Faculty Senate considers Stanford’s ‘new normal’
During the Faculty Senate’s first meeting of the 2022-23 academic year on Thursday, senators heard presentations on the resiliency of campus infrastructure, the Associated Students of Stanford University, COVID-19, and the course registration system.
The 2022-23 academic year at Stanford presents an opportunity to decide what the university’s new normal should look like as pandemic-related operational changes are slowly phased out, said Faculty Senate Chair Ken Schultz, professor of political science, during the senate’s first meeting of the academic year on Thursday.
“What parts of pre-pandemic status quo do we want to recover?” Schultz asked senators. “And where do we need new policies or structures that reflect changes in the university and its environment in response to significant challenges, some of which were exacerbated by the pandemic and some of which build on lessons learned?”
There are exciting changes this year, such as the opening of the recently launched Doerr School of Sustainability and the new first-year COLLEGE curriculum, Schultz continued, but also prevailing challenges like student mental health and well-being, and concerns about academic freedom and civil discourse in a polarizing environment.
He also noted the recent conflict around the first day of fall quarter falling on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, adding that the matter has been referred to the appropriate Academic Council committees to prevent future conflicts. The committees, working with the Registrar’s Office and the Dean for Religious and Spiritual Life, are considering reforms to the academic calendar and are expected to bring a proposal to the senate by the end of this quarter to prevent conflicts with religious holidays.
Senators additionally heard presentations on the priorities of the Associated Students of Stanford University, an update on COVID-19, campus infrastructure resiliency, and the course registration system.
Schultz and President Marc Tessier-Lavigne recognized the news that Carolyn Bertozzi was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday. Bertozzi is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, a professor of chemistry, and the Baker Family Director of Sarafan ChEM-H.
“As we begin a new academic year, I think it’s really an excellent reminder of the talent and the creativity within our community and particularly in the ranks of our faculty,” Tessier-Lavigne said.
Tessier-Lavigne added that there is much to be excited about in the year ahead, and he is focused this year on working with everyone to build a strong and supportive community.
“We want to create a community where we can learn from one another and lean on one another through the ups and downs of the academic year,” he said. “We know this is crucial for our students … but it’s important for the well-being of our faculty and staff as well.”
Provost Persis Drell also announced this year’s faculty members who have been named or reappointed as Bass University Fellows in Undergraduate Education, recognized for extraordinary contributions to undergraduate education.
Campus infrastructure resiliency
As climate change-related threats such as wildfire and heatwaves increase in frequency and intensity, the university is working to ensure campus infrastructure resiliency, said Jack Cleary, associate vice president for land, buildings, and real estate.
Cleary reviewed an “extraordinary multi-day outage” this past June that resulted in classes and day camps being canceled for several days after a wildfire near Emerald Hills impacted PG&E’s main transmission line to campus. The outage lasted 79 hours amid a heatwave. PG&E provided a limited supply of power through a secondary line, which was used to maintain cooling for the hospital and other critical infrastructure priorities.
Challenges included needing to use the same power line to serve high, medium, and low priorities in the same areas, and failure of seven of 105 generators due to varying rates of fuel usage, Cleary said.
The university is looking to improve staffing and equipment for generator refueling; communication to responders and stakeholders; and insight into what’s being plugged into generators, among other efforts. The university will also refine and enhance existing responses that performed well, such as the electric curtailment plan.
Looking forward, the university’s grid power supply could face risks like an emergency weeks-long power shutdown to campus by PG&E, Cleary warned, with rotating blackouts or no exceptions for the hospitals.
The provost and dean of research have established the Faculty Committee on Electrical Resilience in the Research Enterprise to advise and recommend measures to reduce risks to research in the campus-wide and local power systems. There is also a comprehensive electrical reliability study underway.
While COVID remains a concern, the community is in a much better state now than in the past, said Lloyd Minor, the Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Professor and Dean of Stanford School of Medicine, adding that everyone should celebrate how the community came together to support each other and the university’s mission.
The numbers of students in isolation and members of the community testing positive have trended downward, and the university continues to monitor variants.
