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Commission on Undergraduate Education issues final report

STANFORD -- After the most thorough review of its kind in a quarter century, the Commission on Undergraduate Education proposes stiffer academic requirements for students and calls for increased faculty involvement with undergraduates.

While giving high marks to the efforts of “an impressive array of Stanford faculty and staff,” the commission also criticized the “widespread indifference” of faculty members toward general advising of undergraduates and found “that teaching responsibilities at Stanford are very unevenly distributed.”

President Gerhard Casper and Provost Condoleezza Rice embraced the commission report, and immediately announced they would take one of the steps proposed - the creation of a new vice provost for undergraduate education. English Professor Ramón Saldívar was named to the post.

In its report, the commission recommended strengthening the writing and language requirements; developing a new science course for non-science majors; redefining the Cultures, Ideas and Values courses; streamlining the social science and humanities breadth requirements; adding new optional courses in oral communication; strengthening the advising system; and underscoring the importance of teaching in faculty selection and compensation.

History Professor James Sheehan, chair of the commission, recently delivered the report to Casper, who commissioned it, and will make a full report on its recommendations to the Faculty Senate on Thursday, Oct. 13.

Previewing the report on Monday, Oct. 10, Casper and Rice expressed pleasure with the outcome, and Sheehan said he was “quite satisfied” with the result, “given the limits of time and the complexity of the issues.”

Casper said he agreed with all the report's proposals and was especially enthusiastic about the suggested reformulation of Stanford's breadth requirements and suggested creation of the new science course.

“What the commission has done is very innovative, is very rigorous, and is a sharp departure from our present approach,” he said.

Rice said the report “has really gotten this campus talking about the undergraduate teaching mission, about the experience of our undergraduates, about what a college education should be.”

Key to the report's curricular recommendations, Sheehan said, was the new way of looking at breadth requirements. These were the most complicated and difficult issues the commission considered, he said. Instead of cutting up the curriculum into pieces and figuring out how they should be “formed and shaped,” the commission worked on “what sort of breadth we need to build in for different kinds of students,” Sheehan said.

New science and technical requirements will be viewed from the perspective of nonscience majors, and the social science and humanities requirements will be designed with science and engineering majors in mind.

Price tag not known

The commission declined to put a price tag on its many recommendations, and Rice, who as provost is chief academic and budget officer, said she had no idea what they might cost. But she emphasized that “there are some things for which we are going to find the resources no matter how difficult it might be. It may mean that there are other things that we cannot do, that we have to be as parsimonious with our spending in administration as we can possibly be so we can support this set of activities.”

Casper suggested that new donor opportunities may arise if the university develops “convincing programmatic changes.” He predicted that “we will see three years of intensive discussion on campus about various aspects of undergraduate education, and I think that's wonderful.”

As for the report's implementation, some of the recommendations can and will be acted on administratively, Casper said, and others, including suggested curricular reforms, will be submitted to the Faculty Senate through the university's normal committee process.

The report of the 19-member group of faculty, students, alumni and staff contained few surprises: Sheehan previewed its recommendations at the senate last June and regularly discussed issues with the campus media during the nine months he and the commission studied the tasks put to them by President Gerhard Casper in 1993. The final 64-page report was written during the summer.

The commission's work represents the most extensive review of undergraduate education since the 1968 Study of Education of Stanford. That study took three years to complete.

The commission said its investigations "revealed many sources of pride and satisfaction in Stanford's undergraduate programs. Stanford students are among the most talented and energetic in the world; many of them take full advantage of the extraordinary opportunities the university offers them.

"An impressive number of Stanford faculty and staff are devoted to the university's educational mission and go out of their way to instruct and inspire undergraduates."

Advising system: low marks

In extensive surveys and interviews with faculty, students and alumni, the commission said it also found that some aspects of undergraduate education "do not work well." In particular, the commission singled out the advising system, which "receives uniformly low marks."

Despite the devotion of the Undergraduate Advising Center staff and the volunteer efforts of faculty, staff and student advisors, advising "turns out to be the aspect of undergraduate education with which there is the most dissatisfaction," the report said.

"Student dissatisfaction with general advising is combined with, and perhaps in part is caused by, widespread faculty indifference," the commission said, noting that only about one-third of general advisors are regular faculty members. It found similar dissatisfaction with advising "at most of our peer institutions," the commission said.

The commission suggested strengthening the system of peer advising and improving the advising available to sophomores, "who too often become unattached from their general advisors and drift until they become moored to a major." It urged that "the president, provost and deans must make clear that advising is a valued part of the faculty's teaching obligation," and called for creating more opportunities for first- and second-year students to work closely with faculty members.

"Stanford works best for students who take the initiative to find mentors, design scholarly projects and become involved in faculty research." A minority of students are "largely untouched by the university's academic enterprise."

"We are especially concerned," the commission stated, "with those students who are somewhere between the self-starters and the academically uninterested.

"It is essential that those in this group be challenged and excited by their courses, that they get good advice and direction, and that as many as possible use wisely the wonderful opportunities Stanford provides."

