Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, February 22, 2001

A Report on Undergraduate Education
Reaffirming a commitment to enhance programs at the very heart of the University

The following is President John Hennessy's essay in the 2000 Annual Report

On April 29, 1993, President Gerhard Casper announced the formation of the Commission on Undergraduate Education during his first State of the University address. This Commission, created during a period of intense national scrutiny of undergraduate education at research universities, conducted the first comprehensive review of Stanford’s programs in 25 years. The resulting report, issued in 1994, ushered in a period of renaissance in undergraduate education unique among research universities. Although the Commission’s recommendations were not radical, they have prompted a bold rejuvenation of and recommitment to undergraduate education at Stanford.

Over the past seven years, this spirit of innovation has resulted in, among other programs, Stanford Introductory Studies, which includes Freshman Seminars, Sophomore Seminars and Dialogues, and Sophomore College; the Introduction to Humanities courses; and the new Freshman-Sophomore College at Sterling Quadrangle. Cumulatively, these programs have strengthened the engagement between faculty and students to the benefit of both. In addition, we have created the position of vice provost for undergraduate education and have added new foreign language and writing requirements.

As I begin my tenure as Stanford’s 10th president, I offer a review of our accomplishments and a preview of our challenges as we move to make these programs a permanent part of the undergraduate program.

Core principles

During my inaugural address, I traced Stanford’s undergraduate education values to three core principles that, while changing in emphasis over time, flow from the original goals of the institution. As we proceed, these principles must guide us.

The first principle is a commitment to liberal education, best articulated by Leland Stanford in his address during ceremonies opening the University:

"The intelligent development of the human faculties is necessary to man’s happiness, and if this be true, each individual should, if possible, have such a liberal education as to enable him to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the knowledge of others."

Today, this commitment to a liberal education is embodied in our general education requirements and, most directly, in the humanities core. This core, since its inception in 1923, has been through five iterations including the present offering, Introduction to the Humanities, established in 1997. The primary theme we can see in its evolution has been a broadening in the diversity of the cultures examined and the authors read. Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, also embraced the closely related and immensely liberating notion of a flexible curriculum, with students choosing what course of study to pursue. Today, that freedom is very much alive at Stanford.

A second principle is our commitment to admitting the most qualified students regardless of ability to pay–what Jane Stanford described as keeping "open an avenue whereby the deserving and exceptional may rise through their own efforts." Jordan also believed students should be accepted strictly on merit, saying that a high tuition fee was a tax on education that discouraged self-supporting students, many of whom were among the very best. He also worried that high tuition would reduce the diversity of the student body.

Today, this goal is reflected in our "need-blind" admissions process and our promise to meet the demonstrated financial need of all admitted undergraduates.

In the past several years, we have worked especially hard to reduce the burden on middle-income families by, for instance, reducing the use of factors such as home equity in estimating financial need. Our commitment is costly. In fiscal year 1999—2000, 73 percent of undergraduates received some type of external or internal financial assistance and 43 percent qualified specifically for need-based financial aid.

In fiscal year 2000—2001, Stanford’s budget for need-based financial aid was increased nearly $8 million to $53.7 million.

The third fundamental goal of our undergraduate program is to provide undergraduates with access to the research opportunities that arise from Stanford’s position as a world-class university. We have never isolated our undergraduates from our graduate and research mission. Instead, we have created a continuum of opportunities from freshman introductory studies to graduate study and research.

Forming this continuum and achieving a balance between undergraduate studies and graduate research activities have taken time, but we have made significant progress in recent years. A decade ago, our prowess as a research institution was unquestioned when President Donald Kennedy, in an address given in April 1990, challenged us to strengthen our commitment to undergraduates and to teaching. Under the leadership of President Casper, we have injected new intellectual excitement and vitality into the undergraduate experience.

The undergraduate students we attract to Stanford are among the most talented in the world. We select a class of about 1,600 students from more than 18,000 applicants. The students accepted generally have multiple talents. They are bright self-starters and original thinkers with academic records of success and a demonstrated intellectual vitality and motivation to learn. Our 13 percent admit rate makes us among the most competitive institutions nationwide. Similarly impressive is our graduation rate, which was 90.9 percent for students entering Stanford in 1995.

A rigorous, engaging program

The undergraduate program students find here–in the residence halls, as well as in the classroom–is rigorous, engaging, and comprehensive. Perhaps the Commission described it best as "a judicious blend of flexibility and compulsion, breadth and depth," centered on Stanford’s central value and fundamental aspiration: the search to know. Stanford students are given opportunities to learn critical thinking and effective communication. They are introduced to the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts. They become proficient in a second language and gain an understanding of other cultures. They study the language of mathematics and take courses that illustrate the role science plays in our lives. They pursue at least one subject in depth, learning how scholars in a particular discipline collect, analyze, and communicate knowledge. They have more academic options than any one student can possibly make use of, including studying at a Stanford campus in one of nine countries or Stanford in Washington, D.C.

In addition, students are engaged in research, independent studies, and honors work–on their own and with faculty. Among our initiatives in this area is the Presidential Scholars program, which provides $3,000 in Intellectual Exploration Grants to a select group of newly admitted students who have demonstrated academic excellence and an inclination toward research. The recently expanded Undergraduate Research Programs office provides funding to a growing number of academic departments and individual faculty members to create independent study and research experiences for undergraduates, particularly juniors and seniors. "The most important aim of undergraduate education," the Commission reminded us, "is to involve students in this search [for knowledge], where teaching and learning, instruction and research, the communication and discovery of knowledge are combined in a single enterprise."

