Brown Dean of the College Maud Mandel begins her term as the 18th president of Williams on July 1. EphBlog welcomes her! We are pro-Mandel and hope that her presidency is successful. (Full disclosure, our preference would have been for an internal candidate like Lee Park or Eiko Siniawer.) Let’s spend some time discussing what we know about Mandel so far. Day 4.

What might President Mandel bring to Williams from Brown? My favorite candidate is their open curriculum.

In 1850, Brown’s fourth president, Francis Wayland, argued that students should have greater freedom in pursuing a higher education, so that each would be able to “study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose.” A century later, this vision became the basis for a new approach to general education at Brown: the open curriculum.

Williams should copy Brown. There should only be two academic requirements: 32 courses and a major. Forcing students to take courses they don’t want to take accomplishes nothing.

How might Mandel accomplish this?

First, appoint a committee, led by (and made up of) people who share this view. Williams makes major changes via committees and this would be no exception.

Second, guide the committee toward making two recommendations: a) All extra academic requirements — three classes in each division, DPE, writing and quantitive courses — should sunset after five years. The faculty could re-instate them (or different requirements) in 2023, but doing so would require new votes. b) Randomly select 25% of the class of 2022 to be exempt from the extra requirements. These students would, obviously, be able to take whatever classes they want, including having the option of meeting the standard requirements. But they would also have the option not to.

The great benefit of such an experiment is that it would demonstrate clearly the effect, if any, of the requirements. Does the writing requirement make students better writers? Does the DPE requirement make them more aware of the importance of diversity? If these requirements have any effect, then they might be worth keeping. But I doubt that they do. More importantly, it is an empirical question that the College should investigate.

In 5 years, the College would be well-placed to revisit these requirements and decide which ones, if any, should be kept. Of course, even better would be to just get rid of them quickly, but I doubt that will happen. There are too many faculty members who think, incorrectly, that they are doing students a favor by restricting their course options. If Mandel wants to move more toward an open curriculum like Brown’s — and I hope she does — she has much work to do.

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