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Stanford Report, May 17, 2000

Senate votes to give majors new oversight


Years after they graduate, alumni characterize their undergraduate education with two facts -- "where they went to school and what their major was," Russell Fernald told the Faculty Senate last week.

But Fernald, a psychology professor and chair of the senate's Committee on Undergraduate Studies (CUS), said that in senate discussions as far back as 1976, the major has been seen as little more than "a number of units or a list of required courses."

In an effort to strengthen the major, the senate on May 11 approved guidelines calling for comprehensive reviews of all undergraduate degree-granting programs every six to eight years. "Each school will adopt a suitable review process in which the reviews would be carried out by a committee comprised of faculty and students," the guidelines say. "In some cases, this might occur in conjunction with outside reviews of the scholarly work of the faculty or professional accreditation."

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The guidelines say that the review should assess curricular coherence and rigor, sequencing of coursework and the clarity of curricular information. It also should assess the quality of teaching and advising. "Summaries of the departmental reviews will be forwarded to CUS. CUS will review the extent to which the major satisfies the criteria," the guidelines say.

The adoption of the guidelines by a voice vote indicated there was strong -- but not unanimous -- support for the guidelines.

Brad Efron, statistics, was among the opponents. "It seems to me it substitutes some sort of legislative oversight for actual vitality," he said, suggesting such reviews be done on a case-by-case basis instead.

He also said the reviews would be burdensome to department chairs. "What 40 or 50 or 100 hours of work is the department chairman not supposed to do that year?" he asked.

Fernald responded that Stanford has had a "let's just fix the things that are broken" process for 100 years but that it "hasn't really changed departmental curricula that are broken. There's no clear mechanism for understanding when there's a problem."

And he said that the senate's current periodic scrutiny of interdisciplinary programs has been beneficial to them.

Fernald presented the plan as the last piece of unfinished business from the 1994 preliminary report of the Commission on Undergraduate Education, which called for reviewing the majors. "Everything else that CUE proposed has been dealt with in some form or another," he said.

The commission came to its conclusions because it found that the quality, size and structure of majors across the university differed significantly, Fernald said. In focus groups and interviews, many students said that their majors "seemed poorly organized, [students] often did not get good advice from the faculty, and they perceived a general lack of commitment to the program."

In addition to the periodic review, the guidelines say that each major should:

The guidelines also say that "whenever possible" courses that are required for the major should be taught by Academic Council faculty.

In addition, "informative summaries" of a major's expected course of study should be provided by each degree-granting unit and should clarify whether courses satisfying distribution requirements can be counted toward the major.

The guidelines also call for beefing up advising and for creating an "advising transcript" that would provide information about the "structure and organization of the undergraduate experience," allowing students and advisers to assess progress toward meeting the major's requirements.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education John Bravman supported the proposals. "I think we all expect that in our scholarly work things such as peer review, in fact, are the underpinning for assuming excellence in our discipline," he said, adding that the faculty "should be similarly eager" to have an analogous review of academic programs.

Mary Pratt, Spanish and Portuguese, said she welcomed a review process, especially because in small departments day-to-day activities so occupy the faculty "that it's very difficult to set aside time to really reflect deeply on the major." But she also called for the creation of an infrastructure, with staffing, to help put together self-studies.

A review of majors is overdue, said John Rickford, linguistics. "In many ways, departments have lagged behind the central university administration in terms of paying attention to undergraduate studies," he said. SR