At the core of the curriculum for undergraduates is Stanford Introductory Studies, which has become crucial in helping us achieve increased mentoring and research opportunities from students’ first days on campus. Freshman Seminars, with such tempting titles as "Modern Plagues," "Symmetries of Nature: From Inner Space to Outer Space," and "The Pleasures of Counting," include no more than 16 students interacting with some of the university’s most esteemed scholars. Sophomore Seminars, including "Visions of the 1960s," "Lasers: The Light Fantastic," and "Women and Authority in the Middle Ages," enroll no more than 12 students, and Sophomore Dialogues, which are generally directed reading courses, no more than four. More than 200 seminars are being offered in 2000—2001.

Stanford Introductory Studies also includes Sophomore College, a two-week

residential/academic program held in September prior to the beginning of Autumn Quarter. Sophomore College, which immerses students in scholarly investigation and introduces them to the University’s resources, most recently enrolled 324 students in 27 classes. An ongoing pilot project, Freshman-Sophomore College at Sterling Quadrangle, also has enhanced faculty and student interaction. It enrolls about 180 students and integrates the excitement of Stanford Introductory Studies with the personal atmosphere of the residences.

Measuring our results

In its recent reaccreditation report to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Stanford measured the success of its undergraduate renaissance in a comprehensive self-study. The study points out that the renewed focus on undergraduate programs has improved educational opportunities while also raising Stanford’s morale, which, at the time of the last accreditation had declined as a result of damage caused by the Loma Prieta earthquake and of ongoing financial disagreements with the federal government.

We found that our emphasis on the first two years of the college experience has paid dividends. Freshmen and sophomores are enrolled in more and smaller classes taught by tenure-line faculty. Between 1993 and 1998, the percentage of freshman-only courses taught by tenure-line faculty increased from 28.1 percent to 42.1 percent. In addition, the number of freshman-only courses with 20 or fewer students taught by tenure-line faculty increased from 5.8 percent to 30.8 percent during the same period.

Our new language requirement and the establishment of the Language Center encouraged students to continue their language studies, even after the requirement was satisfied. Since the fall of 1996, the number of second-year language students has increased 20 percent. Stanford is the only institution among its peers that administers oral proficiency tests as part of language placement for students. This commitment to oral proficiency has resulted in significant gains: Stanford language students meet proficiency requirements at the end of the first year that students of other universities generally do not achieve until the completion of two years of study.

The Commission on Undergraduate Education also led to the formation of the Commission on Technology in Teaching and Learning (CTTL). Through its work, we have seen an expansion in the use of technology in the classroom. There are now more than 100 learning spaces that have significant amounts of instructional technology, among them the Teaching Center in the Science and Engineering Quadrangle. Since its opening in 1998, it has become one of the most heavily used classroom facilities. Between 1994 and 1999, the CTTL received more than 100 proposals from faculty eager to enrich teaching and learning through technology.

Among the other findings we reported were the results of a survey of juniors and seniors who had participated in Sophomore Seminars or Sophomore College. Sophomore College participants were more likely than non-participants to feel that

a professor knew them very well–58 percent to 36 percent–and were almost twice as likely to feel that more than one professor knew them very well. A Sophomore College participant earns better grades, is more likely to want to attend graduate school, and is more likely to have participated in such programs as Stanford Overseas Studies. Perhaps most significantly, students who chose to major in the academic area of their seminar were likely to have as their formal major advisor the instructor from the Sophomore Seminar or Sophomore College course.

Building on strength

The changes made to the undergraduate experience at Stanford in recent years have been transformative. As former Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Ramón Saldívar has said, "There has been a quiet revolution in undergraduate education: a shift in relative emphasis from research to teaching, and a redefinition of teaching as involving students in research."

Nevertheless, reforms have come and gone at Stanford and at other universities alike. Our efforts during the past few years have been distinguished by the enthusiasm of our faculty and the commitment of resources. In the first years alone, for instance, 20 new professors were added and $25 million in seed money was committed by donors and The Stanford Fund for Undergraduate Education, as well as from general university funds, to make Stanford Introductory Studies a successful experiment. We must ensure now that these programs become permanent. In addition, we will turn our focus toward comparable enhancements in the junior and senior years. This means strengthening majors, and perhaps most important, further increasing research opportunities for our undergraduates.

Over the next several years, Stanford will pursue a Campaign for Undergraduate Education designed to make Stanford Introductory Studies permanent, to augment and stabilize financial aid programs, and to launch new undergraduate programs throughout the University. The Campaign is more fully explained in the following report by Board of Trustees Chair Isaac Stein. I look forward to committing much

of my time to this initiative. Its ambitious goal of $1 billion, once met, will lead to enhancements that will enable Stanford to claim the best undergraduate education anywhere with pride and conviction.

By any measure, Stanford has prospered since its founding. There have been many challenges to overcome, but our history has been one of overcoming those challenges, taking advantage of opportunities, and creating new ones where none previously existed. Stanford Introductory Studies is a bold initiative in rethinking undergraduate education at a research university. The Campaign for Undergraduate Education, the largest fundraising campaign devoted to undergraduate education ever undertaken by any research university, is an equally bold statement about our values and commitments.

We have taken to heart that being a "university of high degree," which is the challenge our founders laid out for us, is not something that can be done by standing still. As former president Ray Lyman Wilbur wrote in his 1919 annual report, "Not to grow is in part to die." We must constantly reexamine what we are doing and continue to build on the successes of our predecessors, ensuring that Stanford will thrive for generations to come.


John L. Hennessy