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Commission on Undergraduate Education sets first meeting; composition questioned by composition/literature faculty

STANFORD -- The newly formed Commission on Undergraduate Education will be launched Oct. 16, when 19 faculty, alumni, student and staff members gather for their first meeting, commission chair James Sheehan, history, told the Faculty Senate last week.

While still waiting for two student representatives to be named by the Associated Students, Sheehan released the names of the rest of the commission members - 14 faculty members, two alumni and one staff member.

That list drew criticism from two English Department faculty members, who told Sheehan that they and their colleagues are deeply disturbed that the commission contains no full-time faculty involved in the teaching of writing or literature.

The commission, announced by President Gerhard Casper in his state of the university speech last spring, is to undertake a comprehensive, yearlong study of undergraduate education. Its report is due Oct. 1, 1994.

Sheehan told the senate that the commission is both too large and too small. He said he takes "limited consolation in that it is smaller than Hillary Clinton's" commission on health care, but "my feeling is that 19 is too large and simply can't be larger."

The commission is not a legislative body, he said. "It is designed to look at what we do and make recommendations about how we can improve that."

The commission will consult widely with the campus community, probably breaking into working groups assigned to particular tasks, Sheehan said. Each working group will include at least one commission member, plus faculty, students and others with expertise in specific areas.

"The commission must be open to opinion and expertise from throughout the university. There is no other way our job can be a success," he said.

Nevertheless, English Professors Robert Polhemus and Ronald Rebholz told Sheehan that they believed the legitimacy of eventual recommendations might be in jeopardy without further representation on the commission itself.

Polhemus, a veteran of the 1966-69 Study of Education at Stanford, said his colleagues in literature departments and writing programs "are dismayed that no regular faculty members with full-time appointments in these departments have been put on this commission, and I share this disappointment." These faculty members do a great deal of undergraduate teaching, he said.

"What's more important than writing?" Polhemus asked, "and who is going to teach it and how is it going to be taught and who is going to read it?"

He said he did not want his comments construed as criticism of any of the appointed commission members - "they are outstanding."

But the omission "raises a big problem about how the commission's work is going to be viewed in the eyes of a significant number of faculty in the areas of teaching and scholarship."

Rebholz agreed, saying it was "terribly imprudent not to have any full-time faculty member from a language or literature department, or philosophy or religious studies," all of which "are among the [financially] poor disciplines at Stanford."

Together, these departments teach about 19 percent of all undergraduates, he said.

"If you do not include somebody from these departments, you are, from the very beginning, calling into question the legitimacy of your deliberations, and your conclusions will be undermined at the end.

"I am begging you to reconsider and put a 20th person on the commission," Rebholz said to Sheehan. "The magic difference between 19 and 20 escapes me."

Sheehan responded that "we thought about the humanities as a whole, and as a sector of knowledge they are extremely well represented." Writing is an example of an issue for which the commission would establish a working group that would include members concerned with the teaching of writing.

He told Rebholz that if he lifted the lid, others would be lined up with candidates. The social scientists could make the same argument, he said.

The issue is one of tradeoff, not addition, Sheehan said.

"The arts are a much more fragile and much more neglected part of humanistic education, and I wouldn't want to trade," he said.

"I think 19 is enough."

Rebholz was not convinced. He told Sheehan that he hoped the senate chair would convey his views to the president, "bypassing your hard-nosed position." (Casper had left the meeting early to deliver remarks at an alumni reunion.)

Tony Siegman, electrical engineering, and Robert Simoni, biological sciences, supported Sheehan. Siegman pointed out that the commission included no one from the "hard physical sciences," and Simoni said the commission is too big "by a factor of two."

Sheehan told the senate that the commission included six members with Stanford degrees, seven with degrees in humanities subjects, four with social science degrees, and seven with degrees in engineering, natural sciences or mathematics. A significant number have been or are now resident fellows. Except for the representative from the School of Medicine, all have undergraduate teaching experience or have joint appointments in a Humanities and Sciences department, he said.

The commission's charge states that it is "to clarify the goals of a Stanford undergraduate education and to recommend ways to insure that our programs are appropriate and effective in support of those goals."

The commission is to "review the undergraduate curriculum and related programs with regard to the changing needs and expectations of our students and their families, the emerging opportunities and challenges of the 21st century, and the unique strengths and resources of Stanford University."

"Even considering myself an optimist," Sheehan told the senate, "it is a very daunting task and we must certainly entertain the possibility that we will fail - that we will not be able to come up with a set of reforms that will persuade the university community that this is a better way to run our undergraduate program."



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