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Stanford overcommitted in its teaching programs, Faculty Senate told
STANFORD -- Stanford is overcommitted in its teaching programs, according to the Faculty Senate's Planning and Policy Board.
In his quarterly report to the senate on Thursday, May 19, Planning and Policy Board Chair Arthur Bienenstock, materials science, said this has come about over the years as the university has introduced new instructional tracks and extra-departmental programs and new departmental and distribution requirements, without removing much from the curriculum.
Bienenstock said that in a few departments an "appreciable" number of upper-division courses are taught by non-Academic Council instruction staff rather than regular faculty. In one popular undergraduate program, he said, 40 percent of the courses are taught by non-Academic Council faculty.
This deprives students of the opportunity to study with Stanford's top scholars, he said.
Initially, one might think interdepartmental programs (IDPs) "are a nightmare," and no more should be added, Bienenstock said, "but for some faculty and students they are a very exciting thing." Bienenstock heads the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, one of university's largest interdepartmental programs.
The formation of new tracks and interdepartmental programs provides an avenue for faculty innovation, he said.
However, some fear that faculty commitment to the programs is weakening regular academic departments. Stanford must "reexamine the relationship between interdepartmental programs and the departments," Bienenstock said, and "consider measures that may be drastic," such as eliminating majors in departments that have few students.
Inviting thoughtful consideration of the issues, Bienenstock also asked the senate to think about whether it is fair for the university to require courses - such as freshman English and Cultures, Ideas and Values - that the faculty "is not prepared to teach."
The Planning and Policy Board was created two years ago to consider the university's academic vision and mission and to propose important academic policy issues for faculty consideration. This was the first time the board came to the senate for such a lengthy discussion of a fundamental academic issue. No action was sought or taken.
The hour-long senate discussion that followed Bienenstock's presentation focused on the value of interdepartmental programs, the use of parafaculty, (lecturers, senior lecturers and instructors) the balance of teaching and research, and the question of how to balance course "supply" with course "demand."
Problems with interdepartmental programs
Genetics Professor David Botstein, another member of the Planning and Policy Board, worried about interdepartmental programs, saying that "in a sense, the IDP mechanism is a failed evolution of a department."
Instead of departments embracing interdepartmental programs in their own portfolio, what happens is that sometimes faculty enthusiasm for a program falls off. "There is no good way to get rid of these things," he said, "and no good way to support them."
"You could change the demand, you could change the supply, you could change the departments, you could change the IDPs," Botstein said. "We probably ought to change something because the current system is expensive and inefficient. To some extent, we are advertising one thing and delivering something different."
Speaking on behalf of interdepartmental programs, Hester Gelber, religious studies, said they are the focal point of faculty creativity. "We have allowed creativity within the institution to slip almost completely into the IDPs" rather than departments, which in some cases are "atrophying" without student majors. However, departments have the billets and the financial strength, she said.
Speaking from her experience of close involvement with three interdepartmental programs, Regenia Gagnier, English, complained that the programs are treated like second-class citizens. She said she often is not invited to meetings where issues relating to the program in Modern Thought and Literature are brought up.
"Faculty are only in programs by the grace of departments," she said. Programs should be given "some voice," even if they are not given more money.
Although they are starved for resources, said John Shoven, dean of humanities and sciences, interdepartmental programs are growing in popularity partly because of student satisfaction and faculty interest. "Many are resource starved," he said, "but nonetheless, they are growing.
"Even if we are overcommitted, it's not clear we want to tamp down some of the areas where there are the highest levels of satisfaction and greatest enthusiasm on the part of students.
"Part of the story is that the IDPs have been successful despite the fact that they're treated as stepchildren within our schools for the most part," he said.
Sandy Fetter, physics and a former associate dean of humanities and sciences, told the senate of his experience in the dean's office, observing that no faculty member could be found to take over as director of a once-strong interdepartmental program. Eventually a lecturer was appointed.
