Surbhi Bharadwaj

Will Yale College add academic minors? Decades later, the debate continues.

Last fall, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun charged the Committee on Majors to reconsider the issue, 10 years after the Committee released a report opposing the creation of minors. Following a year of research, surveying and discussion, the Committee did not resolve its investigation, instead opting for further discussion.

According to Chun, the committee’s findings were presented and discussed at the May faculty meeting. The faculty has long been split on academic minors at Yale, citing the potential benefits of increased exposure to disciplines outside of a major as well as possible drawbacks of allowing students to pad their resume with added credentials. The discussion at the spring meeting reiterated these points and raised new ones about potential administrative burdens, Chun said.

“We’re not quite at square one, but the pros and cons of having minors and people’s feelings about them are pretty consistent, even from 10 years ago when this issue was first reviewed,” Chun told the News in May.

The debate surrounding academic minors is far from new. A 2010 report by the Committee on Majors opposed the creation of minors, enumerating many threats that academic minors pose. The committee warned of students seeking minors to pad resumes, a concern exacerbated by worries that minors may not provide sufficient academic exposure to the given field.

Further, the committee wrote that minors may undercut smaller departments, encouraging many of their majors to switch to a minor in these disciplines and focus on a major in a more popular field. Their findings were echoed by three separate committees in the academic years preceding 2010.

“The concern that everyone has is: Is this going to benefit a liberal education or hurt a liberal education by forcing students to credentialize and overspecialize?” Chun explained. “Those in favor of minors believe that having minors will help broaden students’ education, and those who oppose minors feel oppositely. They feel that not having minors is the way to broaden students’ choice and exploration. Again, everyone wants the same thing, but they just fall on different sides as to how to achieve that.”

The 2010 report highlighted a variety of potential alternatives to academic minors, including concentrations, advanced certificate programs in skills such as writing and quantitative reasoning and increased support for study abroad programs.

Since then, Yale College has created what it calls Multidisciplinary Academic Programs in areas such as global health and human rights and introduced certificates in data science and foreign languages.

Professors interviewed by the News shared many of the same concerns mentioned in the 2010 report, but many added that they could also see the benefits of academic minors.

Chemistry professor Nilay Hazari said that while a minor in chemistry may not benefit students much, an undergraduate in his department could stand to gain from a minor in the humanities or social sciences, which could supplement chemistry knowledge through skills in other fields.

“In general, the creation of minors is likely to be discipline dependent,” Hazari said. “For example, it may work in history or classics, but it is less likely to work in the physical sciences or engineering, where simply completing all of the introductory courses and prerequisites involves taking a large number of courses.”

Chun stressed that should Yale eventually decide to introduce academic minors, each department would not be required to offer one. As discussion continues, he noted he will need to provide “assurances” to faculty that the process would be opt in rather than opt out.

Psychology professor Woo-Kyuong Ahn, who is also Chun’s wife, said that she saw both the positives and negatives that academic minors pose. She noted that minors could restrict course selection, encouraging students to complete more requirements to fulfill a minor instead of taking classes with more freedom. Yet, she said academic minors could also ease the pressure to double major and provide some recognition to students interested in a field, despite not wanting to invest copious amounts of time to a discipline.

Ahn, who was present at the faculty meeting at the end of the spring semester, said the discussion surrounding minors was relatively brief.

“We didn’t really have an intense discussion,” Ahn said. “We just went over the strengths and weaknesses.”

Beyond the educational merits and downsides of minors, some raised concerns about potentially increasing administrative burdens, Chun noted. Introducing minors would also require introducing minor advising and mechanisms to track students’ progress towards the minor degree.

Chun noted that those from other institutions with minors said tracking requirements are not difficult if there is a sufficient online credit-tracking system. But Yale Degree Audit — the current system for tracking graduation requirements — has yet to add every major’s requirements to the system due to the complexity and labor intensity of the process, he said.

Still, Chun added, Degree Audit is on track to accommodate the full breadth of majors within a few years, and he does not think the additional administrative burden created by minors “would be that huge.”

For now, the Committee on Majors will continue to explore the possibility of minors this year, Chun told the News.

“Now that we’ve heard the concerns from the faculty, [the committee] may find ways to address the concerns — in which case a proposal can keep moving forward — but if those concerns are not addressed, then we have status quo,” Chun said. “I think the main message is that the conversation continues. Nothing has been denied.”

Students must complete at least 36 course credits to earn an undergraduate degree from Yale College.

Asha Prihar | asha.prihar@yale.edu 

Carly Wanna | carly.wanna@yale.edu

  • jsperro129

    “…possible drawbacks of allowing students to pad their resume with added credentials”

    “…worries that minors may not provide sufficient academic exposure to the given field

    “…they feel that not having minors is the way to broaden students’ choice and exploration

    Seriously? This is 2019. Not everyone wants to be an academic and study for their PhD in Sanskrit. This is exactly the kind of backwards (and frankly self-interested) thinking that is dragging Yale behind other key institutions of learning in this day and age. Students want options, students want credentials, and outside of these ivory towers there is an entire world of people, organizations, and companies that see credibility in minors and their legitimization of diverse academic interests.

    Since departments will not all be required to implement a minor, the operational burden seems low and the potential benefit to students incredibly high. There is way too much ideological debate going on over something that seems to provide obvious gain to the university at low cost.