9/6/19 Johnston

Michael Johnston, an English and Cornerstone professor, teaches one of his SCLA 101 classes in WALC 3132.

While some say the Cornerstone program is beneficial, some faculty believe the program is draining their resources as it heads into its third year.

The program provides a liberal arts foundation for STEM students and has five themes that are designed for different STEM majors.

English and Cornerstone professor Michael Johnston said the basic premise of Cornerstone is that it offers SCLA 101, which covers written communication requirements, and SCLA 102, which satisfies oral communication requirements.

SCLA 101 and 102 are gateway courses, meaning all students must take those courses to continue further in the program. Students are required to take 15 credit hours to receive the certificate, according to Purdue’s course catalog.

The program is faculty-inspired and driven, though Purdue President Mitch Daniels and members of the Board of Trustees are strong advocates for Cornerstone, according to program director Melinda Zook.

“I’m a strong supporter of programs like Cornerstone as an opportunity for all undergraduates to study texts that have stood the test of time and to consider the impact of STEM disciplines on humanity,” Daniels said via email.

Although the program only began about three years ago, both SCLA 101 and 102 sections have been filled every semester since fall 2018, according to Zook.

This fall, Zook said there are 1,776 students enrolled in the first-year Cornerstone courses. More than two-thirds of students enrolled in 2017 to 2019 were from the Polytechnic Institute or the College of Engineering. Most departments in the Polytechnic Institute require first-year students to participate in Cornerstone.

Although the Cornerstone program has support from upper administration, some students are confused as to why they are required to take its courses.

“I’m not benefiting a ton from it,” said Dylan Davis, a freshman in the Polytechnic Institute. “I did very similar courses in high school, so I really should have been able to get credit for a couple of Cornerstone classes.”

Davis said some courses seem repetitive and thus unnecessary.

“The entire reason I did higher-level classes in high school was to get them out of the way so I wouldn’t have to do them in college,” Davis said.

Johnston says some English courses fit Cornerstone themes and can count towards the certificate of liberal arts.

“That’s a pure positive for the English department because we’re getting more students in our classes,” Johnston said.

Cornerstone pulls professors from other departments to teach courses. With a decrease in faculty members in the English department, faculty now have to share their time between their department and the program.

Johnston said that although Cornerstone is a good program, there are areas of tension as some faculty believe there might be a sacrifice for the English department when faculty are teaching for the program.

“How do we share faculty who are in their home department and have their teaching needs?” Johnston said. “Suddenly, a number of faculty are somewhere else (and) it can cause problems because there’s not enough people to cover courses.”

Johnston said there are at least 30 literature professors, and about ten of those professors are teaching outside their department.

Currently, the English department faculty are teaching nine sections in Cornerstone, according to David Reingold, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

Dorsey Armstrong, head of the English department, said the department’s faculty numbers have been decreasing in the last few years.

“We’ve lost a lot of faculty to retirements or taking jobs elsewhere, and only in a very few instances have we been given permission to fill those vacancies,” Armstrong said.

Between 2013 and the end of 2019, the English department will have lost about 20 tenure-track faculty members. The department has only been able to hire five professors in that time, according to Armstrong. All departments in CLA submit hiring requests to Reingold.

“We’ve requested hires every year,” she said.

Some faculty members in other departments have a different experience when it comes to Cornerstone.

History and Cornerstone professor Yvonne Pitts said her experience in Cornerstone has been positive.

“I think I’ve had an opportunity to reach out and mentor students who normally wouldn’t sit in my history class,” Pitts said, “and that’s been a really positive experience for me.”

Though Pitts supports the program, she said she does not deny it has flaws.

“Are there things I would change in Cornerstone? Of course there are, but we’re (only) three years old,” Pitts said.

Sociology professor Spencer Headworth, who is set to teach in Cornerstone next fall, said via email, “I have been well-supported, and worked with my department head and Cornerstone to make mutually beneficial arrangements.”

The number of faculty splitting their time between their department and Cornerstone will only increase, according to Zook, as some new hires will be required to teach in the program.

Zook said Cornerstone’s purpose is to give STEM students the communication and writing skills that liberal arts classes help cultivate.

Daniels has been implementing ways to incorporate more liberal arts into other programs as he encourages every student to take courses in what he calls “HELP” — history, economics, literature and philosophy, according to Reingold’s letter to faculty in 2016.

“In the past decade, liberal arts programs all across the country have seen sharp declines in majors,” Daniels said. “I’ve been very glad to see Purdue’s (CLA) turn its enrollment in a positive direction in recent years.”

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