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President Maud Mandel, 4

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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#1 Comment By Anon88 On April 5, 2018 @ 8:04 am

DDF’s argument is typical of someone who spent too much time taking Division II courses. The academic requirements are part of a complex ecosystem. The biggest effect of the requirements is not on course selection; it’s on preventing students without broad academic interest in applying or matriculating. I think part of Williams niche is, and should be, providing training for a broad and active intellectual, social, spiritual, and physical life. Let students who just want to study Comparative Literature go to Brown.

#2 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On April 5, 2018 @ 8:42 am

biggest effect of the requirements is not on course selection; it’s on preventing students without broad academic interest in applying or matriculating.

This is delusional.

1) I have never heard of a student who did not apply to Williams because of our requirements. The vast majority of schools have similar requirements — only a handful like Amherst/Brown are that different — so it is very hard to avoid all such schools.

2) The vast majority of applicants lack such detailed knowledge of this difference between Williams and Brown. Do we event mention it on the typical tour? Students are very aware of certain things: overall prestige, location, size and maybe a couple of other items.

3) I have never met a student who, having been admitted to Williams, choose Brown because of the open curriculum. I am sure such students exist, but they can’t account for more than 5 (?) of the acceptances who turn us down.

4) What makes you think that those 5 — the ones you don’t mind losing — don’t have “broad academic interest[s]?” I had/have broad academic interests but I also HATE being told what to do by authority figures who claim to know what is best for me. In fact, I would not be surprised if the tiny number of students who choose Brown over Williams because of the open curriculum actually have broader academic interests than the average Williams student.

I think part of Williams niche is, and should be, providing training for a broad and active intellectual, social, spiritual, and physical life.

More delusions. You don’t realize that every single person at Amherst/Brown/etc would assert that Amherst/Brown/etc also occupy this niche!?

There are dimensions on which Williams occupies a different niche than, say, Brown (rural location, smaller classes) and there are dimensions on which we occupy the same niche as Amherst but do so with more excellence (tutorials). And, if an aspect of Williams (like, perhaps, the Outing Club or WOOLF) connects to those dimensions, then, by all means, we need to be careful about changing it.

But Williams could go open curriculum tomorrow with no meaningful change in who applies and who matriculates — indeed, any changes might very well be an improvement.

#3 Comment By abl On April 5, 2018 @ 10:47 am

The distribution requirements strike me as being a pretty good basic middle ground, in that they don’t really involve administrators making judgment calls about which specific classes students should take, but instead represent a more broad judgment about how Williams grads should have some basic minimal exposure to humanities and social sciences and hard sciences. Also, do you really disagree that every Williams graduate should take at least one writing intensive class and have a basic level of quantitative literacy? What other requirements are there? Are we just talking about the diversity requirement here?

#4 Comment By Anon88 On April 5, 2018 @ 10:55 am

I would agree the net effects of getting rid of distributional requirements would likely be quite small: it’s simply not a big part of the College. My main point is that your proposed Randomized Clinical Trial would not answer the question. The change in distributional requirements would have it’s largest effects (if any) by changing Williams’ culture or by altering a complex interconnected group of systems (e.g. admissions/reputation). Thus, the proposed RCT would not “demonstrate clearly the effect, if any, of the requirements.” The main effects would likely be second order.

That said, I think the RCT is a great idea – especially if students were involved in it’s design, analysis, and publication. Though not definitive, the data would be fascinating and might yield unexpected and important results (I would be very interested in what types of classes were more commonly taken in the academic requirement group).

Also, for what it’s worth, I’ve been on two campus tours in the last few years both of which mentioned academic requirements in a standardized, rehearsed way. I also talked to a first generation student whose a member of the current First Year class who mentioned distributional requirements as the reason she chose Williams over Amherst.

#5 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On April 5, 2018 @ 11:00 am

Very creative work to use the series on the new president to urge removal of the class distribution requirements.

On the merits, I think abl has it correct. The distribution requirements are not particularly onerous. I assume there are statistics classes that can be used to satisfy the Div. 3 requirements, and I think a basic understanding of statistics is a critical skill for everyone. I think I may have only ended up with 3 or 4 Div. 1 classes when I was at Williams (Music 101, English 101, and Philosophy 101. I don’t recall that taking these was a big source of angst.

#6 Comment By frank uible On April 6, 2018 @ 5:15 am

And Brown has blown up the Renaissance Man!

#7 Comment By Fendertweed On April 8, 2018 @ 10:32 am

Agree with Whitney and abl.

I struggled through my statistics course (and a couple of other science courses) to satisfy distribution requirements.

There’s nothing onerous about them IMO and it may be a disincentive for those who want to burrow deeply but narrowly, academically.

#8 Comment By frank uible On April 8, 2018 @ 10:40 am

Stop trying to make Williams all things to all people! The mega-universities do a much better job of it.