Faculty Senate discusses undergraduate and graduate education, president’s trip to Washington, D.C., and university’s commitment to academic freedom

Speakers at the April 27 meeting included Harry J. Elam, Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education; Patricia J. Gumport, vice provost for graduate education; Corrie Potter, director of Institutional Research & Decision Support; President Marc Tessier-Lavigne; and Provost Persis Drell.

Harry Elam

Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, speaking to the Faculty Senate on Thursday. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

The Faculty Senate on Thursday discussed creating new approaches to undergraduate and graduate education with “forward-looking” presentations by Harry J. Elam, Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education, and Patricia J. Gumport, vice provost for graduate education.

Also at the April 27 meeting, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne discussed his recent trip to the nation’s capital, where he spoke about the importance of federal support for research and other issues before the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., and met with other university presidents and chancellors, as well as U.S. senators from both sides of the aisle.

In addition, Provost Persis Drell reaffirmed Stanford’s commitment to academic freedom, a principle that is critical to carrying out the university’s missions of research and education.

Undergraduate education

In his presentation, Elam said he is convinced that Stanford needs to rethink the way it teaches undergraduates, whose learning needs have changed dramatically in recent years.

“As we think about undergraduate education, and change and growth in undergraduate education, we need also to think specifically about how students experience Stanford,” he said. “We need to think holistically. We need to think of the whole student, because now more than ever health and well-being matter.”

Elam’s presentation touched on a wide range of issues, including considering revising the first year to allow students greater room for intellectual exploration.

“We need to think about the fact that changes in the first year cannot be independent of majors,” he said, adding that one question to consider is what constitutes a 21st-century major.

He encouraged faculty to submit ideas and proposals on undergraduate education to “The Purposeful University,” the long-range planning website Stanford launched earlier this month.

Graduate education

Gumport said that 2017 – a decade after Stanford created the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education (VPGE) – was an ideal time to look ahead, raise high-level questions and identify areas in which the university could build on its strengths and take a fresh look at defining academic priorities.

She said Stanford should reconsider its approaches in five areas – enrollment, graduate student funding, diversity and inclusion, advising and mentoring, and data collection – to ensure that the university continues to recruit the best graduate students from around the world, and to provide the best possible environment for graduate education.

Gumport said VPGE launched the “What’s Possible at Stanford?” portal to seek input from the Stanford community as it deliberates about new initiatives and programming.

She encouraged faculty to visit the website and respond to two open-ended questions: What do you most value about graduate education at Stanford? Looking ahead, what could be done to enhance the quality of graduate education and graduate students’ experiences at Stanford? The deadline for responding to the questions is April 30.

She also encouraged faculty to submit ideas about graduate education to Stanford’s long-range planning website.

Following Gumport’s presentation, Corrie Potter, director of Institutional Research & Support, discussed some of the insights gleaned from the university’s PhD Exit Survey, which has now accumulated three years of data.

Potter said the office has been focused on providing the information to department chairs and directors of graduate studies, and has built an interactive website that allows them to “drill through” the data and see results from their program in the context of school- and university-wide results.

“The good news is that the overall results in this survey are extremely positive,” she said. “Stanford PhD students overwhelming would choose Stanford again if they had to start all over.”

Tessier-Lavigne visits Washington, D.C.

President Tessier-Lavigne recently addressed senior business leaders in Washington, D.C., as a member of the 2017 Higher Education Panel, which also included Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, and Michael V. Drake, president of Ohio State University. The Economic Club of Washington, D.C. has posted a video of the discussion on its website.

During the panel discussion, he made some emphatic statements about the importance of Stanford’s international students, and the contributions they make to its academic vitality.

He told the Faculty Senate he was heartened to report that there is clear evidence of bipartisan support for the importance of research and the funding of research.

Tessier-Lavigne joined other presidents and chancellors of the Association of American Universities in a statement calling on Americans who care about the welfare, security and prosperity of the nation to join the organization in urging the nation’s leaders to renew and strengthen the partnership between the federal government and universities.

Academic freedom and political activities

In reaffirming Stanford’s commitment to academic freedom, Provost Drell said that expression of the widest range of viewpoints of members of the faculty at Stanford is encouraged, free from any institutional orthodoxy and from internal or external coercion. She said individuals may express viewpoints that are critical of elected officials and national policies.

“The only thing legally forbidden is for the institution itself or the institution’s resources to be used in engaging in political activity in support of or opposition to a candidate for elective public office or other purely partisan activity,” she said.

Drell said Stanford has a long practice of not taking political or policy positions, unless they have a direct bearing on its ability to carry out its core missions of research and education.

“We believe the sharing and appreciation of diverse perspectives is vital to our community, therefore it is essential that the institution remain a neutral broker of ideas,” she said.

In other business, Academic Secretary Hans Weiler said voting is now underway to elect the chair of 2017-18 senate and members of the steering committee. The polls close May 8.

The full minutes of the April 27 meeting, including the discussion that followed the presentations, will be posted on the Faculty Senate website. The next senate meeting is scheduled for May 11.