Judy Goldstein, the Janet M. Peck Professor in International Communication, professor of political science, and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, said there is a lack of clarity regarding compliance of masking in classrooms. “Can you help us to understand, at this point, whether or not as faculty I should be telling students to put them on?” she said.
Drell reminded the audience that the current policy requires masking in classrooms except when speaking, and added that the topic of masking in classrooms is being reviewed, with more information expected soon.
“I think that our peers are not consistent with what they are doing, but most of them are, in fact, moving away from the mask mandate,” Drell said. “I think the key for us is how to do that in a way that, for our faculty who wish to continue to have a mask mandate in the classroom, we support them. And of course, normalize mask wearing for anyone who wants to wear it.”
The Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) has a slew of critical issues it has prioritized for this coming academic year, including several matters it hopes to address with the Faculty Senate, such as academic flexibility, ASSU President Darryl Thompson and Vice President Christian Sanchez shared in a presentation.
Managed by Stanford Student Enterprises, the ASSU provides services and conducts advocacy work on behalf of the student body. It includes the Graduate Student Council (GSC) and the Undergraduate Senate (UGS) among its branches.
The ASSU, GSC, and UGS have all prioritized community mental health and well-being this year. Other priority issues include affordability; campus social life; diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice; and sexual violence.
Legacy projects and initiatives include collaborating with the First-Generation and/or Low-Income Office to support the needs of FLI students and student-run businesses, among others.
Also, “the COVID-19 pandemic affected a student’s academic life in many different ways,” Thompson said. “And during the pandemic, the academic flexibility provided to students by faculty has varied, with some students feeling very supported and others not so much, unfortunately.”
The ASSU would like to explore how the university can lean toward empathy when working with students, development of a guide for how faculty should respond to student requests for academic flexibility, and brainstorming about an Office of Accessible Education faculty accountability mechanism.
The ASSU is also looking at honor code reforms, faculty support of civic engagement, review of how transfer credits are evaluated, and concerns over the reliability of Axess for course enrollment.
David Palumbo-Liu, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and professor of comparative literature, said it was very telling that all the branches of ASSU prioritized mental health as an issue and encouraged the discussion to further explore what is and isn’t working.
Course registration system
Some of the stress affecting students stems from issues with the course registration system related to outages or instabilities, said Steve Gallagher, chief information officer, as part of an apology to the community. This is “not acceptable,” he said. “I want to let you know that we are entirely committed to addressing this.”
In September, systems supporting class registration suffered two outages that resulted in the disruption of class enrollment, student anxiety, and distrust in the process.
Axess consists of a multi-tier architecture, Gallagher said, noting that a critical underlying component of the system is 25 years old. During autumn enrollment, there was a bug introduced to new code related to the Axess portal, which created compounding performance issues. As enrollment began and throngs of students logged on, it triggered the bug, the underlying legacy environment was overwhelmed, and the system crashed, Gallagher explained.
To address the problems prior to winter quarter enrollment on Dec. 1, a special consulting team is working to address identified bugs; find a better approach to simulating peak registration loads; and better understand the role of load balancing and impact on students’ ability to log in and register. Long term, Stanford is also reviewing technology limitations related to challenges from the legacy environment; opportunities to improve the student experience; enhancement of data capabilities; and potentially working closely with the Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems.
“We’re committed to stabilizing the technical environment,” said Johanna Metzgar, associate vice provost for student and academic services and university registrar. “Once that’s done, I think the work of rebuilding trust among the students comes into place.”
Multiple senators asked if there is a way to accommodate time conflicts and improve the degree planning application. Metzgar said such recommendations are being considered as Stanford moves toward improving the practices and creating more standardization and centralization. “We can also work more closely with departments to give the students’ wants and needs to them through predictive analytics and demand analytics, so that departments can do a better job and know what students need,” Metzgar said.
Senators also heard a memorial resolution on Daniel DeBra, the Edward C. Wells Professor, Emeritus, in the School of Engineering, who died on Dec. 3, 2021, at age 91.