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Stanford Report, March 8, 2000

Senate renews program in Modern Thought and Literature after sharp debate


The Faculty Senate last week renewed the graduate program in Modern Thought and Literature (MTL) for four years following a vigorous debate over concerns about the program's mission.

The unanimous vote was an endorsement of the Committee on Graduate Studies' recommendation that the program be renewed for four years with the stipulation that an interim progress report be submitted within two years "on the program's success in clarifying its intellectual goals and making any necessary curricular reforms."

The renewal runs from September 2001 to August 2005.

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The Committee on Graduate Studies' recommendation came in response to an earlier recommendation by the School of Humanities and Sciences' Curriculum Committee that MTL receive only a two-year renewal of its Ph.D.-nominating authority. The Curriculum Committee said the program's focus on interdisciplinary study of literature had "drifted toward an undefined study of 'culture'"; that its admissions policy paid too little attention to students' undergraduate record, GRE scores and recommendations; and that its offering of a minor needed to be a requirement.

David Palumbo-Liu, associate professor of comparative literature and MTL director, strongly defended the program, saying the reviews resulted from a "flawed procedure" and that senators had not received the program's 14-page single-space rebuttal of the Curriculum Committee's findings. He said the sought-after program, which only admitted five students last year, consistently receives 120 to 130 applications a year.

He cited a number of tenure-track teaching positions that MTL alumni have won and said alumni satisfaction with the program is very high.

"When we address the question of the perceived vagueness of our mission statement, I would venture to say that whatever MTL is doing, we're doing it superbly, and with distinction in all the usual markers of academic excellence," Palumbo-Liu said.

Russell Berman, associate dean of humanities and sciences, said the review found a "lack of focus in intellectual mission of the program," and that GRE scores "appeared considerably lower than the data we collected from the English Department." He said the Curriculum Committee found these and other issues "quite urgent matters that require fixing promptly."

Several members of the senate spoke in support of the program, saying that GRE scores did not seem predictive of academic success and that MTL students enhanced their classes with different perspectives.

John Rickford, linguistics, said he has been very impressed with the "rigor of their work, the creativity of their work, the insight of their work. And so, from my limited connection with them, I have no qualms about them."

"Finally, I do want to say, too -- and this is a kind of hidden statement in all of this -- that this is also one of the few programs that seems to attract a fairly high proportion of students of color and does an excellent job of placing them, as well as other kinds of students," Rickford added. "And I think Stanford and many universities in this state in particular have diminishing opportunities of this type, and I would like to see them continued." SR