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USU's Norman L. Jones Recognized for Leadership in General Education Reform

Thursday, Oct. 04, 2012

USU faculty member, administrator Norman L. Jones

History professor Norman L. Jones is the 2012 recipient of the Jerry G. Gaff Faculty Award, honoring leadership in liberal and general education. He directs general education and curricular integration at Utah State University.

USU President Stan Albrecht with Norm Jones and department teaching award

During the time Jones was department head, USU's History Department received the university’s 2012 Department Teaching Excellence Award. Jones and the department’s faculty were congratulated by USU President Stan Albrecht.

Norman L. Jones, Utah State University’s director of general education and curricular integration, was recognized for his leadership in higher education reform. Jones, a professor of history, was honored with the Jerry G. Gaff Faculty Award by the Association for Liberal and General Studies at its fall conference in September.

The award honors those who demonstrate leadership in general and liberal education, outstanding teaching in these areas and who have a record of achievement in curriculum development and implementation. The award is named for Jerry Gaff, a renowned advocate for general and liberal education and senior scholar at the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Upon learning the identity of the 2012 recipient Dr. Gaff penned a congratulatory note read at the awards ceremony.

“I am pleased and proud that Norm was chosen by the selection committee because I have known him and admired his contributions to general education for many years,” he wrote. “He has excelled in providing leadership in general education for his department, his campus, his state and the nation.  I can only echo the words of one of his nominators who wrote, ‘I can think of no campus leader in the country who deserves this award more than Norm Jones.’”

He came to Utah State in 1978. Three years later Jones sat in on his first meeting on general education issues at the university, which he describes as “a great wrestling match” of ideas concerning the skills taught and required in the liberal arts.

“I shot my mouth off and the rest is history,” he laughed.

After attending conferences on general education reform Jones saw a need for more voices in the conversation. In 1998 he inaugurated the annual “What is an educated person?” conference in Utah, which invites representatives from every state institution and the state board of regents to participate in the discussion. Charlie Huenemann, professor of philosophy and associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at USU, has attended several and witnessed how Jones orchestrates input from all attendees.

“I am relatively new to the national conversations about general education and curriculum reform, and I count myself very fortunate indeed to have been introduced to it by Norm,” Huenemann wrote in his nomination letter for Jones. “He encourages everyone to participate, and to bring their disciplinary knowledge to the table; he recognizes that small changes add up over time; and — what is most important of all — he places at the center of all conversations that we are scholars, with a love of broad knowledge and a responsibility to impart the culture of learning to our students.”

The outcome often results in highlighting areas of overlap previously unknown, and gives individuals constructive ideas to bring back to their institutions, Huenemann said.

Jones chairs USU’s General Education Committee and the Utah Regents’ General Task Force. He also serves as a Fulbright Special Consultant, helping universities abroad transition to a liberal arts education. In November 2012 he will head to Hong Kong to assist with curriculum design.

“The system they had created produced excellent test takers and individuals who could give you the right answer,” he said. “It did not produce students capable of adapting to changes — skills needed in a global economy. [Liberal arts education] is being copied abroad at the same time it’s being pruned back here.”

Jones became head of USU’s history department in 1994. Under his leadership, the department emerged as a national leader in curriculum innovation, helping to construct a set of learning outcomes appropriate to the discipline. The American History Association recently cited the USU history department as a model for curriculum reform. In 2009, the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Utah System of Higher Education invited the department to join a national degree tuning experiment that looks beyond a students’ GPA and focuses more on the knowledge, understanding and abilities they gain. The idea is to establish meaningful criteria for evaluating degree worth and student achievement.

In spring 2012, the history department was honored with the university’s 2012 Department Teaching Excellence Award which recognizes department cultures that meaningfully value learning excellence. The prize came with a one-time $20,000 addition to the department’s budget. After heading the department for 19 years, Jones stepped down this summer to serve as the university’s director of general education and curricular integration.

“I kind of asked to step down and [university administrators] kind of asked me to step up,” Norm said.

John C. Allen, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, was one of voices encouraging him to devote more time to general education issues. Allen had spent years discussing with Jones how general education could be improved at Utah State and the possibility of creating a core curriculum for the college. He watched as Jones built stakeholders across the college to make it happen.

“Faculty now feel that they own this program, and that is in large part due to Norm bringing them into meaningful conversation about it,” Dean Allen wrote in his recommendation letter. “People are happy to join Norm’s team because they know he will help them join into intelligent and fruitful discussions about the core of our mission as educators.”

And that mission can become muddled as the purpose of a college education is debated in today’s society. Jones argues that general education should remain a fundamental component of higher learning.

“Everybody believes that college is good for you,” he said. “But many people think it is a one to one degree to job ratio. They see the general education part as in the way of the degree and the job.”

Jones doesn’t.

“An educated person is not just a person with a degree, it’s a person who went to college,” Jones said. “And that’s a different thing.”

Receiving the Jerry G. Gaff Faculty Award insures that Jones’ voice will be heard and valued in higher education discussions of this nature.

“This award reflects the prominent role that Dr. Jones has assumed in the national debate regarding improving liberal and general education,” said Utah State University Provost Raymond T. Coward.

The changes Jones has enacted in the USU history department such as creating new methods to measure student achievement are being considered for implementation statewide and beyond. He credits his success in this arena to working with faculty care about curriculum and about students.

“I and my colleagues in Utah have created a petri-dish for higher education reform,” Jones said. “It’s not that we’ve fixed everything, but we’re in a better position than most. If I manage to do anything it’s because I trust my colleagues. You listen to what they’re saying and what students are saying and you try to put them in conversation. That’s my stock and trade. Put people in a room and listen … and try to make it real.”

His new position at USU divides his time between teaching and pursuing research in the history department and working on general education and curriculum integration issues at the university. Part of his job is to streamline the general education system at Utah State so students can efficiently move towards degree completion without losing the quality of the experience. Over the next year Jones aims to complete a model showing how students move through the system and learn where improvements can be made.

“We need to be thinking about the curriculum for the 21st century and that requires a lot of faculty input,” he said. “The current model for general education was based on a Henry Ford assembly line where bits and pieces were added to build a whole education. In 1910 it looked like the thing to do, but now no one ever takes it out for a test drive, and certainly this isn’t a Henry Ford world anymore.”

Writer: Kristen Munson, (435) 797-0267,

Contact: Norman Jones, (435) 7979-1290,

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