Nearly five months after Yale President Richard Levin announced a comprehensive review of undergraduate academics, the Committee on Yale College Education is taking the first steps in the yearlong project.
The 41-person committee, which is composed of administrators, professors, students and recent graduates, met on Jan. 13 for its first substantial session. Since then the committee’s four working groups have been meeting separately.
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, who is leading the academic review, said that the committee discussed broad issues relating to undergraduate education at the Jan. 13 meeting.
“We’re trying to get a sense of where the problems are and also what the best way to articulate those problems are,” Brodhead said. “We have a lot to learn.”
The meeting featured presentations from junior faculty, the Office of Institutional Research, and economics professor Donald Brown. Brown, who formerly taught at Stanford University, spoke of his experiences with Stanford’s academic review a few years ago.
There was also a panel where two undergraduates and two Law School students answered questions about student concerns.
Justin Cohen ’03, one of the four members of this panel, said he was surprised at how responsive the faculty members were to student opinions.
“Don Brown began by stressing the importance of listening to the students and I think that really set the tone,” Cohen said. “We were heard, respected and valued just as much as any other member of the committee.”
Psychology chairman Peter Salovey, who is leading the subcommittee on biotechnology, said the student panel was the most valuable part of the meeting because of the central role student opinion plays in this academic review.
During the student panel, Brodhead said two issues became subjects of substantial discussion — science education for non-science majors and advising.
“We want to focus on what kind of help the institution can give to the students to help them make the educationally wisest choices,” Brodhead said in reference to advising.
But Cohen said he is not sure the discussion about advising will translate into results.
“We spent a disproportionate amount of time talking about it when it’s unclear if we can do anything about it,” Cohen said.
Cohen, who is serving on the physical sciences and engineering subcommittee, said the more important issue is science education for non-science majors.
“My primary concern is that a large number of students come to Yale with a very high aptitude in natural sciences, but many of them come here and get turned off by the sciences for one reason or another,” Cohen said.
Salovey said the best way to challenge students in science classes is not always obvious.
“How do you offer courses that have serious science content but are also accessible to people who don’t have the background?” Salovey said. “It’s a pedagogical challenge.”
Cohen said his task force, which is led by astronomy chairman Charles Bailyn, has made progress on the issue.
In the near future, the subcommittee will be surveying students to get an impression of what undergraduates think about science at Yale. In addition, the task force will begin interviewing a number of professors who teach science courses geared toward non-science majors.
Rachel Alpert ’03, a member of the social sciences task force, said her committee has begun to meet weekly under the leadership of political science chairman Ian Shapiro.
Thus far, the group has determined a basic agenda and will begin interviewing students and professors in the near future. The group will discuss international relations and “how to connect Yale and Yale students to the outside world,” Alpert said.
Alpert said the group has not had any discussions about Yale’s international offerings in the wake of the resignation of Strobe Talbott, the director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.
Music professor Leon Plantinga, a member of the humanities subcommittee, said his group has been discussing the the relationship between the academic and performance sides of the arts.
Brodhead said the academic review is just beginning to take off but he has high hopes for it because of the committee members.
“One couldn’t have asked for a more engaged and intelligent group,” Brodhead said. “I’ve just been delighted at how the people have approached this committee.”