At the VSA Council meeting on April 5, Dean of the Faculty Jonathan Chenette attended a forum in which he explained current proposals to change Vassar’s curriculum. The Committee on Curricular Policies has begun evaluating these three initiatives. These alterations take the form of three separate proposals that would affect students of the class of 2020 and subsequent class years. These proposals include: a requirement that students to take three courses in three of the four curricular divisions, one of which must be taken above the 100 level; a reduction in the maximum number of units per semester a student could take without permission from the Committee on Leaves and Privileges from 5 to 4.5 units; and the mandate that all students must complete a form of a capstone project, called an Intensive Mentored Exploration (IME), in their major fields prior to graduation. According to Dean Chenette, the Committee will likely decide whether to implement these proposals by the end of this semester.
We at The Miscellany News strongly oppose these proposed curricular changes. Many students are drawn to Vassar by its open curriculum, where they will be able to take the classes they want to take. Several VSA members stated that their constituencies opposed the proposal related to required courses taken per division specifically because of this reason.
These changes take on a paternalistic edge that reduces the agency of students by telling them what type of classes they should be taking. By regulating which classes students must take, the College would also be defining strict guidelines about the distribution of courses. This opposes Vassar’s tradition of academic freedom, as reflected by the fact that only 40% of the Classes of 2012 and 2013 would have met these requirements. With the remaining 60% of students who would not have met the proposed requirements, it’s clear that the majority of students would be impacted by the proposed changes.
While the argument in favor of these proposals is one that purports to increase the depth of students’ academic exploration, it is not clear if this would be the ultimate result. Setting up specific distribution requirements could serve to reduce the college experience.
Furthermore, students forced to take classes in academic areas that do not interest them would not be likely to go beyond the basic requirements of the class.
One curricular change students have been advocating for which did not make it to the discussions was a social consciousness requirement. Many students have advocated for the addition of such a requirement. Although Chenette argued that students may intrinsically gain a form of social consciousness education, we at The Miscellany News feel this is insufficient. If the faculty can create a committee to design a plan for the IME, an extensive student project that requires large amounts of professorial input and guidance, it seems plausible that a group of faculty and students could collaborate on a plan for a social justice requirement. Additionally, the Administration could call for its creation if they prioritized it.
We also find the decision to enforce these requirements to be contradictory to what administrators have told students about the opposition to the social consciousness requirement. In the past, students have been told that a social requirement would prove counter to Vassar’s commitment to a small number of graduation requirements.
During the VSA meeting, representatives stated that responding constituents expressed generally neutral opinions on the IME proposal. We at The Miscellany News also believe that although the IME is a favorable plan for many students in different departments, the universal requirement of an IME for all students is unreasonable. While the IME works in some departments or programs, not all departments have the means to provide the amount of time and focus demanded. Academic departments are suffering from low staff numbers. To make these individual projects mandatory would be to put extra stress on each department to ensure they have faculty who can give their time to advise IMEs along with all of their other duties.
The reduction in credits is another impractical proposal, especially for students who would not be able to afford four years at Vassar. Many students need to utilize the 5-credit maximum to ensure that they can fulfill their college experience in four years or fewer, and decreasing the maximum number of credits would make this harder for students. The credit cutback also makes it significantly harder for students to have multiple majors and correlates. The suggested changes in curriculum would not only make it harder to pursue interests on campus, but also would affect students’ ability to study abroad with JYA. For example, added requirements would make it notably more difficult for students to get transfer credits when studying abroad and harder to keep up with requirements while away. Moreover, as a student observer at the Council meeting noted, the limitation may have negative impacts on students seeking graduate degrees, as specific fields demand higher numbers of coursework hours than this new mandate would allow.
We believe that these sweeping changes the Dean of the Faculty has proposed are not only unnecessary and impractical, but could also be detrimental to the Vassar experience. Students apply to our school because of the academic freedom the College offers, and the trust it puts in students to choose their own intellectual paths for four years. If these proposals came to fruition, it would effectively rewrite the academic culture at Vassar and reduce the freedom students get with their education here.
Instead of going forward with these proposals, the Dean of the Faculty should be taking heed to changes in curriculum for which many students have expressed that they want or need. Students have long been requesting a social consciousness requirement and more sections of popular classes. While we acknowledge the desire to compare ourselves to peer institutions can be constructive in some situations, it is important to maintain the aspects that make Vassar unique. Vassar students are promised the opportunity to choose what they study in their time here, and such a promise must continue to be kept.
—The Staff Editorial represents the opinions of at least 2/3 of our Editorial Board.