FacSen debates new freshmen requirements

Feb. 24, 2012, 2:09 a.m.

The Faculty Senate discussed financial conflicts of interest and proposed changes to freshman-year academic requirements at its meeting Thursday.


Provost John Etchemendy Ph.D. ‘82, currently acting president due to University President John Hennessy’s recent departure for a sabbatical, opened the meeting by giving an optimistic outlook on the University’s budget. While noting that economic uncertainty still necessitates a degree of caution in planning future spending, he said, “The current projection for next year is quite good.”


Etchemendy commented that the University has no plans to reverse budget cuts undertaken during the recession, except in the cases of Overseas Seminars and Sophomore College. He added that spending on financial aid has increased as a result of elevated demand, both because of the recession and the University’s efforts to reach out to prospective students from low-income families.

FacSen debates new freshmen requirements
Dean of Research Ann Arvin spoke about the proposed revisions to Stanford’s faculty conflict of interest policy at a Faculty Senate meeting Thursday afternoon.The Senate also addressed potential repercussions from SUES panel recommendations on first year requirements. (Courtesy of Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)


“The financial aid budget continues to go up at a remarkable rate,” Etchemendy said. “Many more students — because of family circumstances — have sought financial aid [in recent years].”


Conflicts of interest

Chair of the Academic Council’s Committee on Research Peter Michelson and Dean of Research Ann Arvin presented to the Senate a revised Faculty Policy on Conflict of Commitment and Interest.


The revised document, prompted by new federal regulations about conflicts of interest, seeks to define the various types of conflicts, establish conditions for the disclosure of conflicts to the University and formalize how the University reviews such conflicts.


According to Michelson, one of the University’s missions — the transfer of knowledge from University research to the private sector — commonly results in conflicts of interest. Michelson said that while faculty “should be rewarded for their participation” in this transfer, the University should also revise its conflict of interest policies to promote more stringent guidelines and encourage a greater degree of pre-emptive public disclosure.


While members of the Senate expressed general agreement with the revised policy’s concept and intent, several disputed the phrasing and stringency of the new document.


Philosophy professor Debra Satz argued that the revised document defined conflicts of interest — identified as “considerations of personal financial gain” — in an excessively narrow manner, inadvertently excluding other forms of compensation that are not strictly monetary. Satz also advocated expanded efforts to inform faculty of the policy’s nuance.


“There’s a problem in the University as to what the document asks for,” Satz said. “A lot of faculty don’t understand what a conflict of interest is, so we could do a better job of educating them.”


Faculty members also drew attention to inconsistencies and ambiguity in the document, as well as the lack of a clearly established appeals process. Computer science professor Eric Roberts called for further details on federal conflict of interest regulations to be made available to faculty by the University’s Office of General Counsel.


Given the number of alterations suggested by faculty members, Etchemendy suggested that the motion for the policy’s approval be tabled pending revisions and editing. The revised policy, and a similar one governing faculty time commitments to outside consulting, will be brought before the Faculty Senate for voting on March 8.


Freshman-year requirements

The Senate then heard a report by the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy (C-USP) on proposed academic changes to the freshman year, delivered by C-USP Chair Judy Goldstein.


C-USP offered “guidelines for how freshman requirements could be organized following the Study on Undergraduate Education at Stanford’s (SUES) recommendations,” Goldstein said. “We’re bringing forward those recommendations in a way consistent with Stanford tradition and policy,” she added.


The SUES committee presented its over 100-page report on the goals of a Stanford education at the Faculty Senate’s Jan. 26 meeting. The committee suggested 55 changes to improve undergraduate education.


C-USP’s report recommended the gradual implementation of a suggestion that would require freshmen take two courses in addition to the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR). One “Thinking Matters” course and one Freshman Seminar would replace the current Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) program, which spans three quarters and has been mandatory for freshmen since 1996. The Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program would continue unaltered as an alternative to these requirements.


Goldstein acknowledged that discussion within C-USP had been contentious, especially on the issue of requiring freshmen to take a Freshman Seminar. The Senate further debated this subject.


James Campbell, co-chair of the SUES committee, said that C-USP’s suggestion of gradually phasing in the seminar requirement is a prudent one. He added that a new algorithm would allow both students and faculty to shape the composition of students in seminars, but added that this would likely face some initial problems.


“We’ve thought a lot about the pros and cons,” Campbell said. “I don’t believe that students will experience this as an onerous requirement…We have faith that students will view this not as a requirement but as an institutional license to explore.”


“Freshman seminars are a treasure,” added electrical engineering professor Andrea Goldsmith. “If we can make it a common experience for our freshmen, it would be an amazing change to our undergraduate experience.”


Ralph Cohen, a mathematics professor, expressed concerns about the burden imposed on academic departments by the seminar requirement, arguing that compensation from the Office of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education to support these programs is inadequate and does not fully account for the loss of experienced faculty to smaller classes.


Russell Berman, director of the IHUM and Introductory Seminar programs, acknowledged that there might be initial issues with providing seminars in areas of high demand, but emphasized that feedback for seminars in their current form has been consistently positive from both students and faculty.


Campbell added that 600 freshmen every year go without enrollment in a seminar, with at-risk and minority students overrepresented in that figure. He argued that the seminar requirement would offer invaluable benefits in allowing students to forge personal relationships with faculty.


Tom Wasow, a linguistics professor, called for a debate on the impact of the introduction of the Thinking Matters program, arguing that creating a program from scratch — especially in fields beyond the humanities — would pose significant challenges.


Campbell, however, noted that the current list of Thinking Matters courses proposed for 2012-13 encompasses fields from medicine to law to history, asserting that “the courses are throwing open the doors of the University to our students.”


“I have faith in our students, and in our faculty,” Campbell concluded, adding that the success of the recommendations will depend on the enthusiasm of their implementation. “This presents some hazards and trade-offs, but I believe that this University can do this,” he said.


The Faculty Senate will further discuss C-USP’s recommendations and vote on the SUES recommendations on March 8.

Marshall Watkins is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily, having previously worked as the paper's executive editor and as the managing editor of news. Marshall is a junior from London majoring in Economics, and can be reached at mtwatkins "at" stanford "dot" edu.

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