Stanford University News Service



CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558

Faculty Senate delays setting guidelines for interdisciplinary programs

STANFORD -- * Why are interdisciplinary programs subject to periodic reviews that are not applied to regular academic departments?

  • How can Stanford develop a system to measure the effectiveness - in time and dollars - of interdisciplinary programs?
  • And, how can the institution gracefully end programs that have outlived their usefulness, without appearing to question the competence of those involved and the value of the degrees issued?

After nearly a full year of discussion by key committees, the Faculty Senate on Thursday, May 13, took up the topic of potential guidelines for the introduction, renewal and termination of interdisciplinary programs.

Following a lengthy but inconclusive discussion, senators agreed to postpone action for another year while the soon-to-be- appointed Commission on Undergraduate Education at Stanford considers this and other issues.

Introducing the topic to the senate on behalf of his Committee on Undergraduate Studies and the Committee on Graduate Studies, Associate Professor David Freyberg, civil engineering, reminded his colleagues that the lack of clear guidelines for interdisciplinary programs became an issue in 1991-92 when budget constraints led some to question the value of some programs.

"Interdisciplinary programs are an essential part of what Stanford is," Freyberg told the senate, "and they are here to stay."

In addition to the administrative issue of how to establish, renew and terminate programs, the senate should consider what constitutes a good interdisciplinary program, Freyberg said. The committees, he said, tried to articulate broad goals within which criteria could be formulated. They also were interested in cost effectiveness.

The most significant change recommended by the committees was a proposal to simplify the termination or "sunsetting" process.

"When put to the senate floor," Freyberg said, "it is almost impossible for a program not to be renewed."

To get around awkward public discussions, he proposed that a program be terminated upon agreement of the program's cognizant dean and the graduate or undergraduate committee. The committees would hear appeals.

Associate Professor Terry Karl, political science and head of the interdisciplinary Latin American Studies Center, protested. Review committees are not of uniform quality, she said, and it was easy to imagine "unfairness."

Furthermore, it is not right, she said, that interdisciplinary programs are reviewed every five years "and departments are not reviewed at all. It is a serious problem. We can review a master's program in an IDP, but I would guarantee we would find weaknesses far greater" in regular academic departments, she said.

It is wrong, she said, for the university to repeatedly review interdisciplinary programs, which are "so enormously stretched in terms of resources and staff time . . . and not have some kind of parallel review of the way departments deal with their degree-granting responsibilities."

Freyberg told Karl that he could say "with complete conviction that both of our committees agree with you overwhelmingly."

Karl also questioned the emphasis on degrees in the review process, when other factors should be considered during evaluation. Her program, she said, raises about $1 million a year to support doctoral students across a range of departments, for which it gets little or no credit during review.

Independently of the graduate and undergraduate committees, the senate's Planning and Policy Board has been considering the role of interdepartmental undergraduate degree programs.

Invited by the Steering Committee to present its ideas, Planning and Policy Board Chairman Arthur Bienenstock said his group was taking a global view and asking what classes of programs are consistent with constrained resources in order to "remain a great scholarly research university."

The board drew no immediate conclusions, he said, adding that the programs should not be judged in a vacuum. There are departmental majors "populated by very few students." The commission and his board should look at that, he said.

In a report submitted to the senate, the Planning and Policy Board raised several questions:

  • Who teaches? As many as 40 percent of courses in some interdisciplinary programs are taught by non-Academic Council staff, whereas programs like Feminist Studies and Modern Thought and Literature use almost all regular faculty. The board questioned whether it is appropriate for students to major in a program whose teachers, while of high quality, "do not provide students the supposed distinctive benefit of undergraduate education at Stanford - i.e., that as majors they will be taught by top scholars in their discipline."
  • What gets taught? Some interdisciplinary programs are conceived not so much around focused scholarly concerns as around general topical concerns or student interests that may not mesh with faculty interests.
  • Policy vs. discipline? In seeking cross-disciplinary breadth, depth may have been sacrificed in some programs, "leading to students who know a smattering of general information arising from various disciplines that bear on certain social problems, but who never really master any of the fundamental intellectual principles or problem-solving tools of any one discipline." Thus, graduates may be "too unskilled to do anything very constructive in their fields of interest."
  • Who pays? No cost-benefit analysis is performed during reviews because no one has any useful numbers. Some small programs apparently are very costly and some large ones quite inexpensive. The board said it was unsure what criteria of cost- benefit analysis should be, but that more information is needed.
  • Where do old IDPs go to die? Faculty review committees and cognizant deans rarely recommend termination of a program. "Somehow, we need to make it politically and morally acceptable to question the need to continue an IDP without impugning the program's originating purpose or value."

The board suggested that criteria for evaluating undergraduate interdisciplinary programs, and even the general standards of undergraduate education, should be "level of participation of Academic Council faculty, the academic rigor and coherence of the curriculum, a minimum number of students in a major, the uniqueness of the program relative to other majors, and its relative costs and benefits compared to existing majors."

During the senate discussion, history Professor James Sheehan suggested to Freyberg that the committees' proposal be strengthened, perhaps along the lines of the Planning and Policy Board's suggestions.

A central problem of the reviews, he said, is that they are done in isolation. "Judgments about the programs are almost never done comparatively," he said. "While very little of what we do is bad," sometimes resources could be put to better use.

Sheehan said he hoped the committees could "further knit together the resource and quality question and to do it as much as possible in a way that encourages comparative analysis."

Genetics Professor David Botstein said that with limited resources in the future, "it's likely that we're going to have to do less than we wish and less than we are."

He suggested that "maybe [the IDPs] do inhibit the rate of evolution of the departments. Maybe that's not a good thing." Perhaps progress would occur faster and more cost effectively through departments, he said. "Defending the status quo can't be the optimum."

Civil engineering Professor Raymond Levitt countered Botstein, saying that interdepartmental programs and graduate interdepartmental research centers are "the mutant genes that create innovation and create diversity in the future."

Approved two program reauthorizations

In other matters, the senate unanimously approved reauthorization for the incremental honors program in humanities and the interdepartmental graduate program in biophysics.

Freyberg drew smiles from the senators talking about two professors who were fairly new to the review process. Professors Guadalupe Valdes, Spanish and Portuguese and education, and Steven Zipperstein, history, were "naive enough to actually read the material" submitted about the humanities honor program. "They thought the program stellar. We concur with that," he said.

The humanities honors program offers students from any major, including those outside the School of Humanities and Sciences, opportunities to pursue honors through additional study, research and writing.

Responding to a question, history Professor Paul Robinson, who coordinates the program, said he surprisingly had no trouble recruiting faculty participants. "The pleasure of teaching these students is so great," that faculty are still taking part in the program even though Robinson no longer has funds to compensate them.



This is an archived release.

This release is not available in any other form. Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300.