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Senate discusses student workload and Stanford's computing infrastructure, and applauds Bass University Fellows

At the Faculty Senate's first meeting of fall quarter, a panel of professors talked about how their departments had chosen the number of units required for majors, and the chair of the Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems talked about expanding the university's wireless Internet and telephone service.

L.A. Cicero Professors Kam Moler, Brad Osgood, Gavin Jones and Rosemary Knight

Professors Kathryn Moler, Brad Osgood, Gavin Jones and Rosemary Knight took part in a panel discussion on unit requirements for majors.

Provost John Etchemendy announced at Thursday's Faculty Senate meeting that eight faculty members had been named or reappointed Bass University Fellows.

Established in 2001, the Bass University Fellows in Undergraduate Education Program recognizes faculty, including faculty from the graduate and professional schools, for extraordinary contributions to undergraduate education.

Each of the Bass Fellow appointments is named in honor of donors who made significant gifts to the Stanford Endowment for Undergraduate Education during The Campaign for Undergraduate Education, which ended in 2005.

The program was named in honor of Anne T., MLA '07, and Robert M. Bass, MBA '74, who provided matching funds to launch it. Once a faculty member rotates out of an individual fellow appointment, he or she becomes a Bass University Fellow in Undergraduate Education in perpetuity.

The Bass Fellows are:

  • Sarah L. Billington, civil and environmental engineering, who was named the Milligan Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education;
  • John K. Eaton, mechanical engineering, who was named the Martin Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education;
  • Michele Elam, English, who was named the Olivier Nomellini Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education;
  • Gabriel Garcia, medicine, who was named the William and Dorothy Kaye University Fellow in Undergraduate Education;
  • Susan Holmes, statistics, who was named the John Henry Samter University Fellow in Undergraduate Education;
  • Julie Kennedy, environmental Earth system science, who was reappointed the Landreth Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education;
  • Sheri D. Sheppard, mechanical engineering, who was reappointed the Burton J. and Deedee McMurtry University Fellow in Undergraduate Education; and
  • Fred Turner, communication, who was named the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang University Fellow in Undergraduate Education.

Discussion on student workload

Martha A. Cyert, senior associate vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of biology, presented a report, Discussion on Student Workload, which comprised data collected by the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.

Last year, Cyert said, the senate spent a lot of time enacting and legislating the recommendations of the 2011 Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES).

Cyert said the SUES report did not address units in the majors, but did raise various concerns on the topic: whether unit requirements for majors were increasing, whether that was constraining students' course choices, and whether, in fact, Stanford had gotten to the point where some of its high-unit-count majors were restricted and not accessible to all incoming students.

"The purpose of this report is really just to launch a discussion and give us a starting point for further study," Cyert said. She said the data would be available to any department that requested the report.

Her presentation included five charts: average number of student-reported hours spent outside classroom per unit of credit; unit of credit requirements for selected majors 1991-2011; number of Stanford units taken by recipients of BA and/or BS degrees 1991-2011; types of degrees awarded; and amount of free course choice in student career 2010-11.

A panel of four professors gave short presentations on the way their departments had arrived at unit counts for various majors: Gavin Jones, English; Rosemary Knight, geophysics; Brad Osgood, electrical engineering; and Kathryn Moler, physics and applied physics.

"This is a wonderful study," said Andrea Goldsmith, professor of electrical engineering.

"I know we've talked about units in majors for years and years in the senate, and this is a very comprehensive set of data, but for me it actually raises more questions than it solves. You look at the trends. Why are  there more coterms? Is that student-driven? Is it driven by certain majors? Is this across all majors, or only certain majors that lead to more professional degrees? Is there a problem? Even saying students are taking more classes - what are they sacrificing, if anything, as a result?"

Goldsmith said she would like to see more data on the topic. The report, she said, motivates asking deeper questions about the trends.

"Are they student-driven?" she asked. "Is it parent-driven in that they want students to major in majors where they're going to make money, but the students want to do something else? Ultimately we want to answer the question: Do we have a problem with units? And then, if so, how should it be addressed? I don't think there's enough information here to even answer that question. But it's certainly a start."

Harry Elam Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education, said the study was meant to start the conversation on units in majors. 

Elam, too, said the study raised questions: What are students doing with these extra units – and why? What does it mean that we're seeing this upward trend? Also, what's happening to student time?

Elam said his office was getting more petitions from students to take more than 20 units.

"Why is there that rise as well?" Elam asked. "These are some of the questions we need to look at thinking about the undergraduate experience."

C-ACIS annual report

Howard A. Zebker, chair of the Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems (C-ACIS), said the committee addressed two major topics during the 2011-2012 academic year: the university's computing infrastructure, and the rapidly changing challenge of online education.

In its annual report, the committee made four recommendations:

  • Examine how to expand and make consistent access to wireless Internet and telephone networks for the Stanford community. This may entail either reprogramming or augmenting the IT Services budget.
  • Move quickly to integrate student, staff and faculty use of commercial service solutions such as Gmail and Google Docs into secure Stanford methods and procedures.
  • Devote C-ACIS meeting time to summary presentations about campus experimentation and assessment of online teaching, concentrating on both the infrastructure needed to enable computers in the classroom and on exchanging best practices.
  • Devote one C-ACIS meeting per year to student input about IT issues.

The committee's 31-page report can be found on the Faculty Senate website, by clicking on the Oct. 11 agenda.

Minutes available next week

The full minutes of the meeting, including the presentations of panelists and the question-and-answer session that followed, will be available next week on the senate's website.

The next Faculty Senate meeting will be held Oct. 25.