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Commission on Undergraduate Studies presents Faculty Senate with new proposal for distribution requirements
STANFORD -- Call it the depth versus breadth debate.
Faculty Senate members on June 1 jousted over the latest proposal to alter Stanford's course distribution requirements for undergraduates.
The heated, hour-long discussion did not bode well for the senate's plan to vote on a final design for requirements at a special meeting on June 8.
"Unacceptable" and "wildly contradictory" were two of the comments made by senators about the proposal, and 50 minutes into the meeting, economics Professor Roger Noll said: "After listening to this discussion, the overall impression that I have is that we aren't going to resolve this. . . . We are still in a state of chaos."
At issue is a proposal from the senate's Committee on Undergraduate Studies (CUS) to simplify the curriculum and give students the option of studying a subject in more depth.
Under the committee's proposal, distribution requirements would be replaced by general education requirements. Students would take a three-quarter Cultures, Ideas and Values course sequence, plus three certified courses in the humanities or social sciences, and three certified courses in science, engineering or mathematics.
The gender studies requirement, and a requirement in World or American cultures could be fulfilled by taking certain courses that meet the general education requirements in the humanities/social sciences or the science/engineering/mathematics areas.
Classes that count toward a student's major also may be used to fulfill the requirements, with the exception of the CIV sequence, under the new plan.
David Brady, chairman of the Committee on Undergraduate Studies and a professor in the Graduate School of Business, presented the committee's proposal, which was a follow- up to an advisory resolution passed March 9 by the senate.
That resolution suggested reducing the number of distribution requirements from 11 to 9 and simplifying the certification of courses for satisfying various area requirements. Among other provisions, the March 9 resolution suggested permitting each Cultures, Ideas and Values track to fulfill a distribution requirement in one of several other areas. The Committee on Undergraduate Studies was charged at the March 9 meeting with drafting a proposal consistent with the resolution, for presentation to the senate by the end of the academic year.
At the June 1 meeting, many faculty members said that the latest proposal, if passed, would send a contradictory message to faculty and students. At a time when the university is investing resources to develop an optional three-quarter science core for non- science majors -- in an effort to expose them to the rigors of the scientific process -- several senate members were chagrined by the prospect of allowing students to opt out of science altogether.
The science core's mission is to provide "[students with] more rigorous exposure to science," said Patricia Jones, professor of biological sciences. "Now, we would allow students to graduate and have no science."
History Professor George Fredrickson sounded a similar alarm for the humanities and social sciences. Fredrickson warned that the proposal, which allows students to bypass many areas in the arts and humanities, could pose a threat to Stanford's humanities programs because more students flock to courses in fields such as psychology or economics than to Shakespeare.
"The absence of specific requirements in literature and fine arts and philosophy, social and religious thought is troubling," he said. "The humanities at Stanford are strong but always in danger of marginalization. I fear that the CUS recommendation might make that marginalization a reality."
Taking the opposite view, Dean of Research Charles Kruger said: "My sense of all this is that if we try to force distribution requirements by forcing students to take things, rather than constructing courses that are interesting and useful and taught by good teachers, we are doomed to failure."
Chemistry Professor Michael Fayer responded that "maybe a little bit of coercion is necessary; otherwise we wouldn't have CIV or any requirements at all."
Referring to the CUS plan that proposes that the gender studies requirement and a requirement in either World Cultures or American Cultures could be fulfilled by a certified course in the humanities/social sciences category or the science/engineering/ mathematics category. "I think that's hokey," German Professor Orrin Robinson said. Robinson said it is unlikely that the latter category would have courses certified to fulfill the culture or gender requirement.
Brady said that he and Anne Fernald, associate professor of psychology, presented the current proposal and the senate's March 9 recommendation to 200 students in their classes for an informal vote.
The result was evenly divided, Brady said. Those who preferred the committee's proposal liked the flexibility it offered. Many of those who favored the previous senate recommendation mentioned that their favorite class at Stanford had been in a subject they might not have taken if it hadn't been required.
Senior Rich Stolz, an incoming member of the Council of Presidents who sits on CUS, urged the senate to give students the opportunity to chart their own curriculum.
"Whether they choose depth over breadth or breadth over depth, the idea of these distribution requirements is to give students the opportunity to make that choice for themselves," Stolz said.
University President Gerhard Casper reminded senate members that the issue of distribution requirements goes far beyond the breadth versus depth debate. "Breadth and depth seem eventually to lead to death, as far as I can tell," he said, drawing laughter from the senate.
Casper focused his brief comments on the underlying issue: the need to simplify the distribution requirements so they can be easily explained and justified to parents and students.
"This reads like the Internal Revenue or worse," Casper said, clutching a course catalog he brought with him for the discussion. "If after reading this you think that we are offering our students a coherent liberal arts education, I think you are distinctly mistaken."
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