It’s time to reform WAYS requirements

March 1, 2017, 12:03 a.m.

A student who had taken eight economics PhD courses and two reading courses from me, his pre-major adviser, asked to substitute any two for two beginner economics classes to meet the Social Inquiry (SI) WAYS requirement. Request denied.

The same student, an International Physics Olympiad gold medalist, also asked that any two of PHYSICS 160/260: Astrophysics, 220: Electrodynamics and 211: Continuum Mechanics be credited to meet his Scientific Method and Analysis (SMA) requirement. Nope.

Other horror stories abound, with most advanced students giving up and taking courses that are well below what they want to and should be taking. One student, a gold medalist at the International Mathematical Olympiad headed for a top PhD program in math and statistics is sitting through ECON 102A: Introduction to Statistical Methods, which he is more than qualified to TA. There is the violinist-pianist who took MUSIC 19A: Introduction to Music Theory and another International Physics Olympiad gold medalist taking PHYSICS 21: Mechanics, Fluids and Heat.

I have been trying for almost a year to get a sane resolution for my advisee — first going to Harry Elam, who then sent me to the WAYS committee or “Breadth Governance Board” (BGB) headed by David Palumbo-Liu. The BGB, which unfortunately bears no resemblance to the BFG, has a weak and changing list of excuses for its behavior.

First, graduate courses could not be counted. Then, they could be under certain circumstances but only if the professor applied for WAYS certification before the student took the course, which was impossible since the system did not previously allow faculty to submit graduate courses and in any event would have disqualified all courses already taken. Now, they are walking back from even that limited acceptance. Advanced courses were regarded as insufficiently empirical or experimental, even though they certainly topped their WAYS-eligible counterparts in these dimensions.

My advisees for whom science is in one ear and out the other have no trouble meeting their SMA requirements, and my weakest all-around students also have no trouble because everything they touch seems to be WAYS-eligible. I’m fine with that — someone who is a talented writer but struggles with science shouldn’t have to spend half their time meeting a science requirement. But should the strongest students be forced to take the same classes?

Philip Levis of the BGB wrote the following to me: “Ninety-eight different courses, ranging from aero/astro to Earth sciences to biology to electrical engineering, satisfy SMA. I’d suggest that you help [your student] find courses [that] are simultaneously interesting to him and satisfy SMA. More generally, super smart students who are doing fantastic research and have great scholarly potential aren’t excused from Stanford’s requirement to receive a liberal arts education.”

I believe this misses the point entirely. Yes, my advisee could take a chemistry course instead of more physics (though he knows all the material in the WAYS-eligible chemistry courses too). He could also take PSYC 135: Sleep and Dreams. But if there are distribution requirements that can be met with physics courses, this student has surely met them, and it is bureaucratic arrogance and insensitivity to legitimate student concerns that are trying to force him to take low-level courses he doesn’t want. These science students are not trying to get out of their non-science requirements; they just want to be allowed to take more appropriate science courses.

I have spoken to faculty who were members of the committee that set the original breadth requirements. One said that she had heard of several similar problems and that there was “a significant disconnect between the intent of the legislation and its implementation.” Another told me that the BGB’s implementation performance was originally on the faculty senate agenda for last year, but the committee lobbied to have it pushed back to this year. And this year, they successfully lobbied to have it pushed to next year.

While officially the only appeal of a WAYS committee decision is to the Provost — and then only for procedural inaccuracies — this is not strictly true. According to one sympathetic BGB member, Stanford “does have a type of work-around process that involves a group of staff trying to find quasi-passable substitute classes for seniors who are short a WAYS — and this process does NOT involve the WAYS board.” But for reasons I don’t really understand, this process, under Associate Dean for UAR Randall Williams, failed us too.

So the only remaining recourse we have is the Provost, and I will write to Persis Drell as soon as I finish writing this.

Decisions about whether an advanced class can substitute for a lower-level WAYS class in the same field should be left to the relevant academic department. Next year’s review of the BGB should devolve power to the departments, relieving the administrative burden on the BGB while simultaneously producing superior outcomes. It is time for the WAYS committee to get out of the way.

-Jeremy Bulow
Richard Stepp Professor of Economics, Graduate School of Business


Contact Jeremy Bulow at jbulow ‘at’

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