Undergraduate Curriculum and Requirements
oward the end of my first year as president, I announced the establishment of the Commission on Undergraduate Education. The Commission--or CUE, as it came to be known--was described as the first comprehensive look at Stanford's undergraduate curriculum in twenty-five years. While that is true in a formal sense (the last such major initiative having concluded in 1968), the characterization nevertheless is exaggerated. Educational matters have been, are, and will always be under reconsideration at Stanford, and there is constant, if unpublicized, change and experimentation even within a fairly static framework. CUE, under the leadership of Professor James Sheehan, stimulated additional debate and experimentation that continues still. The importance of CUE can be found not only in its final report, but in its lasting effect as a catalyst for change.
We are accustomed to think of the four-year bachelor's degree program as a natural part of the university, but the integration of one with the other has never been easy. The oldest institutions of higher education in this country were simply undergraduate colleges. Research programs and graduate education grew up around the collegiate core gradually and, for the most part, within the past one hundred years. The younger institutions--among them Stanford--sought to combine both undergraduate teaching and research from the very beginning. But no clear model existed for accomplishing this. David Starr Jordan wrote at one point, "Sooner or later Stanford must choose whether it will be a college or a university, for it has not the funds for both."
Fortunately, Stanford did not resign itself to choosing between being a college or a university. Each class of undergraduates brings remarkable new vitality and challenges to the institution. As Edward Levi, the former president of the University of Chicago, has said: "The excitement and brightness [of college] arise, I think, because of the willingness of the [unroutinized] mind..., if sufficiently challenged, to test the boundaries that convention has laid down. The result can be a partnership between faculty and student in which the faculty member is also challenged to try to point a path through a subject matter, or to exemplify that subject matter in the more careful view of a particular situation."
Nonetheless, there are reasons why undergraduate programs do not sit as comfortably in research-intensive universities as many people seem to think they should. First, the system of promotion, tenure, and compensation for faculty at a university--as distinguished from that of many colleges--must rest heavily on research performance. The latter is a sine qua non if we understand teaching and research to be dialectically related.
The role research plays in appointment decisions may also be connected with the assumption that research results are, relatively speaking, easier to demonstrate and document. Contributions to teaching are much harder to evaluate, especially as measured by student reactions. The true impact of an effective course may be felt first many years after the fact. The most popular undergraduate, or for that matter graduate, teacher is not necessarily the best.
Second, the departments of a university, where promotion and tenure decisions originate, carefully guard their disciplinary boundaries, because intellectual strength is recognized most clearly in problems and methods that are central to the disciplines. Specialized expertise is highly valued. Specialization, however, is in general less important to undergraduate education, where the primary emphasis is often to show the interconnections among specialized fields of knowledge.
Third, faculty members in the contemporary university not only teach undergraduates and conduct research but also face demanding tasks of graduate education and are expected to contribute to their professions and public life--not to mention the ever increasing proportion of time that is consumed by red tape in the form of grant applications or grant expenditure reports or other reports demanded by government regulators of one kind or another. No wonder that, as people observe the hustle, they conclude that some faculty members are more interested in research than teaching. They see that some faculty, for instance, in the medical and engineering schools, self-finance portions of their own salaries. They read in the newspapers that universities (i.e., their faculty) are widely expected to facilitate technology transfer to businesses. In the same newspapers they can read about conflicts of interest caused by these very links between academia and industry. Jacques Barzun reminded us as long as thirty years ago that time within the university is flowing at the same rate as outside. Universities are no ivory towers.
While matters are thus often more difficult than outside critics realize, it is all the more welcome that the Stanford faculty has, with vigor and rigor, reassessed its own role in undergraduate education. To its great credit, CUE steered clear of many of the perennial debates about undergraduate education and focused on a few key themes and pragmatic recommendations. "The most important aim of undergraduate education," it stated in the introduction to its report, "is to involve students in [the search for knowledge], where teaching and learning, instruction and research, the communication and discovery of knowledge are combined in a single enterprise."
The university, the Faculty Senate included, has acted decisively to accept many of CUE's recommendations:
The first two years of the undergraduate program require special attention because, as I said, they are not fully the responsibility of any single department of the university. Stanford does not have an undergraduate college. Instead, undergraduate programs are the collective responsibility of the entire faculty. This can be both a strength and a weakness. The debates in the Faculty Senate over new undergraduate requirements ultimately showed the vitality of Stanford's approach, however. Faculty from every discipline engaged in vigorous discussions about how best to serve undergraduates. Undergraduate programs, perhaps more than any other activity, bind the university together and help define the character of intellectual relationships across the institution. In this way, the debate about CUE was a renewal not only of the undergraduate curriculum, but also of the broader university.
During our review of undergraduate programs I became increasingly concerned that, during their first year, not enough students had the benefit of close interaction with our faculty. There is no more important reason for attending Stanford than the opportunity it affords to work with faculty members who are at the frontiers of their fields. At the same time, I became aware of the increasing demand for the Sophomore Dialogue Tutorials (two to four students participating in directed reading courses) and the Sophomore Seminars, which had been introduced during Donald Kennedy's presidency, and the Sophomore and Honors College programs, all of which were being developed and expanded by Ramón Saldívar, the new vice provost and dean for undergraduate education.
Students should be challenged and their minds stretched from their first year onward. The first year sets the tone. I have a physicist friend, Heinz Maier-Leibnitz, who once said to me, "The love of truth implies that one must search not just for the evidence, but for the counter-evidence as well." That is the critical spirit that I hope we can convey with freshman seminars. These seminars can draw from a wide range of disciplines and topics, so long as the students gain an appreciation of the intensity, importance, and promise of scholarly work in the faculty member's field of study. Such a program will demonstrate to the best students in the country our unfaltering commitment to taking their college education seriously from its inception.
