Widgets Magazine

Stanford begins major curriculum study

A top-level effort by the University to examine — and likely reshape — the undergraduate curriculum is officially underway.

The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford University (SUES) will attempt to achieve two objectives: articulating the goals and mission of undergraduate education on the Farm, and translating that philosophy into a set of practical recommendations regarding University-wide educational requirements.

These recommendations, though at least a year and a half away, could potentially remake the fundamental experience of Stanford undergraduates for a generation — or, alternately, solidify its current shape for years to come.

While setting the requirements for earning a major will remain the responsibility of individual departments, SUES will be expected to address the other issues that make up the undergraduate academic experience, including but not limited to current requirements for writing, breadth, distribution, citizenship and foreign language. SUES will also assess the role of programs like freshman and sophomore seminars, Introduction to the Humanities and the Program in Writing and Rhetoric.

Stanford’s last similar effort was 1994’s Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE), which at the time “undertook the first comprehensive study of Stanford’s undergraduate program in 25 years.” Driving the new effort of SUES are Provost John Etchemendy and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education John Bravman ‘79, M.S. ’81, Ph.D. ’85. The formal charge for SUES, co-written by the two, argues for the new effort as a necessity and a responsibility for a different world and an evolved institution.

“It is approaching 15 years since the current curriculum was designed,” the charge reads. “During this time, our world, our students and Stanford University have changed — profoundly so in some instances. It is time to review our curriculum, to reaffirm or revise our goals for an undergraduate education and to ensure our requirements reflect our stated goals.”

“Much has changed in the 15 years since the Commission,” the charge continues. “The growing social, political, economic and ecological interconnectedness of the world certainly challenges us to look more broadly at what it means to be an educated citizen.”

James Campbell Ph.D. ‘89, a history professor, and Harry Elam, drama chair and humanities professor, will co-chair the 15-member SUES Task Force committee.

Elam, who has been at Stanford since 1990, has been active in issues affecting undergraduates since that time and has served as senior associate vice provost for undergraduate education. Campbell studied at Stanford in graduate school and lectured during the 1988-1989 academic year, but departed for work at other institutions. He returned to the Farm as a tenured professor in 2008, leaving Brown University, where he chaired the university’s Steering Committee on Slavery & Justice.

The work of SUES will take at least a year and a half, according to Etchemendy. Its proposals are scheduled for presentation in the spring and Fall 2011 to the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policies and the Faculty Senate.

Speaking before the Senate, both Elam and Campbell emphasized that they, and other committee members, will enter the process with open minds.

“The work on SUES is not driven by any prescriptive agenda or any answers, but by a series of critical questions,” Elam said.

“I think we don’t do this with an agenda, or if there is one, we haven’t been informed of it,” Campbell said. “We are simply at a moment when the University has gone through really quite profound changes, and the society we live in has gone through profound changes — I think that it is time to see where we are, see what we require of our students [and] see whether the requirements as they currently exist are effective and coherent.”

Elam added that he hopes SUES will focus on building upon existing strengths at Stanford.

“We will also look at our peers and other external institutions to see what sort of innovative and exciting things are happening in terms of undergraduate requirements,” Elam said. “But most importantly, and significantly, we want to find something that is the right fit for Stanford — that works here, and is true to us.”

“What we do is a very good thing in terms of undergraduate education,” Elam added. “In fact, we’ve been a leader in that area, and it is our hope to continue that.”

The task force committee also includes two students: chemistry major Nayoung Woo ’12, and history and philosophy major Aysha Bagchi ’11, who is also a Daily columnist. In addition to Stephanie Kalfayan, vice provost for academic affairs, the rest of the committee membership is made up of 10 faculty members.

These 10 represent a range of disciplines involved in undergraduate education, including two professors from the social sciences, three from the natural sciences and two from engineering. Including Elam and Campbell, five of the 15 participants are humanities scholars — one-third of the total membership.

The complete faculty are: Lanier Anderson, philosophy; Jonathan Berger, music; Sarah Billington, civil and environmental engineering; Timothy Bresnahan, economics; Christopher Edwards, mechanical engineering; Susan McConnell, biology; Kathryn Moler, applied physics; Rob Reich, political science; Jennifer Summit, English; and Ravi Vakil, mathematics.

Scott Calvert, Sharon Palmer and LaCona Woltmon from the office of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education will also serve as SUES staff. SUES was first announced by Bravman in the fall in a presentation to the Faculty Senate.