Stanford Faculty Senate hears undergraduate education proposals, endorses recommendation on contemplative garden

At its Thursday meeting, the Stanford Faculty Senate heard proposals for a new undergraduate first-year experience and approach to the undergraduate major. Senators also endorsed an ASSU recommendation for a plaque at a contemplative garden on campus marking the site of a sexual assault.

Stanford’s Faculty Senate kicked off the formal review process Thursday for two faculty proposals that seek to renew undergraduate education at Stanford through a new common first-year intellectual experience and a new approach to the undergraduate major.

Professors Dan Edelstein and Sarah Church spoke to the Faculty Senate about proposals to renew undergraduate education at Stanford. (Image credit: Farrin Abbott)

The senate also heard and voted unanimously to endorse the recommendation of an ASSU resolution calling on the university to install a plaque, with a quote chosen by Chanel Miller, at a contemplative garden on the Stanford campus.

Also at the meeting, Provost Persis Drell announced that Harry J. Elam Jr. will be stepping down at the end of the academic year as vice provost for undergraduate education, though he will continue in his roles as senior vice provost for education and vice president for the arts. Elam also announced this year’s Bass University Fellows in Undergraduate Education.

Undergraduate first-year experience and majors

The senate heard two faculty proposals for revitalizing the concept of a broad or “liberal” undergraduate education at Stanford, with one proposal focusing on a common first-year experience and the second focusing on new parameters for the undergraduate major. The proposals were developed by two faculty design teams that were convened as part of the university’s Long-Range Planning process.

The presentation was made by the four co-chairs of the design teams: Lanier Anderson, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor in the Humanities; Sarah Church, vice provost for faculty development, teaching and learning and professor of physics; Dan Edelstein, the William H. Bonsall Professor in French and faculty director of Stanford Introductory Studies; and Tom Kenny, senior associate dean for student affairs in the School of Engineering and the Richard W. Weiland Professor.

The proposals, they said, are driven by a number of considerations – including encouraging students to look beyond specific career preparation to the value of a broad, curiosity-driven education; the “pressure cooker” nature of the first year for many students, and the mental health concerns that may go along with it; and helping students make informed choices about their undergraduate careers at Stanford.

“Students really need to better understand the rationale and philosophy behind a liberal education if we want to change their mindsets about the purpose of college,” Edelstein said. “We want them to think about their education not just in relation to their first job, but to their whole lives, both as workers and as citizens. And with regard to those civic responsibilities, we want them to learn how to have better conversations across deeply held differences.”

The first-year common intellectual experience proposal, which would replace the current Thinking Matters requirement, would take the form of a mandatory three-quarter “Stanford Core” offering a mixture of class experiences. They would focus on three themes:

  • The fall quarter would focus on the concept of a broad or “liberal” education itself, either through a new course tentatively titled “Education for Freedom” or through the existing “Education as Self-Fashioning” seminars. This segment would emphasize critical thinking and civil disagreement and encourage students to consider their education in relation to their future lives.
  • The focus in the winter would be on “Citizenship in the 21st Century,” emphasizing the duties and ethical frameworks associated with citizenship in a community – local, professional or political. Students would all take a version of the same course centered on this theme, likely in small seminars.
  • In the spring, the focus would shift to “Global Perspectives,” with an emphasis on the global dimensions of contemporary challenges. Students would have a larger degree of choice in the spring and could take any of about 20 to 25 courses to fulfill this requirement.

The undergraduate major proposal emphasizes accessibility, presenters said, so that every major is reasonably open to all students regardless of their pre-college preparation. It also would support the goal of encouraging academic breadth and exploration during an undergraduate’s time at Stanford, they said. Under the proposal:

  • Stanford majors, which currently require between 55 and 135 units, would be structured to require between 60 and 95 units (with limited exceptions for accreditation requirements in certain fields).
  • Each major would build up to an in-depth “capstone” project that could take one of many forms, such as an honors thesis, senior project, capstone seminar or other experience.

Current Stanford undergraduates would not be affected by the proposals. Under the proposed plan, the new first-year experience would begin in fall 2021, and students would first declare majors under the new structure in spring 2022.

