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.


  • Pericles Lewis

    Richard Tao has done an excellent job on his report and has looked into these matters thoroughly. Following up on his suggestion last year, this year’s committee on majors tried to get more concrete statistics on what has happened at Princeton and Harvard. I am paraphrased by the Yale Daily News as saying “At Princeton University and Harvard University…the first batches of students to declare minors flooded already overburdened finance and economics programs, looking for professional preparation.” This is a fairly accurate summary, but what I may not have said in the interview is that there was some time lag. Administrators at Princeton and Harvard were unable to give us specific enrollment figures, but did inform us: a) that at Princeton, after the introduction of the finance certificate, the number of majors in economics stayed roughly the same while finance became the most popular certificate, resulting in a large net gain in economics enrollments; b) that at Harvard, where the secondary concentrations are very new, there has been a small decline in the number of economics majors (8%) but that enrollments in economics have stayed steady or increased because of a large number of students pursuing secondary concentrations in economics. Harvard administrators did not have figures on how many students are pursuing secondary concentrations because these are only declared just before graduation and this is only the second graduating class to have a full range of options for secondary concentrations. The economics secondary concentration seems to have been growing in popularity, and it seems fair to extrapolate from this that in a few years, economics enrollments may have grown rather than shrunk as a result of the introduction of secondary concentrations. Finally, it should be noted that the economics and government departments at Harvard did not originally want to offer secondary concentrations (like our economics and political science departments) but were eventually pressured to do so because these were precisely the fields in which the largest numbers of students wanted secondary concentrations.

    I am grateful to Richard Tao and the YCC for their hard work on this issue and their important contributions. To the best of our ability, the Committee on Majors has drawn on available statistical evidence as well as other forms of analysis in reaching its conclusions.

  • Donald Brown


  • Rich T

    Professor Lewis,

    Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful and articulate reply. To play devil’s advocate for a bit longer, though, I’m curious as to how the data you collected can be explicitly reconciled with, as I noted in my piece, Neill’s characterization of Harvard’s minor program as a “godsend.”

    I may be mistaken, but it seems like the only piece of concrete data you gathered from Harvard — at least as per your posting — is evidence supporting the prospective de-professionalizing effects of minors (e.g. the 8% decrease in the number of majors). Moreover, the evidence you cite regarding how Harvard’s minor program may have increased the burden on the Econ department there seems to be of the sort I argue against in my piece — that being, of course, of a hypothetical nature (e.g. “… it seems fair to [i] extrapolate [/i] from this that in a few years …).

    Either way, I’m still a bit unsure about how your explanation serves to reconcile your description of Harvard’s minor program vis-a-vis the quotes cited in my piece from Neill and Kenen. Neill and Kenen, at least as per their quotes to the YCC, strongly indicate that the minors program there has been met with success (see, again, the “godsend” comment).

    Tangentially, do we know how similar programs have fared at the other four Ivy League schools with minors? Or possibly M.I.T. and Stanford (comparable schools also with minor programs)? I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but empirical data from comparative universities is an area of research that really has to be emphasized going forward, and it seems like the Committee could definitely do a bit more work doing their due diligence in that context.

    Anyways, thanks again for the thoughtful reply, and, of course, also for your — and the Committee’s — hard work on the issue.


  • matlock

    Re: “empirical data from comparative universities is an area of research that really has to be emphasized going forward, and it seems like the Committee could definitely do a bit more work doing their due diligence in that context.”

    I’m interested to know if you’ve found any data, as I am writing an article assessing the worth of academic minors. I also appreciate your thoughtful reflection on the topic.