Roger Noll, economics, said he believes "most IDPs are shells" - groups of faculty who collectively decide to list their courses with virtually no incremental teaching and no operating budget expenditures for parafaculty.
Noll said he agreed with Fetter that interdepartmental programs "should die if there isn't a core of tenure-track faculty" willing to teach in them.
How much parafaculty?
The senators also discussed the issue of how much teaching should be done by parafaculty versus tenured and tenure-track faculty.
George Dekker, English and associate dean for graduate policy, said that when Humanities and Sciences dropped the teaching requirement from five courses to four several years ago, "there was a dramatic drop" in the number of courses he was able to teach in Cultures, Ideas and Values and American studies, which are outside his department. He suggested that increasing the teaching load would have advantages.
Jim Adams, mechanical engineering, said he thought - though this was not documented - that teaching load has gone down in the classroom but up in doctoral advising. He said that "what needs looking at is how we apportion" teaching effort. Faculty are tired, he said, but that is "normal, over- achiever tired."
Dekker said he was pleased with a change in the way junior faculty are treated. Thirty years ago, they sometimes taught half again as many courses as the tenured faculty. This is no longer the case, and the slack has been taken up largely by parafaculty, he said.
"It is desirable to have a certain percentage of teaching done by parafaculty, some of whom do the job better than we do," Dekker said. He conceded, however, that "it has gone too far."
David Kennedy, chair of history, said that the teaching program should be the primary responsibility of the regular faculty. It is "not healthy" to have so much teaching done by non-Academic Council faculty, he said.
David Abernethy, political science, pointed out that the two distribution requirements considered most crucial - freshman writing (now called writing and critical thinking) and Cultures, Ideas and Values - are dependent on parafaculty.
It is in those programs that the non-Academic Council faculty are crucial, he said. "This poses a kind of paradox: The two distribution requirements that we think are crucial are ones in which we depend absolutely on the parafaculty."
The university, he said, has the choice of upgrading the status and pay of parafaculty who teach those programs. Or it could decide that a writing requirement and Cultures, Ideas and Values are not needed, in which case it can move toward a more faculty-intensive model.
"But I don't think one can have both," he said.
John Bender, English, suggested an alternative to hiring parafaculty to "teach courses we are requiring but are not willing to teach." The university, he said, could substitute a requirement that would have each department or program in the humanities and social sciences offer an array of freshman-level courses. Students would be required to take a range of the courses.
The Commission on Undergraduate Education should not be treating Cultures, Ideas and Values "as a sacred cow," he said.
Balancing teaching and research
Bob Simoni, chair of biological sciences, praised the Planning and Policy Board for initiating the discussion. "This is the best kind of discussion the senate could have," he said. "But I'm concerned about the focus of it."
The questions raised are a subset of the bigger issue of "what are we as an institution and what is our balance of teaching and research."
"There is a national hue and cry about the role of universities in teaching students as opposed to doing research," he said. Stanford is uniquely a combination of Swarthmore and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he said. But he questioned whether this could continue, given limitations of time and financial resources.
Simoni disagreed with statements that faculty are teaching less. A recent survey, he said, showed that his department had, by a factor of two, the largest number of student contact hours by tenure-line faculty and the largest number of graduate degrees awarded among the schools with which it competes.
"Faculty have no time for scholarship and research," he said. "We need to decide for ourselves . . . whether we can continue to walk this tightrope between teaching and research, or whether we should unapologetically declare ourselves a research university, do the best damn job we can at our teaching, but set the priority and set it quite clearly."
Bienenstock replied that he sees less of a dichotomy between teaching and research. He and the board view Stanford as "consisting of outstanding scholars and what comes with that is a group of highly selective students capable of profiting from learning and studying with such scholars."
This convinces him, he said, that upper-division classes should only be taught by the regular faculty.
One way in which Stanford differs from other institutions, he said, is the low barriers between departments. Another is the emphasis on teaching. When he was at Harvard, teaching never was mentioned, he said to laughter.
