On March 14, faculty members voted 58-5 to terminate the first-year residential seminar (FRS) program effective July 1.The FRS program, initially introduced in 1985, seeks to integrate residential and academic life for first-years by placing students enrolled in a designated course in the same entry. In its report to the faculty prior to the vote, the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) cited waning student and faculty interest and inconsistencies with the College’s mission as principle reasons for the program’s termination.
Professor of Art and Chair of the CEP Guy Hedreen summarized the CEP’s rationale. “If there is good reason to believe that a program is no longer serving a significant purpose within the curriculum and no longer has a critical mass of support among the faculty and the student body, then it is a bad idea to leave it ‘on the books,’ because that misleads current and prospective students and faculty as to what we offer or support at this college,” he said.
“Members of the CEP talked to faculty who had taught [the FRS course] and some students who had been in it. Many people said it was a good experience, while others had some concerns. But the program as a whole didn’t seem to be really thriving,” Dean Bolton said.
The FRS program, as introduced in 1985 by the Gaudino Committee, initially consisted of two entries, each of which enrolled in both a fall and spring seminar team-taught by two professors. The program, then an experiment by the Committee, was reevaluated in 1988 and extended contingent on student interest.
During the faculty meeting, Hedreen stated that staffing two team-taught courses had proved impossible over time, leading the CEP to downsize the program in 1993 to include two entries but only a fall seminar. At that time, the CEP noted that “should any further erosion of the FRS occur, it is our conviction that the program should be abolished.” For the last 10 years, only one FRS entry, typically housed in Williams F, has been offered, with enrollment rarely reaching its limit and a single faculty member teaching the course.
During the March 14 meeting, faculty members discussed a number of shortcomings in the program. According to Hedreen, the primary issue was “a lack of student enthusiasm for the program, as measured by the numbers of students who signed up for it … The ordinary, non-FRS entry experience at the College seems to be attractive to the vast majority of entering first-year students.”
A lack of faculty interest in teaching the FRS course has also been observed, with a single professor teaching the course seven times in recent years. “Amidst a growing list of interdisciplinary offerings and other curricular initiatives, only a handful of faculty have chosen to offer FRS courses,” said John Gerry, associate dean of the faculty.
Hedreen also cited the tutorial program, the writing intensive requirement and new programs and concentrations as having diverted faculty attention away from FRS.
The motion brought forth by the CEP also states that the FRS format was no longer consistent with the social experience the College hoped to provide first-year students. The motion further states that while entries are meant to represent the diversity of the student body in miniature, the FRS entry – due to the self-selecting process by which students are placed – is “sometimes populated by groups of students with an overrepresentation of certain interests, backgrounds or identities.”
Summarizing this position, Gerry said that “the first-year housing system, like the curriculum, has moved in new directions” since FRS was conceived in 1985.
One potential shortcoming of FRS was the question of the effectiveness of integrating academic and residential life for only a small portion – less than four percent – of first-year students, according to Dean Bolton. “The feeling was that we should put our energy into thinking about new models for faculty involvement in all entries that would be accessible to all students rather than having this one small piece that wasn’t gathering a lot of momentum and wasn’t necessarily meeting all of its goals,” she said.
In developing its report, the CEP analyzed survey results from the Committee on Undergraduate Life and senior exit surveys gathered over the last decade. Bolton indicated that while the CEP did not talk directly to FRS students, the results of recent surveys on first-year life “don’t show any differences between those in FRS entries and those in non-FRS entries that would indicate that the FRS was giving people a more positive entry experience than a regular entry.”
While Hedreen said that the CEP did not disagree internally in its decision to abandon FRS, he was hesitant to characterize the program as a failure. “The courses themselves were often successful, as measured by [student course survey] results,” he said. “A number of students and several faculty participants speak positively about the experience, although the responses of students and faculty are, perhaps not surprisingly, not universally positive.”
Despite difficulties in finding faculty volunteers, Gerry asserted, “Those [faculty] who designed FRS courses were absolutely committed to the original ideals of the program – to integrate academic life and residential life.”
Will Harron ’11, a former FRS student, a Junior Advisor (JA) and a member of the JA Advisory Board, had mixed reactions to the program’s termination, saying that while he enjoyed the FRS course, his entry faced numerous problems. “I did enjoy going to a class with my entrymates and the shared in-jokes and memories from class,” Harron said. “[However], the JA system is really built for and centered around the non-FRS model, and FRS JAs have a few special challenges.”
While no substitute for FRS has officially been proposed, Hedreen stated that “[the CEP] would like to see the College explore means of engaging first-year students intellectually and academically that engage all first-year students, all entries, not merely a single entry of self-selecting students.”
Bolton specifically referenced a proposed effort to encourage JAs to invite faculty members to connect with each entry and a similar effort to involve faculty in entry life through the expansion of the Williams Reads program to include First Days programming for incoming first-years as potential replacements for FRS moving forward.