From the archives: The New Curriculum turns 40: How’s it holding up?

The New Curriculum started with a handful of undergraduates who wanted to improve their college experience. Now it is the defining aspect of one of the world’s top universities — and Brown students and faculty have come to take it for granted.

But as the academic attitude on campus becomes less revolutionary, some worry the University’s shifting priorities in a changing world, as well as an increasingly competitive academic climate, could detract from the core ideals of the curriculum.

Some faculty and students believe a greater focus on research and a shift away from campus involvement in University governance have moved Brown away from its articulated emphasis on undergraduate education.

But even as these struggles to adapt to a new educational climate threaten to define the New Curriculum’s future, administrators say its values are more important than ever — making it a lasting testament to the power of a few Brown students.

‘The message is very clear’

One of Brown’s most significant institutional undertakings since the implementation of the New Curriculum has been the Plan for Academic Enrichment — President Ruth Simmons’s wide-ranging blueprint to improve Brown’s academics — which calls for a dramatic expansion of the University’s faculty, graduate school and research capabilities.

“Over the last decade, one of the things Brown has had to face is how to maintain that outstanding undergraduate program while building up our graduate programs and world-class research,” said Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95P’98.

“There is this appetite, on the part of some administrators and faculty members, for the graduate schools to become more prominent,” said Edward Ahearn, a professor of comparative literature who first came to Brown when that department was created in 1963.

But, Ahearn said, “there are some faculty that are concerned with how the University’s expansion might come into conflict with the model that is consistent with the New Curriculum, which is the university-college model.”

The university-college model, which emphasizes undergraduate support, helped lay the foundation for the New Curriculum, according to Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06 P’07 P’10, who led the original Group Independent Study Project that proposed overhauling the Brown education. But some have expressed concern that the expansion of the Graduate School may put pressure on faculty members to pursue research at the expense of undergraduates.

“A question I have is, in becoming more of a world-class institution, can we retain the quality of the undergraduate experience?” Ahearn said.

Ruth Colwill, associate professor of psychology and former chair of the Faculty Executive Committee, said the increasing emphasis on research may serve to change professors’ priorities.

“If you see some people succeeding when they’re focused purely on research, and you see people not doing as well when they’re involved in teaching and advising and service in addition to research — well, the message is very clear about what’s being rewarded,” she said.

About a year ago, Colwill encouraged an informal collaboration of faculty and students whose purpose is to examine larger institutional issues, she said. Chaney Harrison ’11, a group member who also serves on the University Resources Committee, said the informal group was inspired by the “process of collaboration” ofMagaziner’s original project to challenge the status quo of the academics at Brown.

Harrison said about 15 faculty members and five students have been attending the group’s meetings. Two of the other students in the group, Fiona Heckscher ’09 and Jason Becker ’09, also served on the Task Force on Undergraduate Education, which reviewed the College’s academics last year in light of the New Curriculum’s upcoming 40th birthday.

The group intends to release a paper before the end of the semester calling for student and faculty input on its ideas for reviewing Brown’s academic values.

Colwill also said junior faculty have increasingly felt pressure to earn grants in the pursuit of tenure. “I think that does come at an expense, in terms of contributing to advising and spending time with students,” she said.

Richard Fishman P’89, a professor of visual arts who has taught at Brown since 1965, said the New Curriculum’s dependence on advising, in particular, places strains on the University as it pursues the expansion of the Graduate School.

“You’re putting resources to maintain an undergraduate education that is very labor-intensive and time-dependent,” he said. “You can’t have a great advising program if you don’t have faculty who are willing to give their time to advise. So there’s the conflict between undergraduates and graduates that has put some pressure on.”

“There has been the concern of many people who do not want to see undergraduate education diminished,”Fishman added. “But struggles are healthy.”

‘A delicate balance’

But administrators and some other faculty members say they are less concerned about Brown’s ability to strike an appropriate balance between encouraging research and maintaining a strong undergraduate education.

In fact, some said that faculty research may instead serve to strengthen the ideals of the New Curriculum.

“Many of us don’t think that our research excludes our commitment to undergraduate education,” said JamieDreier, professor of philosophy and current chair of the Faculty Executive Committee.

“It’s always a delicate balance,” said Sheila Blumstein, professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences and a former dean of the College. “If the balance stays the same as it is, if we keep our commitment to the growth of the Graduate School and our commitment to maintaining the university-college model, undergraduates will reap the benefits of both.”

