Faculty Senate approves measures renewing undergraduate education

At its meeting on Thursday, the Faculty Senate approved measures designed to renew undergraduate education, and heard updates on various campus issues from President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell.

At its May 7 meeting, the Faculty Senate approved proposals to establish a Civic, Liberal and Global Education requirement for first-year students, enact new unit ranges for undergraduate majors, and require all undergraduates to complete “capstone” projects.

Under the legislation approved Thursday, the new academic policies will apply to the Class of 2025 – students entering Stanford in fall quarter of the 2021-22 academic year.

The proposals, which trace their origins to the work of two faculty design teams convened as part of Stanford’s Long-Range Vision, reflect the university’s commitment to continually revitalizing undergraduate education.

In other matters, Provost Persis Drell said Stanford is reviewing the new Title IX regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education, a topic she addressed in a May 6 letter to the university community.

She also commended the Office of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid for a “phenomenal” Virtual Admit Day that attracted more than 4,500 people who tuned into the web and video programs – a record attendance for an admit event.

In addition, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne discussed the university’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that the new shelter-in-place order has allowed Stanford to resume construction at the Escondido Village Graduate Residences. He emphasized that as Stanford moves forward with construction projects, the university will do so in a systematic and deliberate manner, meeting all safety protocols.

At the start of the meeting, Senate Chair Tim Stearns announced that political science Professor Judith Goldstein has been elected chair of the senate for the 2020-21 academic year. Goldstein is the Janet M. Peck Professor in International Communication and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. English Professor Blakey Vermeule, the Albert Guérard Professor in Literature, was elected vice chair.

Senators discuss undergraduate proposals

The senate’s approval of the two undergraduate proposals was the last step in a formal review process that began last year, when the co-chairs of the design teams presented their reports and recommendations to the senate. One report focused on creating a common first-year intellectual experience and the second focused on setting new parameters for the undergraduate major. Senators also discussed the proposals at a meeting in early March.

Image of Adam Banks taken via teleconferencing

Adam Banks, professor of education, co-chair of Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy, addressing the Faculty Senate on Thursday. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

The reports were forwarded to the Academic Council’s Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy, and Committee on the Review of Undergraduate Majors, which developed the legislation presented to the senate Thursday.

In introducing the recommendations to the senate, Adam Banks, co-chair of the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy (C-USP), and a professor in the Graduate School of Education, said the committees deliberated long and hard on the proposals.

C-USP communicated consistently with the design-team co-chairs, and worked carefully through the feedback that colleagues from around campus shared, as well as input from the Faculty Senate. He said the committee read a compelling report provided by the Associated Students, and received input at all stages from the student representatives on C-USP.

“C-USP felt that we could not bring a recommendation to you on a unit range for all majors  without serious engagement with our colleagues in engineering and STEM fields who have done real work in and across their departments to imagine majors that would fit across this range and what they would need to be able to meet this challenge,” Banks said.

“The resulting legislation is, I believe, stronger, because of the range of that input and the serious questions, concerns and excitement that emerged throughout the process,” he said. “Even as we had difficult questions to consider and concerns to address, both legislative items come to you with unanimous or near unanimous support from the committee.”

Charting a new path for the major

Banks said the faculty design team’s commitment to making all majors accessible for all Stanford students guided the committee’s deliberations.

C-USP proposed a new range of 60 to 100 units for undergraduate majors, with limited exceptions for accreditation requirements in certain fields. (The current unit range is 55 to 135 units.) The new range was designed to ensure that all majors are open to all students, regardless of their pre-collegiate preparation, and to give students the time to explore the wide range of academic disciplines and opportunities offered to undergraduates.

“The capstone requirement elicited universal support and real excitement from members of the committee,” Banks said. “We want to affirm this important opportunity for student learning while leaving room for departments and programs to be able to incorporate this requirement in ways that were best for them, so we avoided any kind of prescriptive language about how departments or programs should develop their capstones.”

In the discussion that followed Banks’ presentation, one senator said he had not heard any solid data or a single rationale for changing the requirements, adding that he knew engineering students who participated in activities – sports, acting, music, honors theses in other fields, double majors – and finished their undergraduate engineering studies on time.

Another senator worried that the 100-unit cap would degrade the quality of engineering education at Stanford and hurt the university’s reputation.

Jennifer Widom, dean of the School of Engineering, said she supported the legislation, adding that at present, not all engineering majors are accessible to all students.

“If you have a student who comes from an under-resourced high school, I agree that if they come and they know they want to do bioengineering or materials science on day one, they can do it. But if they want to take time to explore, if they’re not sure what they want to do, even by the end of the first year they may be locked out of certain majors.”

Widom said she was confident that with care and thought, each of the school’s non-ABET accredited majors will be able to deliver a strong program with 100 units. (ABET is the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.)

