CEP Proposal: firm commitment necessary

Last spring, the faculty passed several reforms devised by the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) that sought to revolutionize the College curriculum and create a simpler and more logical curricular structure. The changes were intended to improve the quality of instruction at Williams while preserving the traditional strengths of the liberal arts education. By voting to implement various innovations – which included the expansion of the signature Williams tutorial program, greater use of experiential learning and greater resource allocation to interdisciplinary courses – the faculty bravely put the academic interests of the institution before inter-departmental rivalries for resources.

At last Wednesday’s faculty meeting, however, a different, less inspiring attitude seemed to prevail. As a part of its efforts to implement last year’s reforms, the CEP introduced a motion that would immediately restructure all interdisciplinary programs at Williams. Among other changes, the proposal contained a more strict definition for the term “concentration.” Many members of the faculty came out in strong support of the motion, but there was a minority of professors who insisted that passage would only cause more problems, especially in terms of staffing. Though there was enough of a hesitation to motivate an unsuccessful motion to table the issue, the proposal eventually did pass – apparently because enough faculty members looked beyond logistics to the philosophical merits of the CEP’s motion.

Before the proposal was passed, three categories of interdisciplinary programs existed: concentrations, programs and clusters. At first glance, the CEP’s proposal to reclassify all three as “programs” seems a matter of mere semantics. In reality, however, such a reclassification could entirely change the way the College allocates teaching resources to non-departmental programs.

Perhaps the most important change in the CEP’s restructuring plan is the imposition of stricter guidelines for programs offering concentrations. Specifically, concentrations would require that students take at least five courses including two interdisciplinary courses, one of which is a senior capstone course. Students would be required to declare concentrations along with majors at the end of sophomore year. Concentrations are currently far looser aggregations of courses from different departments and never have to be declared at all.

The new scheme promises to increase the interdisciplinary nature, the quality and the logical progression of a student’s education by adding structure to concentrations. By establishing a five-course requirement, the proposal on the one hand guarantees that programs offering concentrations will be given adequate teaching resources, and on the other hand prevents the creation of new programs if adequate staffing is not available. Most significantly, the proposal’s basic premise epitomizes the ideal of increased interdisciplinary instruction put forth in last year’s landmark proposals.

During the course of a vigorous discussion among members of the faculty, two basic philosophies emerged. One group supported the proposal because the professors approved of it on ideological grounds and felt that it would positively impact the value of student instruction and course progression. The other group supported the proposal in theory, but felt that it would result in fewer new programs being established and fewer departmental courses being offered due to logistical constraints. The basis of the debate boiled down to practicality versus innovation. Fortunately for all students at Williams, innovation won.

With courseload reduction already poised to slash the number of courses offered in the next few years, there is little doubt that conflicts over staffing the courses for programs will occur. However, we encourage the faculty opposed to the proposal to act with vision and not be hindered by fears of understaffing. With an expanding faculty to compensate for courseload reduction and a continually evolving curriculum, offering structure to non-major programs and concentrations offers students an ideal opportunity to find intellectual guidance from our already very talented faculty.

The student body of Williams deserves the best possible education – that is what makes Williams a top liberal arts school and that is why we chose to come here. The recent passage of the CEP proposal is a substantial affirmation to the campus that the faculty are willing to meet and expand students’ academic interests in a dynamic fashion.

However, an unquestionably tough road lies ahead. Well-documented concerns about staffing problems indicate that interdisciplinary courses frequently run into trouble, thus threatening the operation of even well-established and major-offering programs like political economy. The CEP proposal will fail miserably without the strong support of all faculty to make the programs work.

It was stated at the meeting that most current concentrations already follow the new guidelines. However, we urge the CEP to hold off on the implementation of the proposal for a year while all structures are prepared to meet the new guidelines. With the implementation of courseload reduction already slated for this year, waiting before introducing concentration reform would facilitate the installation of the guidelines and allow programs to implement the five-course staffing requirements only when new positions start getting filled. The onus for successfully implementing the latest proposal lies with the CEP, the Committee on Academic Priorities and the dean of the faculty. The latter two entities are responsible for hiring faculty and assigning professors to programs. The formation of a committee to assess the status of each concentration, to decide where to create new professorial positions and to assign these positions to programs across departments is a job that must be executed by entities independent of the faculty.

We face a critical juncture in the history of the Williams College. Various bodies in charge of redesigning the physical and social landscape of the College are repeatedly exhorted by the administration to “think big,” exhibit vision in their deliberations and act with the College’s best long term interests at heart. On an abstract level, it appears that the curriculum is also in the midst of a rejuvenation. However, the widely-acclaimed theories contained in last year’s landmark curricular proposals are faltering when they are translated into the concrete realm of resource allocation.

In the latest CEP proposal, we see great potential for a streamlined system that will facilitate the establishment of popularly-backed, pedagogically robust concentrations that will positively impact the level of instruction at Williams and aid students in charting an intellectually productive course through their four years here. We entreat skeptical members of the faculty to take a step back, view the proposal with an eye unprejudiced by inter-departmental resource allocation conflicts and wholeheartedly back the implementation of the new structures. We need your support.

While we are excited with the spirit of widespread reform pervading the campus, we urge the administration not to forget its priorities. Williams College is fundamentally an institution of higher learning. Even the most beautiful campus with the greatest support staff will amount to nothing if Williams does not make a concerted effort to keep the curriculum on the cutting edge of education.

Many members of the faculty cautious
ly support the new proposal. The regularization of concentrations is not an easy process. Its fundamental requirement is that the College drastically increase staffing. In this time of exciting change on campus, cutting corners to fulfill increased staffing requirements in the interest of saving money would be a travesty of the intellectual integrity that is synonymous with Williams College. According to the administration and the Board of Trustees, we have money to spend. Members of the faculty, administration and student body must come together to ensure that our capital is spent to perpetuate the College’s high standards of education.