Elam outlines plans as new VPUE

July 8, 2010, 12:40 a.m.
Prior to taking office as VPUE, Elam served for many years in campus administration. A drama professor, he also moderated the Three Books discussion during New Student Orientation in Fall 2009. (Stanford Daily File Photo)

After months spent assessing Stanford’s teaching efforts in preparation for a reform of its undergraduate requirements, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) Harry Elam Jr. will now be in a position to implement them from his new office in a year’s time.

Elam, also a drama professor, took over as VPUE on July 1. Earlier in the year, he began chairing the Study for Undergraduate Education (SUES) with history Prof. James Campbell Ph.D. ‘89. SUES will evaluate non-major requirements for undergraduates, including GERs and programs like the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) and Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM). Elam had previously served for years in campus administration.

Elam said that his new office will now be his top priority, and that he will be discussing with the Provost whether he will continue to co-chair SUES.

“It may be best for me to step back from that and think about ways that I can inform the process going forward,” Elam said, emphasizing the implementation of the recommendations SUES will deliver in 2011.

“The role that becomes more important … is developing an overall vision for undergraduate education that SUES is a part of,” he added.

Elam takes office after an 11-year tenure in the position by Bucknell University President John Bravman ’79 M.S. ’81 Ph.D. ’85. In keeping with a big-picture focus that he has adopted in discussions of SUES, Elam described the position as an opportunity to make an impact at “a really interesting time for undergraduate education at Stanford.”

“It’s a chance, because it’s been under John’s leadership for 11 years, really to take us in some new directions, not to foreclose all the things that have happened before, to appreciate that, but to think about where else we can go,” Elam said.

One challenge that he cited for his office, and for SUES’ ongoing work, is the project of educating “global citizens” in a changing world. Closer to home, change and upheaval has also had an impact on undergraduate education: no University department saw more turmoil or restructuring in the wake of Stanford’s two-year budget crisis than the VPUE, which shuffled many units and eliminated staff members in order to implement budget cuts.

Elam takes over now, as the office is enjoying a period of relative calm. The brief lull will last until Fall 2011, when SUES expects to deliver its recommendations to the Faculty Senate. According to the University’s 2010-11 Budget Plan, signed by the Provost and written prior to Elam assuming his position, the VPUE is committed to making no significant cuts or restructurings, in anticipation of SUES’ recommendations necessitating further changes.

“VPUE’s strong reserve position negates the need for dramatic reductions to the non-mandated programs that so enhance the undergraduate educational experience,” the plan reads. “Furthermore, the recommendations from SUES are reasonably expected to substantially affect VPUE programs. These factors lead VPUE to conclude that changes to undergraduate programming are currently unwarranted.”

Among the VPUE’s most prominent units is the Bing Overseas Studies Program, which has completed a period of opening new campuses in the 2000s while also facing a growing set of financial pressures in the world economy, leading to the suspension of overseas seminars. In looking at the program, Elam said the VPUE’s priorities were clear.

“The goal will be: how do we get more students abroad,” Elam said.

“If we’re saying that this is really something that is special at Stanford and something that we want students to do, then we need to make it accessible,” pointing specifically to finding ways to allow for athletes or engineers to attend overseas campuses.

Discussing his work with SUES, Elam provided some hints about what the study and its participants had learned after months of campus discussions, saying, for one, that he did not envision Stanford adopting an overly prescribed set of undergraduate requirements.

“Stanford can never be a place where one size fits all,” Elam said. “By that I mean, yeah, there are going to be requirements across the board, but one of the things that makes Stanford so unique is the incredible students that we have, that may be driven in one way.”

Elam also said that in evaluating the freshman-year IHUM and PWR programs, he and his colleagues had found the justification for and the understanding of the latter program noticeably more present after many discussions with students.

“What we’ve understood from all that, is that, whatever we were going to require, the rationale for that requirement has got to be really clear, both from the faculty point and the students,” he said.

“The students who spoke back to us about IHUM were not articulating clearly what the rationale was. That was eye-opening,” he added, noting that students need to be able to answer, “I know why I’m taking this, I know where this is going to take me” when engaging with required course work.

Elam also repeatedly emphasized research as an avenue that had opportunities for enriching students’ education at Stanford, citing it as an ongoing priority — and challenge — for his office.

“At an institution like Stanford that is a research institution, that credits itself on being the, and certainly is, the best place where research is done — potentially in the world — how do we also make it the best place for undergraduate education, and see those things as mutually informative, and not in any way antithetical? That those practices, and how they come together, is one of the things that makes Stanford unique and special?” Elam asked.

He also noted that he saw the missions of research and teaching at Stanford as in line with his conception of the University’s responsibilities to its students.

“If the mission of Stanford and the VPUE, more specifically, is to build students as global citizens for the new millennium, the fact is that students have changed, in terms of what technical skills, knowledge, what they come to school with, their abilities that they have — how they learn has changed.”

“One of the challenges is,” he continued, “how do we think differently about education to impact where students are coming from, and make Stanford a little more effective in doing that?”

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