Rice said that she will put together a small group to study the advising system and develop more concrete recommendations. One possibility the group may consider is providing more staff in the Undergraduate Advising Center or creating incentives for faculty in undergraduate advising. “We will look hard at trying to find new resources” to address advising issues, she said.

The commission also said it found some faculty members bear an unfair share of the teaching burden and declared, in unusually strong language, that "this disparity should not be tolerated."

"Recent arrivals from other institutions are sometimes struck by the comparative ease with which individuals can decide how much, or even whether, they wish to be involved with undergraduates," the report said.

"If we are to fulfill our commitment to excellence in teaching and research, individuals cannot be allowed to opt out of their teaching responsibilities."

Time to degree

The commission noted that "no other aspect of the commission's work has generated as much national attention as its charge to consider whether it is possible and desirable to give more students the opportunity to graduate in less than four years."

Rather than debating "the merits of the three-year degree in the abstract," the commission largely limited its analysis to examining what three groups of students - those entering in 1987, 1988 and 1989 - did with their time at Stanford. The analysis showed that of those who graduated, about 85 percent took four years, 13 percent took five years or more, and less than 2 percent graduated in three years.

This and other analysis led the commission to conclude that "we do not think Stanford should push students to graduate early. What and how well students do here is far more important than how quickly they get it done."

Recognizing, on the other hand, that some students would prefer to graduate in less than four years, the commission recommended that advisors be available to help plan shortened degree programs and that the university prepare a special publication describing alternative paths toward a bachelor's degree, including a three-year program.

Casper said he was pleased that the report recognizes the need for flexibility in time to degree, and said that options would be formulated for students who want to complete their degree requirements in three years.

“Contrary to what some of the press believed, I never advocated a three-year degree,” Casper said. “But I very much would like our students to make some of those choices and not us to make all the choices for them.”

New vice provost

In its report, the commission set forth numerous specific proposals, including:

Commission members suggested that the slot return to the provost's office, parallel to the vice provost for research and graduate policy, the commission said.

"We are convinced that many of the problems of undergraduate education - advising and residential education are obvious examples - are best addressed at the provostial level because they transcend school boundaries," the report said.

The commission recommended that the new vice provost monitor the system of incentives and rewards relating to teaching; approve promotion and hiring decisions; participate in salary setting; play a leading role in assessing teaching and learning; supervise programs required of all undergraduates; participate in evaluations of programs and departments; assume responsibility for several offices (including the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Undergraduate Advising Center) and for the educational functions of residential education; and take initiative in implementing the commission's recommendations.

Like other institutions, Stanford has difficulty representing undergraduates in its administrative structure, the commission said.

"We do not claim that we have found the perfect solution to this persistent problem; indeed we are skeptical that a perfect solution exists. But we are firmly convinced that there should be one person, strategically located at the center of the university, who is responsible for undergraduate education."

Saldívar came to Stanford in 1991 from the University of Texas. He specializes in literary theory, 19th- and 20th-century American and British fiction, and Chicano cultural studies.

New breadth requirements

The commission recommended more rigorous academic requirements for students, including:

The new course would cover problem solving, experimental work, technology, computer literacy, and elements of probability and statistics.

Currently, most non-science majors fulfill the three technically oriented distribution requirements with courses designed for nonspecialists. "Whatever their other merits, many of these courses do not teach students what it means to think scientifically," the commission said.

"Too few are both rigorously scientific and generally accessible. Indeed, we became convinced that these three areas were the weakest link in the current system, the ones that students were most likely to view cynically and to try to fulfill as effortlessly as possible."

A second option for fulfilling the science requirement would be for a student to take any three courses (with at least one quarter of lab) that can be used to fulfill the major in a natural science department.

Instead, it recommended eliminating the existing distribution requirements and allowing students free choice to take three courses in the humanities and/or social sciences outside of their major department or program. Students would be required to define some thematic connection among the three courses and get approval from their advisors.

"Allowing students to choose how to fulfill the humanities and social sciences breadth requirement gives them the ultimate responsibility for establishing curricular coherence," the commission said.

It quoted students as saying that CIV's nine tracks differ too widely in purpose, work load and grading policy. Neither the supervisory efforts of its advisory committee nor the common list of six authors shared by all tracks "has been able to provide the kind of cohesion and consistency promised by the program's founding legislation," the commission said. The requirement provides a significant and unique learning experience for some students, though, according to the report.

The commission suggested that the university transform and perhaps rename CIV, with the new courses to be in place by fall of 1998. This would be done by a committee of faculty members who are prepared to teach in the new program.

Some existing tracks would be revised to fit the new model, and new ones would be added. Each track would examine a common set of themes and problems in any of several different cultures, such as European, Asian or Islamic, and would become "the proper forum for a critical and historically informed discussion of issues of ethnicity, cultural identity and political and social values."

The commission did not reach consensus on what should happen to the gender studies requirement. Some felt, according to the report, that it should be folded into the redefined CIV requirement, while others felt that gender issues would get lost if not singled out as a special requirement. The issue should be revisited later, the commission said.

