Q&A: Two proposals reimagine the future of Stanford undergraduate education

As an outgrowth of Stanford’s long-range planning process, the Future of the Major and the First-Year Shared Intellectual Experience and Exploration design teams have proposed changes to the undergraduate curriculum, upon which the faculty will now deliberate.

Stanford faculty have begun discussing proposals recommending changes to the undergraduate major and the first-year undergraduate experience at Stanford. The proposals came out of two design teams that were part of the university’s Long-Range Planning process and reflect a shared vision for renewing liberal education at Stanford.

Proposals recommending changes to the undergraduate major and the first-year undergraduate experience at Stanford will begin a formal review this month. (Image credit: Misha Bruk)

Both of the undergraduate education proposals are subject to faculty review and approval. Currently, they are being discussed in a series of faculty town halls based in the undergraduate schools this month, and they will be presented at the Faculty Senate on Oct. 24, kicking off the formal review process. Because of the time needed for review, approval and course development, the proposals would not affect any existing Stanford undergraduates.

The last comprehensive review of the Stanford undergraduate curriculum began in January 2010 and resulted in the 2012 SUES (The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford University) report. The two design teams’ proposals on the first-year experience and the major are the first significant review of undergraduate education since SUES.

In this Q&A with Stanford Report, the four faculty co-chairs of the design teams answer questions about the nature of the proposals and the faculty review process. Participating are:

  • Lanier Anderson, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts in the School of Humanities and Sciences; J. E. Wallace Sterling Professor in the Humanities
  • Sarah Church, vice provost for faculty development, teaching and learning; professor of physics in the School of Humanities and Sciences
  • Dan Edelstein, William H. Bonsall Professor in French in the School of Humanities and Sciences; faculty director for Stanford Introductory Studies
  • Tom Kenny, senior associate dean for student affairs in the School of Engineering; Richard W. Weiland Professor


What are the key takeaways of these proposals?

Edelstein: By far, the loudest message that came through the Long-Range Planning proposals on undergraduate education was that Stanford needs to do more to ensure that all students receive a broad liberal education. However, many of our students do not really know what a liberal education consists of and how it differs from the kind of higher education in, for example, Europe or Asia. The basic pedagogical philosophy that has shaped higher education in the United States since its inception is a liberal education, which means an education befitting free citizens as well as an education designed to free students’ minds. The word “liberal” comes from Latin (libertas) meaning “freedom.” It has no affiliation with “liberalism” in the political sense. The First-Year design team’s proposal aims to help students gain a better understanding and appreciation of this distinctive type of education by proposing the creation of a three-quarter, first-year Stanford Core, centered on three universal and inescapable themes: liberal education, ethics and citizenship, and global perspectives.

Kenny: To support a broad education, the Majors design team has proposed changes to the structure of the major to allow the major to be accessible to all students while also allowing room for breadth and exploration. We have incredibly talented and energetic students in our undergraduate programs at Stanford, and we want all undergraduate students to be able to select any major and have a reasonable expectation that they can be successful in that major.


Where do the proposals currently stand?

Anderson: It is important for people to understand that the design teams have submitted the proposals, and now there is a rigorous faculty review process. The curriculum is one of the most crucial areas subject to faculty governance, and, therefore, we expect a lively, vigorous debate among our faculty. In order to facilitate discussion, five town halls have been scheduled for faculty to discuss, review and give feedback on the reports’ recommendations.

Then, on Oct. 24, the co-chairs of the design teams will present our recommendations to the Faculty Senate. After the senate presentation, C-USP (Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy) will begin their formal review of the recommendations. For those who do not know, C-USP is charged by the Faculty Senate with formulating policy governing undergraduate education at Stanford, including degree and general education requirements. At that point, C-USP could decide to make changes to the proposals, including omitting existing recommendations or adding their own recommendations. Through that process, C-USP will transform our proposals into concrete legislation, which the Faculty Senate will take up in winter quarter 2020; the senate will have the final decision on what to implement.


