Tao: Thinking concretely about minors

The recent report from the Committee on Majors on academic minors is, to echo the committee’s assessment of the Yale College Council’s report on the issue, “thorough, well-researched, and thoughtful.” Still, the recent evaluation leaves me skeptical of the supposed undesirability of minors and similar programs at Yale.

As I see it, the most significant problem with the committee’s document is a methodological one. Instead of relying on empirical evidence, much of the report is based on the opinions and predictions of the Yale administration and faculty. At least from my perspective, concrete data — when, of course, available and relevant — constitute a much more compelling source of evidence relative to hypothetical assessments, however well reasoned and nuanced. When evaluating the prospective introduction of minors at Yale, the most obvious source of hard data is the measured effects of minor programs at comparable universities. Given that all but one of the other seven Ivy League schools — Brown is the lone exception — offer academic minors or similar programs of study, the committee clearly had ample opportunity to cite empirical evidence.

Yet, despite the availability of concrete data, the committee, at least ostensibly, relied only sparingly on such evidence. Moreover, in one of the few instances that the committee did publicly cite hard data, they appear to have misinterpreted the underlying facts at hand. Committee Co-Chair Pericles Lewis was recently quoted in the News as stating that, at Harvard and Princeton, “the first batches of students to declare minors flooded already overburdened finance and economics programs, looking for professional preparation” (“Committee: No minors, for now,” Feb. 3). While Professor Lewis’s turn to the minor programs at Harvard and Princeton is an admirable one, I want to challenge his characterization of, in particular, Harvard’s program (referred to in Cambridge as “secondary fields”).

As I noted on this page last spring as the YCC was compiling a report on the feasibility of minors at Yale, Emily Neill — the undergraduate program administrator of Harvard’s Economics Department — claimed that, far from “overburden[ing]” her department, “secondary fields have been a godsend” (“In defense of minors,” Feb. 10, 2009). As she clarified in an e-mail to the YCC, “Having the secondary field … has enabled countless students to have Econ on their transcripts while freeing them up to pursue other interests.”

On face, Neill’s statements — showcasing how minors have, in practice, lessened the weight placed on the economics department at Harvard and, generally speaking, student pre-professionalization — are difficult to reconcile with Professor Lewis’s claims. Also standing in apparent opposition to Professor Lewis is Stephanie Kenen, Harvard’s associate dean of undergraduate education. As I also noted last spring, as opposed to describing a situation in which “students … flooded already overburdened … departments,” Kenen stated instead that “sophomores [at Harvard] are not declaring secondary fields at their earliest opportunity … mean[ing] that they are not feeling the pressure to do this immediately, and are taking their time to make their choices and decide if it is the right choice for them.”

Given that the Harvard minors program has existed for only three years, the statements from Neill and Kenen are, of course, a bit premature. Yet perhaps, the strongly worded nature of their responses — which seem to contradict Professor Lewis’s description of Harvard’s program in letter and spirit — should have given the Committee more pause.

Looking forward, the committee should not only consider explaining how — in light Neill and Kenen’s comments — minors at Harvard caused the detrimental effects outlined by Professor Lewis, but also contemplate releasing their non-confidential comparative findings, if only to promulgate more informative and robust public discourse.

Ultimately, given the lack of relevant empirical data from Yale, findings from our peer institutions exist as the most informative and enlightening source of information vis-à-vis the issues at hand.

Richard Tao is a senior in Silliman College and the former president of the Yale College Council.

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