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QUEST: The Path to PEAK

July 1, 2022

This story is included in the most recent issue of Quest Magazine, the College's twice-yearly Alumni publication. To view the entire issue online, or to view longer-form "Quest Extra" pieces, click here.

When the history of The College of Idaho in the early 21st century is written, the adoption of the PEAK curriculum will be the decisive moment. Along with reverting to our historic name – after the brief dalliance with Albertson College – the innovation of co-presidents, the return of football and the dramatic rise in international and first-generation college students on campus, the continued dedication to our liberal arts core gives meaning to everything we do as an institution. 

While he often protests that PEAK evolved as the creation of many minds, its originator is Political Economy Professor Rob Dayley. Ironically, some of the generative discussions for the program occurred between Dayley and fellow Asian Studies maven, History professor Jeff Snyder-Reinke – so much for the Western Canon ruling curriculum. Our emblematic program owes its origin story more to Confucius, Buddha and Taoism than to Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. 

Rob Dayley is above all modest, yet he has been a force for making our campus more international. He has advised our award-winning Model U.N. delegation, taken our students on 11 trips to Southeast Asia and China, is fluent in Thai, was the 2011 winner of the Carnegie Foundation “Idaho Professor of the Year,” and was named the second Fulbright Specialist from the College by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (Jim Angresano was the first). This past academic year, Dayley served as president of the faculty. A father of three, he managed to slip off to Salt Lake City for his daughter’s graduation and wedding at the end of the spring term.  

And what is now the PEAK curriculum was his idea. Momentum for change started when then-Dean Mark Smith proposed we needed to examine our core curriculum. Meetings were held and ideas bandied. This was in 2008. Dayley remembers: 

“Mark Smith ... decided that fall we would begin to have discussions about our liberal arts core, that we would sort of audit it as a faculty and consider ways to improve it. During Winter Session 2009, Mark and Denny [Religion professor Denny Clark] hosted three all-faculty discussions on our liberal arts core. Data was provided showing how our liberal core was smaller in total credits than many other aspirational schools (as well as even some local universities’ basic core).” 

What became our distinctive core curriculum developed from these early discussions. According to Dayley, the curricular idea came before the acronym. He remembers that he and Snyder-Reinke were struggling with the “K” and former Political Economy professor Jasper LiCalzi, whose office was across the hall, yelled “what about ‘Knowledgeable’” and the four PEAKs were named. But the real question was the tricky business of how to include all disciplines. Dayley reflects: 

“I got to thinking about whether the whole College could adopt this challenging curriculum across the board, for all students. I also realized we could categorize Business, Accounting, and Education as ‘Professional Studies’ and make them options in this new curriculum. I’m a strong believer that in Idaho, attracting students to a liberal arts college is difficult because prospective students and families are unfamiliar with this education tradition and often see college solely in terms of return on investment, as a professional gateway. I figured maybe we could market a new curriculum that sought to marry these oft disparate areas of ‘liberal arts’ and ‘professional studies.’”  

During 2009, Dayley sketched out a “New Core”; here the innovative one major and three minor construct gestated. New President Marv Henberg was an enthusiastic supporter. The acronym followed: Professional, Ethical, Articulate and Knowledgeable named the philosophy behind the curriculum, and Dayley’s construct defined it.  

After extensive discussions, the faculty passed it by a nearly unanimous vote in the fall of 2009. The essential idea – a broad liberal arts college education with one major and three minors -- perseveres. Originally, the discussions centered on what should and should not be included in the core. Some worried that business (the College’s largest major) did not fit. Dayley successfully argued that it needed to be included. PEAK began in earnest in 2009-2010.  

LiCalzi shared his thoughts that the program was simpler to get going than expected: 

"Implementation by the faculty was much easier than most people thought it would be. This was because the beauty of PEAK, from the faculty’s perspective, was it did not require any new courses to be offered and would merely group the courses into different categories.”  

LiCalzi added, “I am especially proud that the College’s trademark is its academics and not a peripheral aspect of our mission.”

Of course, with any innovative program, issues arose over time and Dayley candidly notes: 

“PEAK ‘tweaks’ occurred…. Some of these were due to curricular inequities and bottlenecks inherent to PEAK. Others were driven more by concerns over assessment and responsibility for assessment. The most radical change to PEAK came a few years ago when the faculty voted to move originally categorized ‘professional’ programs (Business, Accounting and Education) into the Social Science, move or eliminate all other minors in the professional peak, and take our current First Year program and call that a ‘professional minor.’”  

Sadie Dittenber, editor of the student newspaper “The Coyote,” and May graduate gave the program credit for attracting her to the College and appreciated her academic experience: 

“I came to C of I because of the PEAK program. I was in Sweden at the time, and really stressed about choosing a school…. I wanted to be able to study politics and literature and journalism all at the same time. I think the PEAK program is really unique, and I’ve loved being able to study all different programs and see the ways they are all connected. My freshman year, I took a winter term religion course called Ghosts and Zombies, and then it connected with my Civ class and my [Political Economy] classes, and my History classes. It was so cool to see that bigger picture.”  

PEAK’s lasting legacy may come from an unexpected area – recruitment. Mathematics professor, faculty leader, and alum Lynda Danielson ‘89 mentioned attracting new students: 

“One thing the PEAK curriculum has provided is a means by which to speak with prospective and new students about our liberal arts curriculum. Students understand the notion of ‘one major and three minors’ and are excited by the possibility of building their programs. [PEAK for me is a clever repackaging of the liberal arts in a meaningful way to contemporary students.]”   

In the end, the faculty may have some more tweaking to do, but a dozen years on, we are the College with the PEAK curriculum. Dayley expresses the feelings of many when he says that PEAK has helped the College fundraise and attract students. He believes it gave: “the College a brand, a distinctive identity in what is the most challenging industry-wide enrollment crisis among liberal arts colleges since World War II. The College of Idaho is more distinctive because of PEAK.” 

The curriculum’s road, like the course of true love, has not always been smooth. PEAK tweaks have continued and the originally robust minors have evolved; the professional PEAK has flattened and other revisions have been initiated. But be it marketing, academic excellence, recruitment, or simply as a distinctive identity, PEAK distinguishes us.  

The College of Idaho has a 130-year-old legacy of excellence. The College is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition, and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. For more information, visit