: If I'm going to be one of 40 graduates competing for 200 jobs, it doesn't make much difference where I go to school. Employers aren't going to be asking me where I got my degree. But if I'm one of 200 graduates competing for 40 jobs, I would want that degree to be from a place like the University of Pittsburgh, which not only is well-known nationally but has a strong reputation internationally." Part of CGS's marketing approach will be to acknowledge that Pitt isn't for everyone, Carter says. "We have to go after the students who would naturally prefer Pitt over our competitors." Some of those competitors are exceedingly generous in awarding advance-standing credits to non-traditional students, he adds.

"We've reached a point in our history where students from this region, including non-traditional students, don't automatically come to Pitt. That was not the case two decades ago, when we really didn't need to go out there and compete for students.

"Today, tuition isn't the determining factor that it once was for older, so-called non-traditional students. They're also shopping for services, they're shopping for convenience, and for prior-learning credits. And among our local competitors, some of the smaller, private schools can really deliver in those areas without having to worry about maintaining a national or international research profile." Carter declined to cite specific schools he was alluding to, except to exclude Carnegie Mellon. "In terms of really top-notch graduate students, Carnegie Mellon is a competitor. But that's not who we're competing with for our non-traditional students," the dean says.

At Detroit's Wayne State University, where Carter was dean of the College of Lifelong Learning (a unit similar to CGS) from 1988 until he came to Pitt in August, Carter found that "most of the time, the No. 1 competitor or enemy we faced was our own university — the rules and regulations we imposed on ourselves. For example, it was often more difficult to transfer credits from one college to another college within the university than it was to transfer them from outside the university.

"I don't know if that's true here at Pitt, but I suspect it's something you run into at most large universities." Certainly, any program for non-traditional students faces an uphill battle against academic elitism, Carter says. "The more prestigious a university is as a research institution, the more concerned it becomes about its image. And that's important to understand, because we're not always talking about substantive issues when we talk about allocating resources at an institution like [the University of] Pittsburgh. We're talking about images, too. And most major research universities want that image of enrolling the best-prepared students from within the traditional 18-to-22 year old population.

"There's a mindset that believes, 'The further we get away from focusing on traditional-aged students and the more non-traditional students we enroll, the greater our reputation is being stretched.' At universities like Pittsburgh, it's not unusual to devote 90 percent of the institution's student-related resources to half the student body — the 18-to-22 year olds — and the remaining 10 percent to all the other students.

"The non-traditional students are paying the same tuition, they just don't get as much for their money." Faculty status is another consideration for programs that serve non-traditional students, Carter says. "My dream is that someday, there will be no perceived difference in status between the professor who teaches a class in the Cathedral of Learning from 1 to 2 o'clock on weekday afternoons, and the professor who teaches that same course off-campus in the evenings or on weekends." — Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 4

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