We began to formulate plans but, of course, realized that there were several barriers to implementing the idea. Chief among these was the fact that a program of freshman seminars would be a new and additional workload for an already hardworking faculty. We had to find ways to redeploy current teaching resources and create new ones--not solely to teach freshmen--but to add to the total teaching and research strength of the university. We also realized that the opportunity to add faculty is an incentive sufficiently attractive to overcome many of the impediments that might otherwise come into play.
As has happened so often over the years, our friend Peter Bing saw the value of this plan and offered his generous support in the creation of new faculty billets. As a result, and only one year after I first proposed them, we will be able to offer seventy freshman seminars (with a maximum of sixteen students each) in 1997-98, building to one hundred courses planned for the following year. On a combined basis, 170 Stanford Introductory Studies seminars will be available to freshmen and sophomores in 1997-98. The departments have designed these seminars in response to a call from the provost to review their undergraduate programs, both to expand the number of courses to include the new freshman seminars and--significantly--to redirect faculty teaching efforts away from courses that may not be as important as the new seminars. The challenge over the coming years will be fully to institutionalize these new seminars so that they become a regular feature of our undergraduate programs. This will happen with the help of the new faculty made possible by the Bing gift, to be sure. But freshman seminars will succeed in the final analysis only if both faculty and students find them to be stimulating and valuable. This is a significant experiment, and it deserves close attention in the years to come.
As I mentioned earlier, the Commission on Undergraduate Education had called for a new science core for nonscientists and for restoring a sense of common purpose and curricular consistency to the Cultures, Ideas, and Values requirement.
The commission had concluded that the existing distribution requirements in the sciences were not sufficiently strong to achieve a measure of scientific literacy. Under the leadership of Professor Brad Osgood, of the Mathematics Department, an experimental three-quarter Science, Mathematics, and Engineering core has been developed that contains three interdisciplinary, team-taught tracks and that was first offered during the 1996-97 academic year.
The SME core provides the opportunity for students to have a serious encounter with essential ideas of science, mathematics, and engineering, with an emphasis on process and a particular topic (such as "The Heart: Principles of Life Systems"). The goal is that students who complete this academic-year-long course can think for themselves about scientific and technical problems. All tracks are composed of lectures, sections, and lab.
As concerns Cultures, Ideas, and Values, Dean John Shoven appointed a committee that was led by Professor Robert Polhemus of the English Department, and that included Provost Condoleezza Rice ex officio. The committee ended up proposing a substantial reworking of the core course, including an interdisciplinary approach (interdisciplinary within the humanities) to teaching it. As its name indicates, the new course is meant to be an "Introduction to the Humanities"--with humanities broadly defined as the study of the human condition and human identity, thought, values, beliefs, creativity, and culture. But it is also aimed, in Professor Polhemus's words, at meeting widespread skepticism about the value of the humanities head-on through "a broad-gauged study of what constitutes the humanities, how and why they matter and change, and what humanistic inquiry is."
Since 1988, the humanities requirement had been fulfilled by the Cultures, Ideas, and Values sequence. The years of experience with CIV, the Senate Committee on Undergraduate Studies commented in 1997, had taught us a number of lessons: "These include the need to focus on fewer texts and study them more closely; the need to involve a broader range of faculty and departments in course instruction; the desirability of the better integration of works from outside the traditional Western canon; the importance of greater uniformity of intellectual standards and academic expectations; and the necessity for smaller discussion classes with more time in order to allow for the articulation and consideration of different points of view."
I believe the new requirement, which the Senate approved unanimously in the spring of 1997, helps us address issues concerning the pre-1988 Western Culture requirement, shortcomings of the 1988 reform, and the pressing need for revitalizing the role of the humanities in a popular culture that heeds them less and less. As Professor David Abernethy stressed in the Senate debate, the old requirement had failed to be sufficiently inclusive (especially problematic as we need to provide students with the means to comprehend the human condition anywhere on the globe), while the 1988 reforms--by mandating special attention to race, gender, and class--unduly privileged these undoubtedly important elements over other aspects of the human identity, such as religion.
I confess that I have found the culture wars, as fought by the combatants from all sides, fairly dispiriting. As a constitutional law scholar, I am fully embedded in the Western tradition and clearly unhappy about the fact that fewer and fewer students enter college with, for instance, a thorough grasp of American history and American institutions. On the other hand, as we worry about knowledge of Western civilization, we also must urgently deal with ignorance about the world. As Robert Musil put it: "If I want a world view, then I must view the world."
Viewing the world is not the same as surveying the world. It has been the case for much longer than a century that we cannot "cover" Western civilization, let alone all other civilizations, and all aspects of the human condition, in the freshman year, in all four years of college, in a lifetime. Depth is more helpful than breadth. What is important is that our students do not lose the "arts of reading" (texts, pictures, human artifacts): to read, to read carefully (less is more), to reread, to read in dialogue, to interpret, to interpret in context. It is also important that students become part of "the unceasing process of inquiry" and also acquire the capacity of reflecting about the human condition across cultures. We need to introduce freshmen to the intellectual habits necessary for a lifetime and aim at developing an understanding of the human condition in history and diverse cultures--not a complete understanding but a probing one that stresses different ways of looking at the world within the humanities.
We think of the new Introduction to the Humanities; the Science, Mathematics, and Engineering core; the redefined distribution requirements; the Freshman Seminars, Sophomore College, Sophomore Seminars, and Dialogue Tutorials as parts of a whole, as an integrated approach to the first two years of college at Stanford. Therefore we have given the name Stanford Introductory Studies to the new initiatives and related programs in the freshman and sophomore years.