Faculty Senate addresses humanities, hears from Trustees

March 4, 2011, 2:04 a.m.

Humanities were back on the agenda at yesterday’s Faculty Senate meeting, where a panel of faculty explored the difficulties facing their departments. The body also heard a report from the Board of Trustees, led by Board Chair Leslie Hume.

At the start of the meeting, the Senate announced that its ad hoc committee on the return of the ROTC would deliver its much-anticipated findings on May 12. The “task force” for studying undergraduate education will provide an update on its progress at that meeting as well.

Humanities struggling to grow

The panel discussion on the humanities, which was moderated by Senate Vice-Chair and comparative literature professor David Palumbo-Liu, focused on the issues facing the 11 humanities departments in attracting undergraduate students. Debra Satz, the senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, outlined the general difficulties experienced across different disciplines.

“The humanities are a fundamental part of what a liberal arts education is,” she said. “They are certainly under pressure and attack around the country, as budgets are declining and enrolments are declining. We have a similar situation at Stanford…in terms of the decline in student enrollment and in numbers of majors.”

Part of the decline was attributed to the perception that humanities majors face difficulties in the job market after graduation, leading students to seek majors that are perceived as more desirable to employers. Jennifer Summit, chair of the English department, said career concerns were the most prominent reasons for students who chose not to pursue English major.

Summit said her department was trying to connect students to successful alumni with English degrees and building a database of jobs and internships. In a Q&A session after the panel’s presentation, Eric Roberts, professor of computer science, told the Senate about one of his pre-major advisees who wanted to study the humanities, but whose parents had threatened to pull her out of Stanford if she did.

Satz noted that the decline in humanities did not appear to be the result of a lack of institutional support. She said the humanities at Stanford did not face the same budget cuts as many of its peers around the country. It might even appear that the University is overcommitted to the humanities–42 percent of faculty in the School of Humanities and Sciences are in that area, compared to 18 percent of undergraduate majors.

Satz went on to discuss the “culture” at Stanford as promoting a general disinterest in the humanities, addressing negative connotations attached to the “fuzzy” label. She detailed ways to dispel those notions, including promoting a more positive image during New Student Orientation.

“The idea that humanities are ‘fuzzy’ and not serious is something that we have to do something about,” she said.

Recruitment of students interested in the humanities was also touted as a solution. A few of the panelists said Stanford should recruit students from the East Coast more aggressively, since more humanities-leaning students are found there. Satz added that curriculum changes were under consideration, including joint courses with science and engineering departments as well as plans to “thread” courses and build course sequences.

The other panelists explored initiatives in specific departments and centers. Summit explained significant changes to the English major, including a three-quarter “core” sequence and an individual senior research project with a faculty member. The Senate also heard from the division of literature, cultures and languages, the history department and the Stanford Humanities Center.

Board of Trustees reports to faculty

The Senate’s second agenda item focused on a discussion with representatives from Stanford’s Board of Trustees. Hume gave the Senate an overview of the Board’s responsibilities.

“[The duties of the board] fall into three very broad categories: to make sure the University is well managed, to make sure the University has the resources to do its work and to maintain the University’s reputation and public trust in its integrity,” she said.

Hume went on to explain each of those roles in greater detail.

On the financial side, she described the various funding roles fulfilled by the Board, including fundraising, managing the endowment and the duties of the trustees as the legal custodians of all of Stanford’s assets.

The Senate also heard from former Board Chair Burt McMurtry, who discussed differences between corporate and nonprofit governance. McMurtry detailed his relationship with Stanford officials during his tenure and said the Board stays out of the day-to-day management of the University.

“If I am ever perceived to be interfering with the management of the organization, then I need to be called on that very, very quickly,” he said. “I cannot afford, nor can the University afford, to have me interjecting myself into management issues.”

Nevertheless, McMurtry said the Board does have a role in providing information to President John Hennessy and other officials when a problem exists.

Jerry Yang B.S., M.S. ‘90, a current Board member and the final presenter to the Senate, explained the process that the Board goes through to fill vacancies. Yang outlined three principles in searching for new members: commitment to Stanford, diversity of background and expertise as well as teamwork and cohesiveness with current members.

“The other part of commitment I would say in terms of trustee qualification is this notion of having a very long-term perspective of the University,” he said. “Our perspective has to be very, very, very long-term…the Board as a group should act with ‘forever’ as our time horizon.”

The Faculty Senate’s next meeting is scheduled for March 31. Agenda items include progress on establishing a center at Peking University and innovation in curriculum design.


Kabir Sawhney is currently a desk editor for the News section. He served as the Managing Editor of Sports last volume.

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