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Students ask for bigger role in proposals to change first-year, undergrad major requirements

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Student Alliance for Justice Education (SAJE), an undergraduate group promoting equity in education, is calling for more student input in the discussion over two proposals that will be presented to the Faculty Senate on Thursday. One proposal would amend first-year academic requirements by replacing Thinking Matters with an academic core centered around ethics, citizenship, liberal education and global perspectives. The second proposal would narrow the range of units undergraduate majors can require, in an effort to encourage students to take a diverse range of classes. 

SAJE circulated a survey to students and collated a document of changes students hope to see to the proposal before they are enacted.  

“We see a need to increase student awareness on the issue,” SAJE leader Manami Suenaga ’21 wrote in a statement to The Daily. “We support the proposals’ goals to increase access to a liberal arts education, but we also believe that a crucial part of this goal is to include the student body in how we envision and create such an education.” 

Suenaga said that SAJE hopes to see a plan for student feedback in the proposed legislation that extends beyond student representatives on committee, including open office hours and targeted outreach to community centers. 

Faculty involved in crafting and amending the proposals are open to student opinions, according to Stanford Introductory Studies (SIS) Faculty Director Dan Edelstein, who also co-chairs the design committee for the First-Year Experience (FYE) proposal with Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Sarah Church. 

“We are committed to having engaged student participation, and I should note that SIS already has a student advisory board, which meets quarterly and is an invaluable source of advice and feedback,” Edelstein wrote. “I’m very open to considering additional (and multiple!) venues for student participation. I would add that, just because the exact modalities of student involvement are not detailed in the legislation, in no way is that an indication that we are trying to keep students out of the process.” 

SAJE began advocacy around the two proposals last fall, hoping to incorporate their vision of a curriculum that would present a “diverse representation of what a critical thinker is” into the new first-year curriculum and academic requirements plan. 

“When we learned of the First-Year Experience, we realized that we wanted to extend this focus to the larger future plans for first-year education and ensure that student feedback was being heard and incorporated,” wrote SAJE leader Jane Boettcher ’21. 

The First-Year Experience proposal (FYE) would alter first-year academic requirements. If passed, first-year students, starting in the 2021-22 school year, would be required to take two courses selected from new pilot courses, Thinking Matters courses or other approved options. The curriculum, course structure and pedagogy of these classes would be determined by two new oversight committees, which would include two student representatives each in addition to faculty, according to Edelstein. 

“The goals of our first-year proposal are ambitious: we hope to create a stronger sense of community among students, and empower students to explore interests that may not be connected to their major or first career,” Edelstein wrote. 

The second motion, the “Future of the Major” proposal, would set undergraduate major unit requirements to range from 60 to 100 units, offer a capstone experience and encourage students to declare their major by Week 7 of their sixth quarter at Stanford. The unit range would be exempted for students seeking Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABED), and would be implemented starting in the 2021-2022 school year for the class of 2025. The proposal also calls for three undergraduate student representatives to serve on a committee to oversee the process. 

The motion seeks to “allow the major to be accessible to all students while also allowing room for breadth and exploration,” said Tom Kenny, a senior associate dean in the School of Engineering who co-chairs the design committee for the proposal. 

“We have incredibly talented and energetic students in our undergraduate programs at Stanford, and we want all undergraduate students to be able to select any major and have a reasonable expectation that they can be successful in that major,” Kenny wrote in a Stanford News Q&A

“Moving from a one- to a three-quarter first-year requirement is challenging, especially since the First-Year report called for more discussion seminars,” Edelstein wrote. “So the legislation is really giving the Vice President for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) the green light to pilot, experiment, scale up, and assess the proposal that was outlined in the First-Year report, and then to report back in 2024-25. Until then, some Thinking Matters courses will continue to be offered, alongside the new first-year courses.” 

The first-year design team handed over the report to the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policies (C-USP), but remained in communication with C-USP Chair Adam Banks about the proposals as they were drafted. The design-team also continued to stay in “close contact” with student groups such as SAJE to discuss student views of the proposals and potential changes, according to Edelstein. 

The Associate Students for Stanford University (ASSU) has also collected student feedback on the proposals, which was compiled in a report. In October, the Undergraduate Senate then unanimously passed a resolution to endorse the proposals but also recommend changes. Changes proposed by the ASSU for the FYE proposal included integrating the FYE core with the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR), redesigning the Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing (WAYS) requirements to remedy student concerns that courses “are too easy and seemingly arbitrarily count for the different buckets” and creating a forum for diverse and continuous feedback from students once the programs are implemented. 

“Equity is a core tenant of the ASSU and the Future of the Major proposal really puts equity at the forefront in addition to giving further room for exploration,” wrote resolution sponsor Jonathan Lipman ’21, who is also the Undergraduate Senate representative to the Faculty Senate, in a statement to The Daily. “In terms of FYE, even if people weren’t a fan of the specific details of the courses that were proposed, most folks recognized the immense value of trying to accomplish these goals. Based on the feedback gathered during our outreach the ASSU decided to unanimously endorse both proposals, and give a few recommendations.” 

On the Future of the Major proposal, the ASSU proposed restructuring course sequences, working toward the elimination of a “toxic” job and internship recruiting process on campus — which they describe as particularly disadvantaging first-generation and/or low-income students — and creating a new course planning website that integrates information about WAYS requirements, major requirements and data from course information site Carta. 

Members of the Faculty Senate are expected to consider the changes recommended by the ASSU as well as the feedback SAJE collected through their survey in their Thursday meeting. 

Contact Sarina Deb at sdeb7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Sarina Deb '23 is a Desk Editor for News. She grew up in the Bay Area and is majoring in political science. Contact her at sdeb7 'at' stanford.edu