Academic Council discusses new policy capping units on undergraduate majors

The Academic Council convened its first special meeting in 50 years in response to a faculty petition requesting a “full and broad” discussion of a new academic policy recently approved by the Faculty Senate.

At a rare special meeting Tuesday, the Academic Council discussed proposals presented by engineering faculty to amend a new academic policy setting a unit cap on undergraduate majors, but did not vote on the measures because the assembly lacked a quorum.

Juan Santiago, Andrea Goldsmith, Eric Shaqfeh and Parviz Moin discuss a new academic policy recently approved by the Faculty Senate during the Academic Council’s first special meeting in 50 years. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

As a result, the academic policy setting a 100-unit cap on undergraduate majors will go into effect for students entering Stanford in the 2021-22 school year, with limited exceptions for majors with accreditation requirements in engineering fields.

The Steering Committee of the Faculty Senate will now decide if the senate should revisit the topic, which generated 2½ hours of discussion at the Academic Council meeting.

The new policy, which was approved by the Faculty Senate in May, was designed to ensure that all undergraduate 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 available at Stanford.

The Academic Council convened the meeting in response to a faculty petition – signed by 117 faculty members – requesting a “full and broad discussion” of the new policy. The petition said the concerns of faculty most affected by the policy – those teaching in engineering departments requiring students to be practicing engineers at graduation – had not been adequately addressed by the Faculty Senate.

Karen Cook, the Ray Lyman Professor of Sociology, presided over the 2½ hour meeting, the first special Academic Council meeting since 1970.

Engineering faculty propose amendments

Andrea Goldsmith, a professor of electrical engineering introduced the three amendments to the new academic policy. She said adopting the measures would help ensure accessibility, maintain competitiveness and encourage broad exploration. She said the petitioners did not want to overturn the legislation, but to revisit it next year.

The three amendments are:

  • Establish an exception policy – in addition to the current exception for majors with ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) accreditation – that allows departments to exceed the unit cap to prepare their students for careers in that discipline or to improve accessibility.
  • Delay implementation of the unit cap until August 2022 in order to revisit the number of units associated with a unit cap for all Stanford majors, taking into account current requirements, accessibility and a desire for all Stanford students to have time for exploration, academic depth in the liberal arts and a quarter abroad.
  • Increase the number of humanities and social science units required of all students, and expand the certificate and minor programs in order to ensure that all Stanford students receive a broad liberal arts education.

Presentations and discussion on the unit cap

Although there was no quorum, the meeting proceeded with presentations and discussion.

Eric Shaqfeh, a professor of chemical engineering and of mechanical engineering, and one of the faculty petitioners, said engineering departments have an implied social contract with employers that requires them to produce able engineers who can be hired into positions of significant responsibility immediately after graduating. He said the only people who can determine if a student is prepared for that work are the engineering faculty, adding that it is “irresponsible” to take that decision away from them by imposing a unit cap.

“Capping units at 100 will have a seriously detrimental effect on our competitiveness with elite engineering schools,” he said. “For example, if chemical engineering undergraduates take only 100 units in the major at Stanford, those students will be less competitive for graduate school against their MIT counterparts.”

Juan Santiago, a professor of mechanical engineering who opposes the unit cap, said the correct approach to improve accessibility for first-generation, low-income students would require “a difficult, sustained and expensive” effort, including: new introductory and preparatory courses and summer programs with unit credit for high school, first-year students and sophomores; additional quarters of financial aid for their undergraduate degree; and tutors, mentors and advisors.

Speaking in favor of the unit cap, Lanier Anderson, a professor of philosophy, said course choices for first-year students are extremely high stakes because those choices will open or close off access to high unit majors. He said majors with larger and more strictly sequential prerequisites are not as accessible.

Tom Kenny, a professor of mechanical engineering, said it was important to remember that a unit cap doesn’t limit the number of units a student can take within their major, their discipline, adjacent majors or a totally different area tailored to their interests and goals.

Following the presentations, some three dozen faculty members joined in the discussion. Their comments touched on several topics, including accessibility, overseas studies, and freedom and trust for faculty, and the importance of providing an elite engineering education as well as a broad liberal arts education.

Jennifer Widom, dean of the School of Engineering, said she had one reason for supporting the unit cap – accessibility.

“I do not believe all our majors are accessible to all students right now,” she said. “There are four-years plans that show it, but those students have to know when they arrive freshman year that they will be majoring in that particular field.”

Sarah Church, a professor of physics and vice provost for faculty development, teaching and learning, said she has seen firsthand the struggles that first-generation, low-income students have to fit everything into their first year at Stanford.

Rosemary Knight, a professor of geophysics in the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, said imposing a unit cap of any size was overstepping the boundaries of what should be centrally versus locally controlled at Stanford.

“I believe Stanford excels because it is so decentralized, to the faculty level to the department level, and because there is a high level of trust of each other,” Knight said.

“While I greatly appreciate, and know we all benefit tremendously from broad cross-Stanford assessments of what a Stanford degree should be, I truly believe that decisions about requirements for majors should be made at the department level. Great points have been made about how easy it should be to reduce units, re-structure units – great, I agree with that. Let the departments take that on. I completely trust my colleagues to do the right thing in their departments.”