A Commission on General Education in the Twenty-First Century

This major new two-year commission has as its charge a square-one examination of the philosophy, aims, curricular implications, organizational contexts, and directions of reform and implication of general education. The Commission is composed predominantly of faculty and administrators in the UC system, and places that system at the center of its attention. It seeks also an analysis relevant to undergraduate education in other large public university systems. Among its activities, the Commission will develop and disseminate a major report to facilitate rethinking of the purposes and structure of general education.

The Commission's work began in January 2005 and is generously funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, with support from the University of California Office of the President.


The coming of the year 2000 prompted many institutions to reconsider their missions and to wonder out loud whether they were serving them well under changing social circumstances. Higher education is no exception. Over the past several years, we have concluded that a new and basic inquiry into the nature of collegiate general education was in order. Long-standing changes in general education programs have arguably diminished them while the continuing domination of the culture of research in almost all major institutions, the continuing specialization and vocationalization of undergraduate programs, massive changes in the external environment of the university, changes in the nature of citizenship and citizen participation, changes in the delivery of education through new information technologies, and structural impediments to interdisciplinary education have all altered the capacities of colleges and universities, for better and for worse, to deliver on the promise of general education.

These conditions justify a definitive square-one examination of the philosophy, aims, curricular implications, organizational contexts, and directions of reform in general education. That is the task of the Commission on General Education. The commission is composed predominantly of faculty and administrators in the UC system and places that system at the center of its attention but seeks also an analysis relevant to undergraduate education generally.

Our goal is to develop and disseminate a major report to facilitate rethinking of the purposes and structure of general education.

We are convinced that the University of California system is currently prepared to move forward with significant reforms. This conviction is sustained by (a) the rapid and enthusiastic embrace of our proposal by the Office of the President and the relevant bodies of the Academic Senate of the University; (b) the consolidation on every UC campus in the past dozen years of an improved machinery for innovation, in the creation of the new post of vice chancellor or dean of undergraduate education; (c) the conspicuous opportunities for innovation at the university's tenth campus at Merced, the first new campus since 1965; (d) the continuing ambition of the UC system to be a national and international leader in all aspects of higher education; and (e) the continuing pressure from the legislature and other agencies of the state of California to give priority to the quality of undergraduate education for the young citizens of the state.

Commission Goals:

The commission is meeting five times over two years, to bring its collective intelligence to bear in diagnosing the present and in proposing directions for effective reform in the future through the following activities:

  1. Develop a relevant historical survey of thinking and institutional efforts in general education.
  2. Assess the traditional philosophy, aims, and implementation of the ideas of general education.
  3. Identify the ongoing transformations that call out for rethinking, innovative ideas, and invention in the context of this tradition.
  4. Assess the curricular structures—the major, electives, core requirements, breadth requirements, certain types of integrative courses, and cafeteria-style offerings—through which collegiate education is currently delivered.
  5. Determine how to adapt the elements of strength in the tradition of general education to the identified changes in the situation of higher education.
  6. Examine the crucial organizational structures and practices relevant to general education, and fuse our interest in curricular and structural ingredients because both have decisive influences on the effectiveness of general education.
  7. Address the issues of reform and implementation. What are the best means of delivery—the best structures and practices—that will maximize capacity to develop and mobilize faculty for viable and sustainable programs of general education for their students?
  8. Produce a major report and implement a dissemination plan that will include on-line and print publications, as well as an aggressive publicity effort. The report will contain description, analysis, diagnosis, and recommendations for improving general education at this phase in the history of the nation’s colleges and universities.

Rationale and Context:

We elaborate our rationale for such a commission by asking three questions facing such a project: Why now? Why the focus on public institutions? Why California?


In confronting the question of "Why Now?", the commission is reflecting on, developing diagnoses of, and developing forward-looking recommendations that take into account the following developments:

  1. The culture of change in American higher education.
  2. Four trends in the internal environment that have changed the face of undergraduate education: The long-term consolidation of the “culture of research” in academia; fifty years of heavy involvement of the federal government in sponsoring and supporting large-scale research in universities; an increasing vocationalization of undergraduate education; and curricular changes that have challenged received notions of what constituted a general education for the college graduate.
  3. Changes in the external environment, including: The continuing diversification of students along the lines of age, gender, social class, ethnicity, race, and culture; the continuing interdependence of the world, with increased international flows of ideas, goods, capital, and people, and increased dependence of nations on one another; the uncertain future of the nation-state and political democracy around the world; changing forms of warfare, with the threat of international terrorism extending indefinitely into the future.
  4. Changes in the nature of citizenship and citizen participation.
  5. Changes in the delivery of education and the new information and communication technologies (ICTs).
  6. Structural and organizational impediments to interdisciplinary education and programs of general education in universities and colleges.


