Give undergraduates the 'gift' of adaptive learning, committee tells senate

The first senate meeting of winter quarter focused on the report of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford. Speakers included the co-chairs of the university committee that produced the report – Susan McConnell, biology, and James T. Campbell, history – as well as Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education.

At Thursday's senate meeting, faculty had their first opportunity to ask questions about the final report of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) following a presentation by the co-chairs of the committee that produced the 128-page document.

Photos by L.A. Cicero Members of the SUES committee at the Faculty Senate meeting

Professors Susan McConnell, Jennifer Summit, Sarah Billington, Chris Edwards, Jonathan Berger, Rob Reich and James Campbell field questions after the SUES report at the Faculty Senate meeting.

The report recommends replacing the yearlong Introduction to the Humanities sequence with a quarter-long "Thinking Matters" course, and requiring freshmen to take Introductory Seminars, which would give them the opportunity to know and work closely with a professor.

The report also recommends expanding the September Studies Program, by piloting additional courses aimed at students in their junior year, and "creat[ing] a culture of expectation" that students will do a capstone project during their senior year.

During the Q&A that followed their presentations, co-chairs James T. Campbell, history, and Susan McConnell, biology, were joined at the front of the chamber by the chairs of five of the SUES committee's seven subcommittees. They fielded a variety of questions:

"SUES is recommending that Stanford faculty see themselves more and more robustly as teachers in diverse ways: Did the committee think about what the implications are for the understanding of a research university, particularly in terms of the criteria that we use in hiring, rewarding and promoting colleagues?"

"How are you going to know if you're successful? Five years from now, how will you know whether this report accomplished what you hope?"

"Exactly how are you intending to expand the freshman seminar program so that it comes close to being accessible and available to 100 percent of our freshman class? How are we going to do that in response to the very limited schedules of our many athletes, or for the populations that we know demographically have been very reluctant to take these seminars?"

McConnell, the Susan B. Ford Professor in the Department of Biology, presented an overview of the major recommendations of the report, including a new way of organizing breadth requirements that focuses less on disciplinary content and more on their purposes and their learning goals, known as "Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing."

"In reconceiving breadth in this way we're not suggesting that disciplinary knowledge is unimportant," she said. "To the contrary, knowledge is the platform on which skills and capacities are built. But we think that a system that's focused on ways of thinking and doing is more coherent, more transparent in its rationale, and more responsive to the needs and goals of students."

Harry Elam speaking to Faculty Senate

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam speaks at the Faculty Senate meeting.

McConnell said the recommendations for freshmen are designed to make arriving students "immediate and full partners in the intellectual life of the university" and to "deliver a curriculum to them that addresses their distinctive learning needs."

Campbell, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History, said one of the committee's fundamental goals was to try to create opportunities for students to integrate different aspects of their experience, "not only because we believe that those moments are powerful and lasting educationally, but also because we believe that developing that capacity for integrative knowledge is in fact one of the most crucial gifts that we can give them going forward."

Campbell said the capacity to integrate new and old experiences, and to adapt knowledge and skills to new circumstances, will help protect Stanford students from professional obsolescence and will best prepare them to face life's unforeseen challenges.

Harry Elam, the Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, said his office already has begun laying the groundwork to implement some of the recommendations by meeting with faculty and with the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy (C-USP).

Elam said Stanford has 120 introductory seminars for freshmen.

"We also have 99 courses that are sophomore seminars," he said. "What we will think about is how will we use those sophomore seminars. Will some of them become freshman seminars? Yes, we may need more."

In a spirited talk, Elam urged the senate to embrace the recommendations, which reflect Stanford's entrepreneurial, pioneering spirit.

"Here is a chance to really potentially reinvent what we do, think about what we do," he said. "The reverberations will be felt not only here, but around the country. What SUES is asking us to do is to take that leap. I hope we'll have fun doing it."

Rosemary Knight, chair of the Faculty Senate and a professor of geophysics, said C-USP will present proposals related to the SUES recommendations that require a senate vote. Proposed changes to the freshman year will be discussed at the senate's Feb. 23 meeting, followed by a senate vote on March 8. The other SUES recommendations that require a senate vote will be considered during spring quarter.

President Hennessy talks about StanfordNYC

At the start of the meeting, Knight said she had asked President John Hennessy to comment on Stanford's decision late last year to withdraw its proposal to create an applied sciences campus in New York City, and to briefly discuss the process of preparing and vetting the proposal.

Hennessy said that during the December negotiations, the city imposed requirements that increased the risks and the costs of undertaking the project, and decreased some of the project's long-term benefits to Stanford.

"At that time, I notified the Board of Trustees that I did not think the negotiations were going particularly well," he said. "We felt like we were in an adversarial negotiating position, rather than a partnership. I said if we couldn't straighten that out, we might have to abandon the project."

Stanford made its decision to withdraw on the evening of Dec. 15.

"In the end, we withdrew, because we felt in the senior team that while we believed we could win the proposal, it would require us to make concessions which would reduce or eliminate future opportunities for the core campus," Hennessy said. "We felt that we were being asked to do too much. We decided it was better to withdraw than to enter into an agreement that would be a legally binding agreement that would compromise the university's future."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg later announced that Cornell University, in partnership with Technion of Israel, would build a campus on Roosevelt Island.

In a Q&A published Dec. 27 in Stanford Report, the StanfordNYC team explained its decision.

Hennessy also announced that John Mitchell, the Mary and Gordon Crary Family Professor in the School of Engineering, had accepted an appointment as special assistant to the president for educational technology. Mitchell will help Stanford launch its next efforts in online education and help the university develop agreements with outside entities that might host its courses.

Minutes available next week

The full minutes of the Jan. 26 meeting, including the questions and answers that followed the SUES presentation, will be available on the Faculty Senate website next week. The next Faculty Senate meeting will be held Feb. 9.