Circles of small-group discussions

At Thursday’s meeting, members of the senate formed small groups for in-depth conversations about two faculty proposals for revitalizing undergraduate education at Stanford. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

At its March 5 meeting, the Faculty Senate discussed two faculty proposals for revitalizing undergraduate education at Stanford, including one focused on a common first-year experience and another focused on new parameters for the undergraduate major.

In addition, Adam Banks, co-chair of the senate’s Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policies (C-USP), gave a brief update on the committee, which is preparing legislation – expected to be presented to the senate spring quarter – based on the faculty proposals.

In other business, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne presented a brief update on the university’s actions to respond to the spread of COVID-19, also called novel coronavirus.

He also reiterated that the university remains committed to every member of the Stanford community, including its international students and scholars.

“It’s really essential that we all extend kindness and respect to all, regardless of race, ethnicity or country of origin,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “The strength of our community comes from embracing our diversity and working together to ensure a respectful and inclusive environment. We must continue to reject xenophobia, and we have to stand together and we have to stand together in tackling the threat of COVID-19.”

Revitalizing undergraduate education

In a departure from its usual format, members of the senate – senators, ex officio members and student representatives – were assigned to small groups so they could hold in-depth, deliberative conversations about the two faculty proposals: The First-Year Shared Intellectual Experience and Exploration, and The Future of the Major.

The proposals are part of the university’s Long-Range Vision, which will guide Stanford’s priorities over the coming years.

The groups were organized to represent a cross-section of campus. They sat in circles and each group had a facilitator. Each group conducted a separate discussion on each proposal. They met in the Gold Lounge of the Faculty Club, rather than their usual venue, a Law School auditorium.

In his update on the work of C-USP, Banks, a professor of education in the Graduate School of Education, said the committee has been working through issues large and small with respect to both proposals.

“We have not voted on a thing,” Banks said. “We have not drafted anything yet. All of our work so far has been in considering the depth of what was proposed and what those proposals would mean for our campus. We will be making a deliberative turn soon to see where we are able to have consensus on the various elements of the proposals and what to bring forward to you as the full senate.”

Banks said the committee met several times with the co-chairs of the faculty design teams, and has stayed in touch with them every step of the way.

“We have also let the co-chairs know that we welcome any revisions that might come forward, based on what they’ve learned from conversations with faculty, with students and with other constituencies on campus,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, participants were invited to submit feedback and questions on index cards to be forwarded to C-USP as well as to the faculty design teams.

Faculty design teams collected feedback

In preparation for the discussions, everyone received a packet of materials: the two proposals and a 14-page document, Responses to Feedback on Proposed Undergraduate Reforms, which had been prepared by the four co-chairs of the two faculty design teams.

The co-chairs of the First-Year Shared Intellectual Experience and Exploration design team are Lanier Anderson, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, and the J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor in the Humanities; and Sarah Church, vice provost for faculty development, teaching and learning, and a professor of physics.

The co-chairs of The Future of the Major design team are Dan Edelstein, the William H. Bonsall Professor in French; and Tom Kenny, the Richard W. Weiland Professor and senior associate dean for student affairs in the School of Engineering.

The co-chairs said they received feedback from across campus: from faculty during a series of five town hall meetings and an Oct. 24, 2019, Faculty Senate meeting; through responses from students collected by the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU); through conversations with student leadership; through an op-ed in the Stanford Daily, “Will Stanford live up to its vision for a first-year shared intellectual experience?”; and through individual and departmental feedback to the co-chairs and to members of C-USP.

In the introduction to the report, the co-chairs said they thought it might be helpful to let the community know how their thinking had evolved in response to feedback and also, in some cases, to clarify the reason for their original proposals.

The co-chairs said they also wanted to share their excitement about how the proposals put them in contact with many other initiatives across campus that are focused on similar issues relating to education, student well-being and campus culture.

“We have discovered dozens of groups, classes, projects and research efforts that either align with our proposals or have helped us improve them,” the co-chairs wrote.

“These fortuitous contacts have reinforced our belief that a shared intellectual experience in the first year, in part made possible by a cap on major units, will create bridges across many disparate endeavors around campus, and will have a profound and positive impact on our students’ sense of community and belonging.”

Stanford’s response to COVID-19

Addressing the senate, Tessier-Lavigne said he had emailed a letter to the entire Stanford community on Thursday to provide further information and background on the university’s response to COVID-19.

He said Stanford has activated a cross-campus emergency operations team to monitor the outbreak, to assess risk and to make recommendations.

Tessier-Lavigne said that as the committee has been making decisions about travel, teaching or the size of gatherings, its members have been balancing two important imperatives: to protect the Stanford community and communities beyond campus, and to sustain the university’s daily education and research activities.

“Every action we’ve taken so far has been with this balance in mind,” he said. “Of course, if circumstances change, we are prepared to take even stricter steps, if needed.”

Tessier-Lavigne said Stanford Medicine is currently caring for a few patients who have tested positive for COVID-19. He emphasized that the hospital continues to follow protocols to ensure the safety of patients and health care workers.

In a Q&A following his remarks, senators asked a variety of questions, including how the university will support students if they fall ill in the dorm, the availability of COVID-19 tests at Stanford Medicine and the criteria for appealing travel restrictions.

In response to a question about the potential of the virus to spread quickly, Lloyd Minor, dean of the School of Medicine and an ex officio member of the senate, said:

“I think the response and the steps that the president and provost have taken on our campus and the response by local health care authorities are likely to attenuate the spread of the infection. Prudent steps were taken early. But it’s very hard to predict. The transmissibility of COVID-19 appears to be somewhat greater than seasonal flu, and that’s concerning, but not an order of magnitude greater.”

Minor said the virus is transmitted by droplets – mucus or saliva – and encouraged everyone to continue washing their hands, covering their coughs and cleaning surfaces.

The full minutes of the senate meeting will be available on the Faculty Senate website.

The next senate meeting will be held Thursday, April 16.