Elam In as New Vice Provost

One of the first faces to greet the sea of incoming freshmen this fall is, thankfully, a friendly one. Harry Elam Jr., who replaced John Bravman as Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education this summer, will address the class of 2014 at New Student Orientation in September. It will be a time of orientation and acclimatization for both parties.

But unlike the freshmen, Elam is no stranger to Stanford. As the Olive H. Palmer Professor in the Humanities and the Director of the Institute of Diversity in the Arts, he comes to the job equipped with twenty years of teaching experience and a plethora of awards, including the Betty Jones Award for Outstanding Teaching and the Humanities and Science Dean’s Distinguished Teaching Award. Despite his impressive résumé, he describes himself as someone who simply loves both teaching and learning.

“There is nothing better that I enjoy than being a professor,” says Elam. “You’re reborn every September.

Before being elected Vice Provost, Elam was the co-chair of the two-year Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), which is responsible for evaluating general education requirements for undergraduates through a series of faculty-led committees. While Elam himself will no longer serve on the committee, he will play an important role in implementation. As Vice Provost, his responsibilities include overseeing general education and the Bing Oversees Studies Program.

Elam is well informed about the curriculum changes facing the university. One of the subcommittees of SUES, entitled, “The Freshman Year Experience,” will tackle one of the most divisive undergraduate institutions – IHUM, which has been known to unite freshman either in shared interest or vociferous contempt. Elam – an IHUM professor himself – cannot ignore the course’s mediocre reputation.

“The rationale of why we’re requiring it and what we’re asking students to do needs to be clearer,” he says.

And the reason students should take an intro-level liberal arts course is clear in his mind.

“The course should be a ramp up into undergraduate life at Stanford or undergraduate intellectual life at Stanford. It should open up possibilities of what it means to study at college.”

The committee will have to determine whether to preserve IHUM or replace it with a program similar to Western Civ, which was abandoned by the University in 1963 in favor of ‘Western Culture,’ and later, CIV (Cultures, Ideas and Values.) The evolution of the course, says Elam, was based on the need to find a class that better suited a changing student body, environment, and university.

“Within that change, what is necessary?” Elam asks. “What do we want to do for 21st century citizenship, how will we help that?

In an effort to answer that question, one sub-committee will concern itself with sustainability – a potential requirement for Education for Citizenship. Another will look at the question of diversity across Stanford’s curriculum – what Elam calls the ‘diversity of knowledge.’ A student drilling in the Middle East, he says, will not only need an extensive knowledge of engineering and earth sciences, but will need to think of “human interaction and the questions of diverse cultures that go with it.

There are, of course, other forms of diversity on campus. Elam does not turn a blind eye to the prickly divide between so-called “techies” and “fuzzies.” He acknowledges that fewer techies are able to travel abroad due to class constraints, and while a B.S. in engineering can require up to 119 units, a B.A. in English requires approximately 70. However, Elam seeks more broadly to reform the culture at Stanford that has created such large division in the first place.

“You wouldn’t have gotten into this school unless you have both parts fuzzy and techie,” he says. “Both of those things are necessary. To work in this world you’re going to need to think outside of the box – to think creatively in ways that may be ‘fuzzy thinking.’ Similarly, people who are engaged in humanities or other disciplines need to have quantitative reasoning to survive as well.”

As a professor of drama himself, with a specialty in African American theater, Elam understands the importance of the liberal arts in any education. He founded the Arts Intensive program, now in its second year, which enables rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors to take summer classes in a specific artistic discipline, such as documentary filmmaking, ballet, and design. The mission of Arts Intensive – “The Arts Become Inescapable at Stanford” – is one that resonates well with Elam’s vision for undergraduate life. He seeks to move away from the idea that a liberal arts education ends after freshman year.

While there will therefore be an effort to encourage diversity across the curriculum, there is still a somewhat startling lack of political diversity on campus. A 2005 study in Academic Questions announced that the liberal faculty members at Stanford outnumber their conservative counterparts almost 7.6 to 1. But Elam assured the Review that “Stanford has never hired on the basis of political thought or position. One’s politics is not critical to what’s going to happen in my classroom.”

One potential change in Stanford’s undergraduate community in the upcoming years will be the possible return of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). While Elam will not be directly involved in the decision-making process, he says that it is “pretty exciting that there’s potential for this to happen at Stanford.” A committee established by the Faculty Senate will announce its decision by the end of this academic year. Currently, ROTC students must trek to other nearby universities, such as Berkeley and Santa Clara, for their training.

To the horde of freshman arriving in September, these changes might not seem immediately important, especially relative to fountain-hopping, dorm pride, and NSGlow. But the undergraduate education that Elam envisions will hopefully better prepare students for the world outside the Stanford bubble. The most important skill, he says, regardless of major, is having a flexible mind.

“That’s the thing we hope the liberal education at Stanford can encourage,” he says.

His advice to freshmen?

“Take advantage of Stanford,” he says. “Slow down so that you can enjoy that experience and reflect on it.”

And with the onslaught of new people, courses, and experiences, it’s not bad advice.

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