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Engineering faculty petition against 100-unit major cap

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Engineering professors are petitioning to reverse the 100-unit cap on majors, as imposed by the Future of the Major proposal passed by the Faculty Senate in May. 

The Future of the Major design team created the proposal to allow students to explore a broader liberal arts education and give students ample time to pick and change majors. The unit cap was also intended to make majors more accessible for first-generation and/or low-income (FLI) students. 

However, professors in the engineering department worry that the unit cap will make majors less accessible by devaluing unit counts and deemphasizing introductory courses while also impacting students’ preparedness for the workplace.

The petition currently has 106 faculty signatures, enabling an Academic Council meeting to be held regarding the decision. This marks the first time a petition has led to a full Council meeting in the Senate’s 52-year history, according to electrical engineering professor Andrea Goldsmith. 

Goldsmith, chemical engineering professor Eric Shaqfeh and mechanical engineering professors Juan Santiago and Parviz Moin are at the forefront of the petition efforts.

Accessibility 

In the Faculty Senate meeting, Graduate School of Education professor Adam Banks, co-chair of the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy (C-USP) said that the decision to cap the majors was made partially in order to “address goals of accessibility,” particularly for FLI students. 

Goldsmith, Shaqfeh and Santiago, all of whom were FLI students themselves, argued that the proposal to cut majors would actually have the opposite effect. 

Santiago, whose parents were Cuban refugees, attended night school to work and earn money during the day before attending the University of Florida. 

“I think what needs to be done for these students is not to be told that they can’t do a real engineering degree,” he told The Daily. “That would be like crushing them.”

“It’s like teaching to the lowest kid in the class, rather than saying that every kid in the class has the potential to get a rigorous engineering degree,” added Goldsmith, who left high school in 11th grade and later started electrical engineering at Berkeley without calculus or trigonometry.

As alternatives, Santiago proposed introductory or preparatory classes to accommodate students who didn’t have math in high school and additional quarters of financial aid to allow for additional time to complete coursework.

C-USP co-chair and management science and engineering professor Ross Shachter responded to these concerns in an email to The Daily. 

“I think the issue of better support for students from under-resourced high schools is important regardless of any changes to the majors,” he wrote. 

The professors leading the pushback also worry that departments are likely to cut out introductory classes such as calculus or decrease the unit designation of classes without changing the workload, pushing FLI students who do not feel ready for the courses out of the major. 

According to Shaqfeh, differential equations, which is currently offered through the math department over multiple quarters, would have to be taught by chemical engineering in a single quarter, making the course “very difficult” for students without Advanced Placement credit.

“If there is not uniformity across all schools in terms of how units are determined (i.e., one unit in [Humanities and Sciences] should be equal in courseload to one unit in Engineering), then this effort won’t do its job,” wrote Isaiah Drummond ’20 and M.S. ’21 in mechanical engineering, on the unit cap.

In response to these concerns, Shachter wrote, “C-USP paid special attention to the issues of introductory courses. We hope that students will feel less pressure to commit to a major right away, and will find it easier to change majors during their sophomore year, even if they went to under-resourced high schools.”

Student Alliance for Justice Education (SAJE) leader Manami Suenaga ’21 urged faculty to create solutions for providing support to FLI students and to ask STEM students for their input.

“I would ask STEM faculty — What actionable differences will you make to reduce workload, while still retaining a rigorous STEM degree program?” she wrote to The Daily. “What evidence can be collected to make sure units reflect the hours per week a course requires? These issues are not caused by the Future of the Major reform, and so, these issues can be solved in alternative ways.”

Student and faculty input 

Goldsmith, Shaqfeh, Moin and Santiago also pointed to a lack of faculty and student input on the decision-making behind the unit cap. 

A survey of over 200 students by SAJE showed that 90% of students did not have knowledge of the proposals and only 5% felt they had an opportunity to provide feedback. According to the survey, 82% of students wanted to have input on the Future of the Major. 

“Again it seems like mass student input is missing. Although there isn’t any claim that I particularly disagree with, I would want representation,” wrote one student about the proposals in the anonymous feedback survey.

Student opinion from the survey on the decision to cap the units was relatively mixed. Some students supported the proposal because it allowed busy students to pursue difficult majors or for students to explore courses outside of the major. Other students worried about how the decision would affect the reputation of a Stanford STEM degree.

Moin also said the proposal’s design team, made up of 16 members, had “no representation” from departments including electrical engineering, chemical engineering and mechanical engineering. He spoke to a greater problem of “top-down decision-making” that he believes this decision represents. 

“I think we are really embarking on a slippery slope, even when it comes to our curriculum. The department faculty have not been involved in crafting this proposal and most departments that are concerned about this did not have representation [on the committee],” Moin said. 

“I was present at the engineering town hall and there was indeed strong opposition to the changes,” wrote co-chair Adam Banks in response to these concerns. “The proposal has also been discussed at length in other venues, such as engineering’s Undergraduate Education Council.”

Goldsmith raised concerns that the decision to cap the majors was not only not made without the input of faculty and students, but was also not vetted with employers or graduate schools.

“When those students go and work in those companies, their lack of depth and breadth in the discipline will be apparent, and I think it will hurt the reputation of Stanford,” she said.

In response to these concerns, Shachter wrote, “While there would be some students graduating with less courses in their majors under the unit cap, I believe that many students might actually take more courses in their majors when they have more freedom to choose, and they will be strong candidates for graduate study and engineering jobs.” 

ABET accreditation 

The 100-unit cap will not apply to majors with Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accreditation, which provides assurance that a University program meets the quality standards of its respective profession.

According to Shaqfeh, the chemical engineering department moved away from ABET because it didn’t provide “enough flexibility to modernize the curriculum.” However, Shaqfeh says if the unit cap remains, he is going to recommend the department return to ABET. 

“At least ABET allows us to have enough units that we can have a verifiable chemical engineering degree,” Shaqfeh said. 

Drummond, who is in the ABET-accredited mechanical engineering department, suggested that without explaining the rationale behind ABET accreditation, incoming students may not see the purpose of the unit cap.

“In general, it seems that there is a desire for two options (which are already currently proposed): one major that is ABET accredited and more unit-intensive, and another major that falls below the 100-unit cap and allows for greater flexibility,” he wrote.

A quorum of 350 faculty are required to attend the Academic Council meeting in order for a vote to take place. A majority of the council would then need to vote on the motion put forward. 

“Because C-USP will not have a role in the Academic Council meeting that would take up the petition, I don’t have a response to the decision to petition except to say that robust debate and deliberation are important to faculty governance, and I understand our colleagues’ decision to appeal to the full Academic Council,” Banks wrote. 

Shachter responded, “I think the petitioners have serious concerns about the proposed changes and I agree with Adam that the Academic Council is an appropriate venue to resolve them.”

Leaders in SAJE said their priority is to ensure student voices are heard in decisions.

“We are not, in particular, for or against the Future of the Major or First Year Experience proposals. We are only trying to advocate for transparency and widespread student involvement,” wrote SAJE executive Suenaga.

Markley agreed that data should be used to prove that the cap would be effective in achieving goals of accessibility, but urged the engineering faculty involved with the petition to focus on the needs of students who are being shortchanged by the current requirements. 

“It’s easy to advocate for maintaining the status quo when you’re not recognizing the people who aren’t benefiting from it,” Markley wrote. “This is not to say that either changing the unit cap or maintaining the unit cap is the ‘right’ way to go — just that it’s important to recognize and uplift voices who may not be currently taken into consideration.”

Contact Esha Dhawan at edhawan ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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