Committee: No academic minors, for now

After almost three years of research, the Committee on Majors has come out against academic minors.

In a report published Jan. 21 on the committee’s Web site, the committee recommended against adopting academic minors for the time being. The report does not rule out alternatives to minors, including certification in select disciplines such as foreign languages. But it recommends waiting to institute any changes until after a major curricular review is completed in fall 2010. In addition, the committee expressed concern in its report that minors might discourage students from academic experimentation and place a burden on overextended departments’ financial and administrative resources.

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The report and its findings will be a key topic of discussion at Thursday’s meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Yale College Dean Mary Miller said. Though no formal action on minors is currently scheduled, administrators said faculty may choose to put the issue to a vote.

(Click here to read the full report from the Committee on Majors.)

Since the committee issued an interim report on the topic last April calling for a discussion of minors at the FAS meeting in May, the committee — made up of faculty, academic administrators and one student — has done additional research into minor programs at other Ivy League schools and conducted extensive internal polling, interviewing department chairs and directors of undergraduate study.

“We got additional quantitative data on recently introduced minors programs, we met with the residential deans and got their viewpoints,” said Mark Mooseker, the committee’s co-chair. “Based on the sum of our deliberations, we’ve come up with the recommendation not to institute minors at this time.”

In the report, the committee points to the pending review of the curricular changes that resulted from the Committee on Yale College Education report as a key contributor to its decision not to support minors. The CYCE report, an extensive review of Yale College in 2003, led to a host of academic changes, including new distributional requirements in 2005. But the full effect of these changes remains unknown until data on the classes of 2009 and 2010 is analyzed during the CYCE review, said Pericles Lewis, the Committee on Majors’ other co-chair.

“We don’t yet know exactly how that has impacted students,” Lewis said. “It seems to us risky and scientifically a bad idea to change one variable in the middle of the experiment and start introducing minors when we don’t yet know the impact of the CYCE.”

COMPARING NOTES

Lewis said the committee was concerned that academic minors could exacerbate overenrollment in certain departments. According to data from the Office of Institutional Research, over half of Yale students are enrolled in one of six majors — English, history, political science, economics, psychology, and molecular, cellular and developmental biology — and Lewis said even more students might flock to these disciplines if given the option of an academic minor. At Princeton University and Harvard University, Lewis said, the first batches of students to declare minors flooded already overburdened finance and economics programs, looking for professional preparation.

Stephanie Kenen, Harvard’s associate dean of undergraduate education, said it is too early to tell how Harvard’s minors program, instituted in 2006, has affected the quality of undergraduate education. At Harvard, she said, a minority of the student body participates in the “secondary fields” program, which requires students to complete between four and six semester-long courses in their area of study — but this is “how it should be,” Kenen said.

“We view this as an option, not a requirement or an expectation, and we find that most students view it that way,” Kenen said. “If we find in a few more years that most students are pursuing a secondary field because they feel some sort of pressure to do so, we would consider that a negative outcome.”

The Committee on Majors report also considered the Yale College Council’s study on academic minors, submitted to the committee in February 2009. The YCC’s report was the result of student polling and several months of research, and recommended that Yale College adopt an opt-in policy of minors, leaving the decision up to individual departments.

But the committee’s report also criticized the YCC’s methods. The committee wrote that the data from the student poll — which found that 85 percent of students would consider declaring a minor if it were made available — could not be generalized to the undergraduate student body because of potential self-selection bias among respondents.

YCC President Jon Wu ’11 declined to comment on the Committee on Majors report, but he said the YCC has continued work on minors this academic year and met with faculty last semester to clarify the YCC’s goals.

MINORS OR ‘MERIT BADGES’?

In the report, the committee examined several alternative programs, including certification in skills groups — quantitative reasoning, foreign languages and writing — and extended distributional requirements, in which students would pick an academic area — social sciences, sciences and humanities — in which to specialize.

But the Committee on Majors concluded that general certifications across the academic disciplines were not rigorous enough, Lewis said.

“We feel that giving a student a certification for that kind of work really is just giving a merit badge,” Lewis said. “It is not shaping the student’s education towards a deeper knowledge of a subject.”

The committee was more supportive of extended distributional requirements and certifications in foreign language, literature and culture for students, Lewis and Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said.

“In language and culture, we understand why certification would work,” Gordon said. “It’s a circumscribed set of programs in which most of the courses are arranged vertically, showing advancement. In the Harvard model, where minors are miscellaneous and any five courses in ‘x’ or ‘y’ becomes a certificate — I don’t know how meaningful that is.”

In an interview with the News last November, K. David Jackson, DUS of the Portuguese Department, said he supported minors because they could encourage more students to pursue advanced study in foreign languages and boost enrollment in Portuguese courses.

But in an e-mail Tuesday, Jackson said he now finds the idea of minors “problematic.”

“A ‘minor’ interest might not be the same as the kind of courses we offer in literature,” Jackson said in the e-mail. “Also, I have never met anyone who became deeply interested in Brazil, for example, who would have been satisfied with a minor.”

AWAITING THE VOTE

Research into similar practices at peer institutions was crucial to the committee’s report, Lewis said, but the decision to pursue minors ultimately rests with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In an e-mail message to department chairs and directors of undergraduate studies last Thursday, Miller urged these faculty to attend Thursday’s FAS meeting, and to encourage the faculty in their department to attend as well, Miller said.

“Because FAS meetings are run as town hall meetings, they are completely dependent on who is in the room, and it’s important for faculty who are interested in this issue to attend,” Miller said.

Though Lewis and Gordon said no vote is scheduled for Thursday’s meeting, faculty may propose a vote and could approve a minors pilot program, which would necessitate financial deliberations considering the Universitywide budget crunch.

“The administration is trying to avoid anything that affects education, and that of undergraduates particularly,” Lewis said. “But something will have to give if we spend resources on this.”

Some professors have touted a pilot program as a way to test minors without a long-term commitment, Lewis said.

But for computer science DUS Stanley Eisenstat, the pilot program is a contentious point. Eisenstat said his department is opposed to the idea of pilot studies in general but would still participate in such a program if it were offered. Still, he said if the faculty decide to experiment with minors, the pilot should be open to all departments, and should be reviewed after a limited run.

Lewis said a minors pilot program could be difficult to discontinue if it gained favor with students. He also said the Committee on Majors is concerned about a potential “minors arms race” in an opt-in minors program: Departments might rush to offer minors to be competitive among students, he said, instead of offering the program only if it fits well with their educational goals.

Thursday’s meeting will be an important one in determining where the faculty stands on minors, administrators said, but it will not mark the end of the debate. Gordon said the reviewers of the CYCE report will examine minors further when they begin their research this coming fall.

Mitchell Reich ’09, a former student representative on the Committee on Majors who was present at the May 2009 FAS meeting at which faculty debated minors, said he is impressed with the committee’s report and is curious to see how faculty respond Thursday.

“It may be that the decision is under discussion, and the meeting is more of an opportunity to air their views,” Reich said. “I wouldn’t expect agreement. There are definitely people who have heard all the arguments against them and still think it’s a good idea and vice versa.”

Reich, a student at Harvard Law School, said he double majored in classics and political science during his time at Yale. While he did not support the implementation of minors, he said he would have declared a minor if it had been an option.

There are currently 75 majors in Yale College.

Correction: Feb. 3, 2010

An earlier version of this article misrepresented the Committee on Majors’ critique of a 2009 Yale College Council student survey on academic minors. In its Jan. 21 report, the committee said the YCC’s survey data could not be generalized to the undergraduate student body because of potential self-selection bias among respondents.

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