Faculty Senate discusses the changing face of higher education

Jan. 22, 2016, 12:17 a.m.

The Faculty Senate convened for the first time this year on Thursday, Jan. 21 and reviewed the transformation of undergraduate education at Stanford, raising questions about diversity, mental health and integrated curriculum.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) Harry Elam led the discussion with his Annual Report, introducing the three major developments that have been transforming Stanford’s educational environment: changing demographics, changing emotional/social mindsets and changing educational mindsets.

Elam pointed to the geographic, economic and ethnic diversity of the Class of 2019, being a cohort made up of primarily economic and ethnic minorities. Incoming undergraduates have a wide range of educational backgrounds, and the Vice Provost called for the University to “leverage this diversity” to create an environment where students know they can thrive.

Elam also emphasized the parallels between Stanford’s educational ecosystem and the real world. According to Elam, undergraduates across the country are holding their institutions increasingly accountable for representing the real world in an educational setting.

“This is the growing demographic of the United States,” Elam said.

Elam went on to describe the shifting social norms and the influence of the rise of social media on emotional intelligence, including students’ communication with one another and their professors. He described the challenges and benefits of being “born digital” — processing information and opinions at a faster rate than previous generations.

Elam also pointed out that today’s students have a tendency to see their education as a means to future economic success. However, they also have a growing and persistent desire to feel that their education has real-world applications, he said.

To respond to these changes in higher education, Elam outlined four main goals for the University: transforming the freshman and sophomore years, expanding experiential learning, reaffirming residential programs and reclaiming liberal education.

Looking at the numbers
Elam emphasized how courses such as the Thinking Matters and WAYS requirements, as well as Introductory Seminars (IntroSems), allow underclassmen to focus on critical thinking through “high-impact curricula.” About 80 percent of freshmen enroll in at least one IntroSem, Education as Self Fashioning (ESF) course or other courses that bring students into closer connections with faculty, Elam said.

Other opportunities for undergraduates to pursue hands-on experiences have been facilitated by a $5 million research grant from the VPUE office, and the office has also been calling for a growth in departmental grants across campus. Residential learning environments, such as ITALIC and SLE, have proved incredibly successful for both faculty and students, with around 95 percent of SLE participants reporting that they were happy with their decision, Elam said.

Elam related the need to reclaim Stanford’s liberal education, emphasizing the divide between “techies” and “fuzzies” and the low number of STEM-focused students who study abroad despite indicating a desire to do so. He called for a deeper and highly interpretive intersection among diverse fields — more than just “artists that code” or “engineers that play music.”

Responses from the Senate
The meeting concluded with a Q&A between Elam and the Senate members. Senate member and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Laura Roberts brought up the growing concerns around student mental health and well-being, stressing that faculty needs strategies to address students needs more effectively.

ASSU president John-Lancaster Finley ’16 voiced a need for an educational environment that allows students to better understand their own identities, as well as the identities of others. He agreed with the VPUE’s vision for Stanford.

Elam closed the Q&A with the call to action from faculty and all of the departments in the University.

“We need to reinvent the structures of education to match the forms of social learning and knowledge that now dominate the 21st century,” Elam said.


Contact Isabela Bumanlag at isabela7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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