New Committee to Reevaluate Undergraduate Education

The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), originally initiated by the Provost John Etchemendy and Vice Provost John Bravman, will re-examine current undergraduate General Education Requirements (GERs) and will determine if Stanford should continue to adhere to these standards.

Professor Harry Elam, drama chair and humanities professor, and James Campbell Ph.D. ’89, a history professor, are leading the commission, comprised of a total of 14 professors, three staff members, and two students.  This two-year process is just now getting underway and Elam and Campbell stressed that this process will take time.  They are scheduled to present their findings in 2011.

Elam and Campbell both stressed that this process is “healthy and natural” like “taking a car into the shop.”  The Commission on Undergraduate Education in 1994 is similar in nature to SUES.  Elam and Campbell, along with Vice Provost John Bravman, believe that the enormous changes in society and technology require the university to review its curriculum on a regular basis.

SUES will focus on general education requirements that all Stanford students face.  These requirements include IHUM, PWR, education for citizenship (ECs), and disciplinary breadth requirements.  Elam expressed, “The major objective is to review general education requirements and think about whether they are working and how they serve where students are going, where Stanford is going, and where the world is going.” They hope to articulate principles about the general education requirements and then use these principles to make recommendations.

Campbell insisted that they are “not proceeding here with an agenda or with instructions.”  Instead, SUES hopes to examine the rationale for general education requirements to ensure that rationale matches the current and future needs of students.  “If we are going to require courses of students, we better be able to explain at the end of this process why,” he said.

Campbell stated that when he asks students about why they are required to take Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM), he often receives a multitude of different rationales that differ from the rationale of Professor Russell Berman, head of comparative literature and faculty director of IHUM.  Berman stated that IHUM “is about introducing students to important ideas about being human.”

Professor Ken Taylor, professor of Philosophy, stated in a Faculty Senate meeting on April 15, 2010 that he thinks, “The humanities need to stand up and be counted and I do not know if IHUM does that.”  At the same meeting, professors expressed opposing views, but the general sentiment of the room concluded that students could not simply receive education only in the humanities or only in the sciences.

In a Faculty Senate meeting held March 15, 2010, Campbell expressed that universities “need to have a clear idea” about why they are requiring certain GERs and that “Stanford is not doing as good a job of that as it could.”

SUES hopes to gain as much student input as possible throughout this process.  They are currently participating in a “dorm storm” in which they visit a different dorm every Wednesday night to talk to current students about curriculum requirements.  Additionally, SUES met with the ASSU Senate Steering Committee.  The committee hopes to arrange a town hall meeting in the fall and to create a website that will allow students to post their opinion.  Elam stated that, “whatever decisions we make need to be incredibly informed by students [and] we are soliciting as many opinions as we can get.”

Stanford is also utilizing peer institutions to examine other means of creating general education requirements. SUES will represent Stanford at a conference in June with 30 other schools conducting curriculum reviews.   At this conference, SUES hopes to gain new ideas from peer institutions.  Campbell cited Brown University, which has no general education requirements, and compared it to Columbia and the University of Chicago, both of which have heavy general education requirements.

Stanford has a “hybrid system,” according to Professor Campbell, which currently has an Introduction to the Humanities requirement, disciplinary breadth requirements, education for citizenship requirements, a required Program in Writing and Rhetoric, and a foreign language requirement.  Campbell stated that Stanford has “a bevy of requirements that students face in addition to very heavy major requirements.”

One unique aspect to the Stanford education is that all majors face the same general education curriculum compared to other universities that often determine curriculum based on one’s major.  For example, engineering students at Stanford have the same general education requirements as history majors.  “Stanford has a unified vision for its students,” according to Elam.

“Universities tend to be very conservative places.  When you change a curriculum, you often find great resistance from faculty and students,” stated Campbell.  He stressed though that since SUES has no agenda, it is “perfectly conceivable that [SUES] might decide that what [Stanford] has is fine.”

Even if SUES determines Stanford’s general education requirements are sufficient, Elam expressed that the committee hopes to make clear why the general education requirements are in place.  “The rationale of what general education is doing…we’re going to be clear on that.”

More information will be available soon at sues.stanford.edu.  Through this website, students and faculty members will be able to post opinions and questions to SUES.

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