Stephan Graham, dean of the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, said the school has many majors that exceed the 100-unit cap, adding that he was quite confident the school could adjust those curricula without harming its graduates’ marketability or the quality of their education.

The new unit range of 60-100 on undergraduate majors will be enacted for a trial period of six years. It will apply to the Class of 2025, whose members will declare majors before or during spring 2023. The new capstone requirement could take one of many forms, such as an honors thesis, senior project, capstone seminar or other experience.

At Thursday’s meeting, the senate also directed the Committee for the Review of Undergraduate Majors to conduct a university-level review of all undergraduate majors, and to lead the effort to assess the success of the changes at the end of the trial period.

Civic, Liberal and Global Education

The second proposal Banks presented to the senate was for a new program for first-year students, known as Civic, Liberal and Global Education.

Under the program, which will begin in Fall 2021 as a pilot, first-year students will choose two courses from a list of approved classes – one course each during two separate quarters. Currently, first-year students are required to take one Thinking Matters course.

During the pilot, students will be allowed to choose from new courses or Thinking Matters courses. All of the new courses will include direct instruction and small group discussion, and each will be certified to fulfill one or more areas in Stanford’s breadth requirements, known as Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing.

The aim of the program is to build a unifying intellectual experience for students and to reaffirm the importance of a broad liberal education that helps students to live rewarding lives in and beyond their chosen majors and ultimate professional paths. The original proposal from the faculty design team described a three-quarter program.

Banks said C-USP appreciates and endorses the broad goals of the three-quarter arc: encouraging students to reflect on their own educational journeys; challenging them to consider and thoughtfully engage multiple perspectives and their roles in and across multiple communities; and taking seriously their roles in complex, diverse societies as global citizens.

“Just how to meet these laudable goals articulated by the design team elicited significant debate across campus from both faculty and students, and led to important questions from members of the senate,” he said. “The legislation we have brought to you endorses the vision and broad aims of the design team while calling for ongoing work to develop that vision in partnership with faculty and students.”

To oversee the new program, Stanford will establish a First-Year Requirement Governance Board, which will replace the Thinking Matters Governance Board.

Banks also noted that the legislation calls for a curriculum and teaching committee separate from the governance board.

In the discussion that followed the presentation, senators expressed a variety of reactions, including disappointment that the requirement was two quarters, instead of three, and that the committee had eliminated one of the quarters proposed by the faculty design team.

Advocates for the proposal said they were happy that existing Thinking Matters courses would continue to be offered during the pilot program so students can fulfill their requirements as the new program ramps up.

Ongoing response to pandemic

President Tessier-Lavigne said the university is continuing to monitor the latest developments in the COVD-19 pandemic, to actively plan the university’s next steps and to support the Stanford community as everyone continues to deal with these unprecedented times.

In an April 28 letter to the Stanford community, Tessier-Lavigne noted that counties across the Bay Area extended the shelter-in-place order through the end of May. He also outlined the university’s planning for a phased restart of campus operations, when it becomes feasible, with a first priority on resuming research activities.

Tessier-Lavigne said the university is continuing to assess its options for fall quarter, and hopes to reach a decision sometime in June.

Stanford is also focused on the longer term, including the university’s Long-Range Vision.

“To remind you, the Vision aims at accelerating Stanford’s impact through multiple initiatives focusing on advancing knowledge for humanity, solutions for the world and education for a life of purpose,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

“We’ve been having weekly meetings with the deans and leaders of the initiatives to reassess the scale, scope and staging of the initiatives in light of the crisis and to see to what extent the individual initiatives can be deployed in the short term to tackle the disease and its effects on individuals and society. But we also believe that, even as we deal acutely with the crisis, we need to continue in the parallel work of laying the foundation for the entire Vision, beyond COVID.”

New Title IX regulations, Virtual Admit Day

Provost Drell said Stanford will need time to complete a thorough review of the new Title IX regulations and to get legal clarity about the implications for the process at Stanford.

“The new regulations take effect August 14, which is a very short timeline, especially considering that we are in the midst of dealing with a global pandemic,” she said.

Drell emphasized that Stanford will continue its efforts to ensure that the campus is a safe and respectful environment in which to live, work and study.

She said the university’s goal remains to provide support for our students and ensure a fair, timely and effective Title IX process – one in which everyone can have confidence and trust.

“We will be consulting with faculty and student leadership as we analyze the new requirements and how they will affect our current policies and procedures,” she said. “And we will continue to keep you informed.”

Looking forward to the coming academic year, Drell reported that Stanford has achieved a strong yield for the entering class and added that she will provide more details later.

“In a time of great uncertainty and rapid change, our Admission and Financial Aid staff has just done an outstanding job, working closely with students and families, including on their financial needs,” Drell said. “We’re grateful for their work, and look forward to welcoming the Class of 2024.”