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Stanford Report, January 26, 2000

Interdisciplinary programs under review Faculty raise questions about new committee


The Faculty Senate on Thursday engaged in a spirited discussion on the role of interdisciplinary programs, with many members fearful that such programs are being cast in a negative light as a new committee begins examining issues surrounding them.

There was little argument that interdisciplinary programs, or IDPs, attract many of Stanford's brightest students and accomplished faculty to collaborate and innovate across traditional departmental lines. But the charge of an Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Interdepartmental Programs within the School of Humanities and Sciences raised many concerns on the part of faculty members, some of whom felt the charge was stacked against IDPs.

"While IDPs provide unique teaching opportunities, they also remain topics of considerable concern in the School, be it in terms of their proliferation, the adequacy of their funding, the strength of ongoing faculty support and other issues," a memorandum accompanying the committee's charge reads in part.

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There are currently 41 IDPs, ranging from Human Biology to Feminist Studies. Their resources come from the various departments that contribute to them, making it difficult for the programs to engage in long-term planning.

About 25 percent of undergraduates major in an IDP.

At the Jan. 20 senate meeting, faculty members took issue with statements made by Russell Berman, associate dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. Senators, for example, noted that the committee's charge included the question: "The current IDP review process proceeds from a self-study and has consistently led to reauthorizations of programs. Is the review process biased toward maintaining existing programs? How could the review process be revised?"

Berman stressed that he has an open mind regarding IDPs. He said that "interdisciplinarity" is occurring within departments already, such as in Comparative Literature. "The issue, rather, is teaching units outside of departments and how the university should work with them. It's this interdepartmental status or perhaps extradepartmental status that leads to some of the funding and other issues. . . . Is that teaching necessarily lodged outside of departments? . . . Part of the IDP story is that they are the locus where innovation takes place. The implication, then, is that this innovation is not taking place in departments. Is that an adequate description of what goes on in departments? I don't think it's always true."

Craig Heller, biological sciences, told Berman that he found a "tremendous discrepancy between what I sensed as your tone and evaluation" and the conclusions made in 1994 by the Commission on Undergraduate Education, which praised IDPs. He said it is unlikely "that within our departments we can move fast enough or we have enough resources to actually do the innovative interdisciplinary creations that we see in the IDPs."

Berman responded that "perhaps the problem is that the nature of our departmental definition at Stanford is too rigid and therefore we have a flourishing IDP culture."

Brad Efron, statistics, had a sharper reaction to the new committee's charge, saying he was appalled by it. "Is there a bias against the IDPs in this list of questions?" he asked. Russell Fernald, psychology, who had given a fairly positive overview of IDPs before Berman spoke, said he agreed entirely with Efron. Mary Pratt, Spanish and Portuguese, said she shared "the concern about the negative presumption in the questions in the charge to the committee," and noted that one of the departments cited by Berman, Comparative Literature, had begun as an IDP.

Later, one of the members of the ad hoc committee looking at IDPs -- John Rickford, linguistics, who chairs the IDP in African and Afro-American Studies -- tried to dampen some of the fears.

In the first meeting of the new panel, he said, Berman's remarks were greeted with "less of this sense of ominous fears." Rickford also noted that the committee includes two IDP directors.

And Malcolm Beasley, the dean of humanities and sciences, added that "if you look down the membership of this committee, they are not high on my list of shrinking violets."

President Gerhard Casper said the overall issue is simply that "Stanford has no policy on IDPs. It has a policy for authorizing IDPs and it has a policy for continuing IDPs unfailingly." While IDPs tend to be very productive, "budget resources will be inadequate because it is never seen as a tradeoff in the general university way of doing things. The departments remain the departments remain the departments. They control, for all practical purposes, the finances. . . . Nobody ever pauses anywhere, really, to ask what is the appropriate allocation of resources to new activities we are doing," he said.

The new ad hoc committee is chaired by Richard Zare, chemistry, and its other members are Berman, ex officio; Rickford; Karen Cook, sociology; Judith Goldstein, political science; George Papanicolaou, mathematics; and Robert Polhemus, English.

Members of the Senate were given a table showing the five-year average number of IDP degrees awarded, listed by program. The most popular undergraduate IDP is Human Biology, with an average of 176 degrees, followed by International Relations, 81, and American Studies, 41. The least popular program is Native American Studies, with an average of one degree; followed by Asian American Studies, two; while both Chicano Studies and Latin American Studies had four. SR