Members of the senate expressed a variety of reactions. Several voiced support for the concepts behind the proposals. Concerns were expressed about issues including the replacement of Thinking Matters; the ability to recruit faculty to teach some of the larger common courses; whether more time would be needed to ensure a successful transition to a new course sequence; and whether helping students understand the value of a liberal education is as important as simply delivering that education.

Some senators questioned the extent to which unit requirements for the major should be constrained at a university-wide level, as opposed to being left to the judgment of faculty within individual academic departments. Advocates for the proposals argued that a lack of constraints has led to many students feeling they won’t be able to succeed in a major if they don’t make exactly the right course choices in their first year and forgo broader exploration.

The ASSU student government leadership presented the senate with a report providing an overview of student opinions on the proposals. The ASSU Undergraduate Senate recently endorsed the proposals but recommended some implementation changes. The ASSU report also noted broader related issues for the university’s attention, including the job recruiting process on campus, the technology infrastructure for course planning and inequalities in college preparation.

As a next step, the Academic Council’s Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy (C-USP) and Committee on Review of Undergraduate Majors (C-RUM) will deliberate on the two undergraduate curriculum proposals. Legislation will be developed for the Faculty Senate’s consideration, with further discussion in February and a vote potentially in March.

Contemplative garden

Also at the meeting, the senate voted unanimously to endorse a recommendation passed by the ASSU Undergraduate Senate and Graduate Student Council in support of Chanel Miller, who was sexually assaulted on the Stanford campus in 2015 and publicly revealed her identity in her memoir Know My Name, released last month.

Undergraduate Erica Scott, ASSU president, presented to the senate for its support a resolution passed by the Undergraduate Senate and Graduate Student Council in support of Chanel Miller. (Image credit: Farrin Abbott)

The meeting, which was moved to a lecture hall in the Main Quad from its usual location, was attended by several dozen students in addition to senate members.

In 2016, the university agreed to construct a contemplative space near the site of the assault, and it was constructed in 2017. However, discussions between the university and Miller’s representative did not produce an agreement regarding which quote from Miller’s victim impact statement would be placed on a plaque in the space. Following the release of Miller’s book, a petition circulated calling for the plaque to be installed with a quote of Miller’s choosing.

The resolution adopted by the ASSU similarly called for the university to “support the survivor community on campus and beyond by installing the plaque as soon as possible, with one of the quotes chosen by Miller at the contemplative garden at the site of Miller’s assault.”

Presenting the resolution, ASSU President Erica Scott said the contemplative garden today sits “anonymous” and that “most students who attend Stanford today were not here in 2015 and often have no idea what the garden is supposed to represent.”

“We believe it is censorship designed to prevent a permanent reminder of sexual assault on this campus,” Scott said.

David Palumbo-Liu, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and professor of comparative literature, urged fellow senators to endorse the ASSU resolution. He said it was inexplicable to profess concern about the triggering effect of a quote when the university has allowed “racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, misogynistic speakers” to come to campus over objections that their speech would be harmful to students.

“We need to face the reality of sexual violence squarely,” he said. “We cannot enfranchise our students, ask them to town halls, ask them to give us their feedback, and then ignore them when they, and 2,200 other members of the Stanford community, speak.”

Provost Persis Drell referred to a March 2018 statement she made explaining the university’s decision-making. Drell said that Miller, through her representative, ultimately proposed two different quotes for the site, and the university proposed three options.

“Many of us in this room have experienced the trauma caused by sexual violence and sexual harassment. Everyone deals with that trauma in their own way, and the healing process is very individual,” Drell told the senate. She said the university consulted with experts on the trauma caused by sexual violence, who advised that “rather than creating a healing environment for survivors, the quotes chosen by Ms. Miller could have serious, negative impacts for some survivors of sexual violence.”

“After receiving our suggestions, Ms. Miller’s representative communicated to us that Ms. Miller did not want to offer any other quotes and did not want Stanford to select one on her behalf. Ms. Miller’s representative also requested that the garden make no reference to Ms. Miller at all,” Drell said.

Concluding her comments as the senate’s discussion began, Drell added: “That all said, I take the discussions in the Faculty Senate very seriously, and I look forward to your comments.”

Members of the senate engaged in a short discussion and approved the motion endorsing the ASSU recommendation on a unanimous voice vote.

The full minutes of the senate meeting, including discussion that followed the presentations, will be posted on the Faculty Senate website. The next senate meeting is scheduled for Nov. 7.