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James Sheehan will head Commission on Undergraduate Education at Stanford

STANFORD -- History Professor James J. Sheehan will head the comprehensive, yearlong study of undergraduate education that President Gerhard Casper has put on Stanford's agenda for next year.

Casper announced his choice to lead the Commission on Undergraduate Education at Stanford during commencement exercises on Sunday, June 13, while presenting Sheehan with the Gores award for outstanding teaching.

Sheehan also recently was named one of nine recipients of the dean's teaching awards in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Sheehan is a former chair of the Faculty Senate, former chair of the History Department and is one of three co-conveners of the 30-member Humanities and Sciences Faculty Council.

A specialist in modern German history, Sheehan holds the Dickason Professorship in the Humanities. He earned his bachelor's degree from Stanford in 1958, then went across the bay for advanced degrees from the University of California-Berkeley.

In an interview, Sheehan said he would maintain his teaching load of four courses next year and continue supervising 10 doctoral students.

"It is important when doing these things," he said of the major added task, "that one continues teaching. It's a reminder of what we're really here for."

Sheehan left campus the day after commencement for two months of research in Munich, Germany, on the history of art museums.

Before his departure, he said that he expected the other commission members - 15 to 20 faculty, students, academic staff and alumni - would be appointed during the summer. Groundwork then would begin in August and September, to get the commission off to a fast start at the beginning of fall quarter, he said.

The commission will think about undergraduate education "in the broadest possible way," Sheehan said. "We will start off with the assumption that every aspect of the undergraduate program is suitable for discussion."

The next task, he said, will be to "define a set of core concerns that will establish some basic principles" to guide the commission's deliberations.

"It would be a big mistake," Sheehan said, "for me or anyone else to preempt" the discussion of core concerns. But he admitted that he is inclined to think they should be of a curricular and academic nature.

"Other issues could be thought of as the context" for the core concerns, he said, citing as examples advising, residential education and overseas campuses.

Casper used his "state of the university" address in late April to announce the commission. Among other things, he said, it should: consider whether the range of undergraduate degrees and majors is appropriate; consider whether the university should adopt accelerated programs enabling students to graduate in less than four years; consider the effectiveness of various teaching modalities; and consider the effectiveness of services that support the undergraduate program.

Sheehan said that the commission probably would appoint a number of working groups, each of which would include commission members along with other campus representatives.

The commission and its working groups will be diverse in age, experience, gender, ethnicity and other characteristics, he said. Student members will be appointed by the Associated Students.

"We're going to get a better outcome if our deliberations include people with as rich a mixture of experiences as possible," he said.

Sheehan said the commission would consult widely to gather ideas about what people think the university should be doing in undergraduate education.

But if the commission does nothing more than simply register opinions, "it's going to produce something that is either incoherent or bland," he said.

It must be cohesive - "it must have a group identity and a sense of itself."

On the other hand, he said, drawing on his academic expertise, "we don't want to be like the German parliament of 1848, which went off and wrote a wonderful constitution, only to find that while they were inside debating this document, the world outside was changing. When it came time to put the constitution into practice, no one was very interested."

Sheehan said he would consider the year's work a success "if we could produce a report to which people say, 'Yes, that's the sort of thing major universities should be doing as they approach the new century.' "

As for Casper's musings on a three-year degree, Sheehan said he finds it an "enormously useful heuristic device to get us to think about the value added of a fourth year."

The study, which will be the most thorough examination of undergraduate education at Stanford in the past quarter century, should take no more than a year, Sheehan said.

"It's virtually impossible to maintain intellectual cohesion and momentum beyond that," he said.

He said he is not sure whether a report would be ready by June or fall of 1994. The commission will have a small staff.

Although he was initially hesitant about the job, Sheehan said he accepted Casper's invitation to head the commission because "it represents a marvelous opportunity for us to think in a new way about our educational goals and values."



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