What are the highlights of the first-year experience proposals?

Edelstein: The report from the First-Year design team proposes the creation of a three-quarter, first-year Stanford Core. The first quarter would be dedicated to exploring the idea, history and practice of liberal education. Students will have two options for fulfilling the requirement by taking an Education as Self-Fashioning (ESF) seminar or a new course, tentatively titled “Education for Freedom.” While its syllabus similarly focuses on liberal education, “Education for Freedom” is broader than most ESF seminars. For example, each week, students read a “classical” author relating to liberal education, such as W. E. B. Du Bois or Martha Nussbaum, paired with a contemporary writer, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates or Tara Westover.

The report from the First-Year design team proposes the creation of a three-quarter, first-year Stanford Core. (Image credit: Misha Bruk)

Another key aspect of a liberal education is being a good citizen. Therefore, the second quarter of the core would be dedicated to “Citizenship in the 21st Century,” because many of the threats to our democratic societies come from new, emerging challenges. In this course, students all take a version of the same course and discuss what it means to be a “good citizen.” How should we balance our responsibilities toward others with our own commitment to values and learning? Pairing a series of ethical frameworks with case studies, the course then considers challenges that arise in professional communities (for example, Facebook and disinformation or the bioethics of DNA manipulation and tracking), and concludes with a focus on the new – and old – problems confronting democratic societies. The overarching goal of the course is to demonstrate that ethical and democratic questions are central to all disciplines.

Finally, we would dedicate the third quarter to “Global Perspectives,” both in order to make our students more aware of global cultural diversity, and also because so many of the pressing challenges they will face are global in scope, such as climate change, immigration and economic inequality. Students will be able to choose from a curated set of around 20 courses to fulfill the global perspectives requirement.

If approved by the Faculty Senate, the Stanford Core would replace the current Thinking Matters, after a period of piloting and further development. The first class to participate in the core would be the Class of ’26.


What are the highlights of the proposals on the undergraduate major?

Kenny: Among the proposed changes is the recommendation that no majors impose requirements amounting to fewer than 60 or more than 95 units of coursework, including the necessary prerequisites. Currently, Stanford majors vary in unit-load from 55 to 135 units. Connected with this, we recommend that every major have an accessibility plan, explaining how students (even without AP credits) can complete the major starting in the winter quarter of their sophomore year, while taking only a reasonable amount of prerequisite courses before that.

In addition, the Major report encourages a consistent internal organization to all majors. We propose to improve the structures of these majors by providing an engaging entry path, breadth of understanding of the field, deep exposure to at least one subfield within the major and an opportunity to consolidate their experiences, perhaps with other students in the same program, through a capstone project or course. If the Future of the Major proposal is approved by the Faculty Senate, the first class to meet the new majors requirements would be the Class of ’25.


How will faculty from across the university participate in these proposed changes to the undergraduate curriculum?

Church: I want to emphasize that liberal education doesn’t belong to any one discipline, and we want students to hear from as wide a group of faculty as possible, including faculty from the natural sciences and engineering departments. So faculty from all academic areas and with different perspectives would participate in teaching and leading discussions in the core. For example, the proposed “Citizenship in the 21st Century” course offers a particularly rich opportunity for faculty-led discussions about the impact of advances in AI, gene editing, social media on society and how the responsibilities of citizenship intersect with innovation.


How can the university community provide input as the discussion goes forward?

Anderson: In addition to attending the faculty town halls, faculty can provide their feedback by writing directly to the committee co-chairs, through discussions in their departments or with members of the Faculty Senate. The co-chairs are very open to exchanges with our faculty colleagues about the proposals.

This is one of a series of Stanford Report features this academic year on elements of the vision for Stanford’s future that emerged from the university’s long-range planning process.

Students and staff, as well as faculty, can also submit feedback about the reports’ recommendations to curriculum-feedback@stanford.edu.