In other changes, the commission suggested that students should not be allowed to take breadth requirements for the Credit-No Credit option. "The current practice of using this option for distribution requirements undermines their value and legitimacy," the commission said.

Improve writing, language

Currently, students who are not native speakers of another language can fulfill the requirement with three years of high school instruction, which the commission deemed inadequate. To improve language teaching and learning, the commission recommended creation of a center for language instruction, which is under consideration by the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Acknowledging that strengthening the requirement would require additional resources, the committee said "it is time to recognize that in order to live up to our claim to be an international and multicultural institution, we must be prepared to make language study a more effective and visible part of our undergraduate program."

The commission also suggested expanding the writing requirement so that each department or program has at least one writing-intensive course, which its majors would be required to pass. This would extend the Writing Across the Curriculum program, in which 16 Humanities and Sciences units already participate, and would require more faculty support and training for teaching assistants.

An advisory board should be created to coordinate the various components of the writing requirement, and the success of the writing requirement should be regularly evaluated, the commission said.

"We are convinced that one learns good writing and communication skills by practicing them regularly; moreover, writing is a powerful tool in learning," the commission said.

Casper said funds would be allocated to the Center for Teaching and Learning to offer oral communication courses during the academic year.

Grading policy

The commission said that "the clustering of grades at the upper end of the scale makes it difficult to identify truly exceptional work."

"While there may be room for argument about the significance of grade inflation, surely we can all agree that grades should have roughly the same meaning throughout the university," the commission said.

On the subject of units per course, the commission suggested that dramatic differences exist in required class and preparation time among courses of identical unit value. It recommended a general guideline that every unit for which credit is award should represent approximately three hours of actual work per week for the average student.


"Research alone should not be the only measure of a faculty member's value to Stanford."

Teaching evaluation should include student opinion, the commission said, and better forms should be utilized, perhaps along the lines of the one used by students in the School of Engineering. In addition, "some form of peer evaluation of teaching, comparable to what is taken for granted in research, should be employed," the report said.

Faculty members should be encouraged to use various means to improve their teaching, and the commission especially recommended the services of the Center for Teaching and Learning, which should "become a more central part of Stanford's life."

On the subject of lecturers, the commission said, "they provide the core of professional expertise" upon which the writing and language programs depend. "We are very skeptical about the alleged budgetary gains and pedagogical advantages that would come from deemphasizing the role of lecturers. Indeed, we are persuaded that they provide a cost-effective teaching resource that should be sustained and encouraged."

Stanford must position itself to take advantage of the "rapidly evolving information technology, and recognize and reward the use of innovative educational practices," the commission said. The commission noted that the computer was "still an exotic and cumbersome novelty in 1968" when undergraduate education was last studied in depth, but now has become "an everyday part of our existence; it is difficult to remember how - or even when - we lived without it."

The commission also suggested that the university "champion those who innovate" and "allocate sufficient resources to enable individuals to bring about innovation in teaching and learning."

"The physical infrastructure of the university with regard to information technology must be recognized as inadequate; a commitment to address these inadequacies must be made. High priority should be given to proper classroom outfitting and to distributed information technology facilities for faculty and student use."

Following up on this recommendation, Casper already has allocated $300,000 from a President's Office discretionary fund for design of a prototype classroom called the Flexible Class Lab that will be used to evaluate advanced instructional technology.

"Our investigations convinced us that residential education is an essential part of undergraduate life at Stanford. A dedicated professional staff, a remarkable cadre of resident fellows, and a large group of student leaders work hard to make this program a success," the report said. "We especially admire the variety of living opportunities Stanford offers and urge that all of them be retained."

To strengthen the system, the commission recommended improvements in communicating the goals and values of residential education to both faculty and students, and suggested that the staff "regularly reevaluate how its programs and activities fit into the broader context of formal classroom instruction and advising."

The commission

In addition to James Sheehan, the faculty, staff, alumni and student members of the commission were David Brady, business and political science; John Bravman, materials science and engineering; Donald Brown, economics; Albert Camarillo, history; Wanda Corn, art; Geoffrey Cox, vice provost for institutional planning and financial affairs; Lorraine Fox, alumna, Sun Microsystems; Craig Heller, biological sciences and human biology; Luz Elena Herrera, senior, political science; Charlotte Jacobs, medicine; Nelee Langmuir, senior lecturer, French and Italian; David Lowell, graduate student, engineering-economic systems; Gail Mahood, geological and environmental sciences; Brad Osgood, mathematics; Kenneth Oshman, alumnus, Echelon Corp.; John Rickford, linguistics; Guadalupe Valdés, education and Spanish and Portuguese; Robert Weisberg, law. Lowell Price and Mary Jane Reese served as staff to the commission.

Numerous other community members were involved serving on or advising the commission's eight subcommittees and the Student Advisory Group on Undergraduate Education Steering Committee. Hundreds more took part in interviews and surveys.

The commission's report was underwritten with a grant from the Irvine Foundation.



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