School of Humanities discontinues Individually-Designed Major program

Jan. 25, 2013, 1:47 a.m.

Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences has discontinued its Individually-Designed Major (IDM) program, which previously allowed undergraduates to construct and pursue their own curriculum outside of existing departments. There are currently only two IDM students in the School of Humanities and Sciences, according to Susan Weersing, associate dean of graduate and undergraduate studies.

Those students currently accepted into an IDM will be allowed to finish their study, and the IDM program in the School of Engineering will remain unaffected by the changes.

A petition started by current IDM student David Ngo ’13 seeks to “save the program” and had 31 signatures as of Thursday night.


Making ‘academic sense’

The decision to eliminate the program, according to Susan Weersing, associate dean of graduate and undergraduate studies, is the one that makes “the most academic and structural sense for the School of Humanities and Sciences.

“At present, the School of Humanities and Sciences offers more than 100 undergraduate degrees, including majors, minors and interdisciplinary honors,” Weersing said. “Not only is there this multitude of options, but the degree programs that are offered are incredibly diverse.”

She emphasized the flexibility within majors, which allow for individually designed concentrations, as well as the constant introduction of new programs in responses to student interests, as reasons why the IDM program is no longer necessary.

This year, for example, has seen the advent of a new Spanish major. Next year, two more minors will be added.

While the IDM programs will no longer be an option to individual students, it still has its role to play within the school, according to Weersing.

“We’re not going to discontinue the IDM as a mechanism within the school,” she said. “We want the IDM available to pilot new degree programs.”

This involves designing new majors in areas with heavy student interest. If the pilots are successful, the majors are then moved to another department, as was the case with Jewish studies, which was an IDM until it was moved to the Department of Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CSRE) this year.

Medieval studies, on the other hand, is an example of an IDM that never became an official major due to a lack of student interest.


Eliminating an opportunity

Those who see the IDM program as a symbol of the University’s pioneering and adventurous attitude, especially current IDM students, criticized the change.

Ngo is one of the few students to have taken advantage of the IDM. He described his decision to design and major in behavior design as the “turning point” of his life.

He began circulating a petition on social networking sites last week in an attempt to garner support for the IDM program. As the first person to sign it, he wrote,

“The IDM program (has given me) [sic] and gives these future students the opportunity to experience the unconventional college education that fits their unconventional interests, values and visions.”

This feeling is echoed by Greg Watkins ’85, assistant director of the Structural Liberal Education (SLE) program, who designed his own major in social theory while an undergraduate at Stanford.

“Education is bigger than any one discipline,” Watkins said. “To be well educated is not necessarily to be discipline bound; it is possible to put together a collective course of study that does a lot for somebody without training them in a discipline.”

David Herman ’16, who is undeclared, said he dreamed about following in their footsteps and designing his own major even before setting foot on campus. He said the IDM program was a big part of his decision to come to Stanford, and he felt the program embodied the very essence of a pioneering and liberal institution.

“I feel like a tree that is about to be felled before ever growing to its full height,” Herman said. “If they get rid of this program, what does it say about the institution as a whole…? The IDM program exemplifies so much of what Stanford means to me and to others, and it would be a sad day if the program were ever discontinued.”

Herman and Ngo both promised to leave no stone unturned in their efforts to keep the IDM program alive for individual students.

“I felt that so much went on behind closed doors, without any consultation from the student body,” Herman said. “I don’t think they can make a final decision without hearing our opinions.”

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