“I’d say that if done right — and my hope and expectation is that it will be done right — the growth of Brown’s graduate school and the focus on research will have a positive effect on undergraduates,” Blumstein said, adding that the existence of opportunities, like Undergraduate Teaching and Research Assistantships, allow students to more fully explore their interests at an advanced level.

Magaziner said the recent focus on graduate education does not threaten the values of the curriculum he helped design. “I think what President Simmons has rightly recognized is that the graduate piece … in a number of areas was getting thin, and so she was looking to strengthen those,” he said. “But I don’t have any sense that (the expansion) meant to weaken the emphasis on the undergraduate, or the emphasi
s on education, in the process of strengthening the graduate programs.”

Kertzer said the focus on research can provide opportunities for students to pursue their academic interests in greater depth — which is in line with the spirit of self-directed scholarship included in the New Curriculum.

“A major part of the New Curriculum is, in fact, student research — getting students involved in high level academic research,” Kertzer said. “Certainly, in many fields that depends on having opportunities. You can’t be involved in high-level research in biology unless there’s high-level research in biology going on.”

Kertzer said providing faculty with the resources to engage in research helps Brown attract the best academics.

“As faculty, we are scholars,” he said. “To be an outstanding teacher, you need to be a first-rate scholar.”

‘A cultural change’

As the New Curriculum ages, some are concerned that students and faculty, once passionate about University governance, are losing interest — a shift that could change Brown’s spirit.

“The student body has tended to serve as a reinforcer of the general spirit and principles and values of the New Curriculum in successive generations,” Magaziner said.

“There was a lot more involvement in the development of (curricular) ideas back in the old days,” said ThomasBanchoff P’91, a professor of mathematics since 1967.

Banchoff said he and other faculty members used to spend their Friday lunches discussing and debating the components of the New Curriculum and Brown’s academic direction — but most of his colleagues now focus more on research, he added.

Since the Plan for Academic Enrichment’s implementation began in 2001, the University has added over 100 new faculty. This expansion, coupled with the fact that many professors who were present for the New Curriculum’s implementation are now reaching retirement age, has led to some concerns that new faculty will not immediately understand its spirit.

“There has been a huge amount of turnover in the past six years or so,” Dreier said, adding that, as a result, faculty governance could “suffer because there are fewer people steeped in the Brown tradition.”

“There is a danger in bringing in so many new faculty so quickly,” Colwill said. “You risk a cultural change, even if it’s not deliberate.”

Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services and a former associate dean of the College, said administrators work to ensure that new faculty are aware of Brown’s academic history and values.

“There has been a lot of planning to think intentionally about how we orient faculty to the New Curriculum,” she said.

‘Changing world’

At the end of the day, despite new challenges to the New Curriculum — a heightened emphasis on research, an increasingly globalized and competitive world and a struggling economy — faculty and administrators affirm its lasting value.

“It’s an absurd notion that the New Curriculum is outdated,” Simmons said. “What is something that people don’t understand — and here, we might do a better job of explicating this — but what people don’t understand is that it is precisely this kind of study that is more important in this moment. And that’s counter-intuitive for people.”

Simmons added that the skills taught by the New Curriculum will only become more valuable in the changing world.

Fishman said the curriculum produces students who tend to be better prepared for unexpected circumstances.

“I think that for the kind of student that comes here — self-motivated, incessantly curious — the curriculum prepares them for the changing world,” he said.

But several faculty members said they find students are increasingly preoccupied with practical concerns, and therefore, may be less likely to use many of the key features of the New Curriculum.

“Especially as the job market gets more competitive, people are going to be more worried about not having letter grades,” Klawunn said. “Now, most of the time when people bring (Satisfactory/No Credit) up with me in my role as an adviser, they’ll say, ‘Well, what if I want to go to law school?’”

But Becker, one of the students on the Task Force on Undergraduate Education, said student tastes can dictate which elements of the curriculum remain in use.

“So much of the Brown curriculum is left to us, as students, to keep up,” he said. “And what makes the New Curriculum something that will constantly be in turmoil is that once we stop using something — like course performance reports or S/NC — it dies.”

Still, despite any increasing pressure placed on the curriculum, many  say the spirit of the New Curriculum has survived.

“If we’re talking about spirit, and we’re talking about ethos, that’s something I believe is maintained in spite of the changes toward a more traditional approach to higher education,” Fishman said.

“I think the philosophy and the spirit and the goals are unchanged,” Magaziner said.

Fishman said it is precisely the curriculum’s ever-evolving nature that has kept it alive all these years.

“There’s some essential truth here,” he said. “A bad idea doesn’t last this long, and a good idea evolves. And the New Curriculum has.”

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