Bienenstock described arriving at Stanford under the late engineering Dean Joseph Petit, who, he said, told the new tenured faculty over lunch that the school took teaching and curricular development very seriously. Petit encouraged the faculty to write textbooks, not just journal articles.
"This institution is unique in that sense," Bienenstock said. "I have watched a high degree of student satisfaction that comes from that combination."
Teaching, learning, research are the same
President Gerhard Casper said that innovation will be possible only "if we redeploy resources."
"It is possible that less may be more," he said.
It is "absolutely crucial that we monitor on a school by school, department by department, IDP by IDP basis, what we are doing," Casper said. "It is not a question of IDPs being sacrificed to departments or vice versa. Both IDPs and departments have to be critically reviewed. None can be immune.
"An institution like ours can flourish and survive only if teaching, learning, research are viewed as just different aspects of the same thing. I hope students come here because they can take courses with faculty who are at the frontier."
He said that while it was appropriate for some courses to be taught by non-Academic Council faculty, the basic premise must be that most courses are taught by tenured faculty.
Simoni told Casper that the institution "could choose to do less teaching and commit the funds taken from the non-tenure line faculty to bolster the research operation and the teaching that goes along with it, rather than shift teaching from non-tenure line to tenure-line faculty."
Casper responded, "that's what I meant when I said less may be more."
Russell Berman, German and comparative literature and director of overseas studies, suggested that the importance of scholarship does not always correlate to high enrollments, and therefore billet decisions should not be solely a function of enrollments.
"Enrollments, however, should be a criterion. Enrollments are not flowing through the free market, they are a function of requirements," he said.
"In that spirit, I have tried to lobby the Commission on Undergraduate Education that the requirements for undergraduate education should include something like a foreign cultural literacy that would contribute to growing enrollments in this sector."
Currently, Stanford has "disincentives" against the study of foreign cultures, and they should be abolished, he said.
Several senators were interested in how Overseas Studies is surviving billet cuts in the foreign language area.
Berman replied that the direct effect is hard to track. The Overseas Studies budget was cut "with particular grimness" several years ago, resulting in fewer opportunities for students to go overseas.
Further cutting in the foreign language and literature area surely will lead to decreased volume of teaching and a "resulting contraction of the intellectual horizon that we offer in undergraduate education."
Whether that is a "kind of creeping isolationism in our curriculum" is a matter that might be discussed another day, Berman said.
Robert Polhemus, English and member of a task force studying foreign languages and literatures, said the task force is considering the idea of merging the departments into a division. But if the division is not given back recent billet cuts, which he estimated at 20 percent, "my sense is that the promising division idea and the sense of purpose behind it will come to grief."
Shoven responded that four billets out of 42 have been removed in the language area, but this is not necessarily permanent. How they will be redeployed - elsewhere in the school or back in foreign languages and literatures - will be based largely on enrollments, particularly undergraduate enrollments, he said.
Supply and demand
Jim Sheehan, history and chair of the Commission on Undergraduate Education, said that the relationship of resources and commitment is the question, especially in light of current limitations on resources.
"We ought to think not only of demand side," he said, but also of the supply side, which is the result of decisions that have some elasticity. Size of teaching load and how much time is spent with graduate students as opposed to undergraduates are considerations that affect the supply, he said.
Sylvia Yanagisako, anthropology, said there are other ways to view the disjuncture of what is being offered and what is being demanded by students.
Turning around two of the questions Bienenstock's report had posed to the senate, she asked if the university should continue "to hire Academic Council faculty who are not prepared to teach courses that are required by the university." And, "should the faculty be restructured to bring it more in line with the requirements and the goals of the majors and departments that are now being followed by undergraduate students?"
Provost Condoleezza Rice said that "one way to think about our role as teachers" is to think about developing courses that attract undergraduates who do not have the background of advanced students. "I have been concerned to see in some departments courses that are so specialized and so advanced that it is hard to imagine that undergraduates could take them.
"It is our responsibility to design courses that can attract undergraduates and that are designated for different levels of undergraduate preparation," she said.
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