The commission focuses more on public universities and colleges than on private ones. The reasons for this choice are three:
(1) Public institutions are less tilted toward general education than are private ones.
(2) State institutions have been more at the mercy of budgetary fluctuations.
(3) Public institutions of higher education have experienced an increase in the number of interested “stakeholders,” which has resulted in more pressure on institutions’ budgets.


California has institutionalized the largest, richest, and arguably the most successful system of public higher education in the United States. The California higher educational system presents both great strengths for educational innovation and leadership in educational programs, and great complexities and obstacles to the realization of these strengths. The system lends itself well to systematic assessment of its educational missions.

While the specification of concrete strategies and mechanisms for reform is the proper work of the commission, the planning phases have produced the conviction that it is of great significance that the commission give high priority to the structural conditions for the reform of general education—dealing, for example, with fundamental issues of the “tyranny of the academic disciplines” over the undergraduate curriculum, the needed contribution of superordinate offices of deans of schools and colleges to reform, and, above all, constraining budgeting conventions. It is our impression that those interested in reform have succeeded in introducing discrete courses and programs—on globalization, information revolutions, the new international political and military scene, for example—but that the structural bases both for institutionalizing these changes and fostering further change have been little modified.

Michael Schudson (co-chair) 
Professor, Communication
Adjunct Professor, Sociology 
UC San Diego 
Professor, Graduate School of Journalism
Columbia University

Neil J. Smelser (co-chair)
University Professor of Sociology Emeritus
UC Berkeley

Jodi Anderson
2004-05 UC Student Regent
UC Los Angeles

Mark Appelbaum
Professor, Psychology
Associate Vice Chancellor, Undergraduate Education
UC San Diego

Thomas Carew
Bren Professor, Neurobiology and Behavior
UC Irvine

Pedro Castillo
Provost, Oakes College
Associate Professor, History
UC Santa Cruz

Lynda Goff
Professor, Biology
UC Santa Cruz

Andrew Grosovsky
Professor, Cell Biology 
Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education
UC Riverside

Patricia J. Gumport
Vice Provost for Graduate Education
Professor, Education
Director, Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research
Stanford University

Diane Harley
Senior Researcher, Center for Studies in Higher Education
UC Berkeley

Gregg Herken
Professor, School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts
UC Merced

Stanley Katz
Professor, Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy
Director, Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies
Princeton University

M. Gregory Kendrick
Professor, History
Director, Freshman Cluster Program
UC Los Angeles

Annie King
Professor, Animal Science
UC Davis

Joseph Kiskis
Professor, Physics
UC Davis

Raymond Knapp
Professor, Musicology
UC Los Angeles

William Ladusaw
Vice Provost & Dean of Undergraduate Education
Professor, Linguistics
UC Santa Cruz

Roger McWilliams
Professor, Physics & Astronomy
Director, Campuswide Honors Program
UC Irvine

Yolanda Moses
Professor, Vice Provost and Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Excellence and Diversity 
UC Riverside

Carolyn Porter
Professor, English
UC Berkeley

Julie Reuben
Professor, Graduate School of Education
Harvard University

Barbara Sawrey
Senior Lecturer and Vice Chair, Chemistry and Biochemistry
UC San Diego

Chand R. Viswanathan
Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Electrical Engineering
UC Los Angeles

Stephen Weatherford
Professor, Political Science
UC Santa Barbara

Muriel Zimmerman
Senior Lecturer Emerita, Writing 
UC Santa Barbara

Fall 2004:
Determine membership of committee. Send out invitations for participation.

January 2005:
Convene initial meeting of the commission.

Spring 2005 – Fall 2006:
Convene four additional meetings of the commission, determine publisher, catalogue and publish electronically programs of general education at the undergraduate level.

Spring 2007 :
Publish and disseminate final commission report on the web and in print form.

Background Quotations
18 January 2005 (PDF - 31 kB - 9 pages)

A compilation of quotations, collected by Michael Schudson, on the aims of general education, the history of general education, and the constraints on achieving the aims of general education programs in the American college and university.

Complete Commission Proposal
12 April 2004 (PDF - 59 kB - 17 pages)

The initial proposal for the creation of the commission, including background information, specific activities and timelines proposed, and citations of relevant literature


General Education in the 21st Century: 
A Report of the University of California Commission

 PDF document (743 kB)


Meeting Agenda
24 Jan 2005 (PDF - 15 kB - 2 pages)

Meeting Minutes
24 Jan 2005 (PDF - 61 kB - 5 pages)


Meeting Agenda
6 May  2005 (PDF - 11 kB - 1 page)

Meeting Minutes
22 Sept 2005 (PDF - 52 kB - 5 pages)


Meeting Agenda 
3 Mar 2006 (PDF - 24 kB - 1 page)

Meeting Minutes
26 Jan 2006 (PDF - 62 kB - 9  pages)