Faculty Concerns Put Challenge to New Undergraduate Curriculum Proposal

After three years of hard discussions while working on a new undergraduate curriculum, the Arts and Sciences faculty members were expected to conclude the process with a vote at its April meeting. But that plan may not be ready for approval since faculty last week raised strong concerns.

Intended to replace the 16-year-old Curriculum 2000, the Imagining the Curriculum Committee’s proposal is based on the idea that students should take ownership of their education, and through strong advising and faculty mentorship find their way to an education that has both breadth, depth and draws connections between different fields of studies.

The proposal supports student interdisciplinary studies while promising to maintain a strong disciplinary foundation, and mentored research and scholarly experiences both on campus and globally. Curriculum requirements are kept to a minimum.

Most faculty have supported that vision since the start of the process. But at Thursday’s Arts and Sciences Faculty Council, faculty members repeated long-standing concerns, with several saying they would oppose the proposal as presently written.

Over the past year, the authors have revised the proposal document, titled “BluePrint: A Trinity College Curriculum,” to accommodate concerns about its effects on the writing program, the popular FOCUS seminar program for first-year students and other successful academic programs. However, some faculty members said important areas of the report were unclear and made it hard to assess how key parts would be implemented.

“From the beginning I have supported this proposal because I believe that at Duke the curriculum should be the most important magnet in attracting students,” said philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg. “The current curriculum doesn’t. However, my faculty has asked me to vote no, and I believe it’s because they don’t understand it.”

Language department faculty repeated previous criticisms that the single requirement for one semester of foreign language instruction falls short of educating students as global citizens. 

Proponents said students would be drawn to language instruction without additional requirements because such classes are essential to much of the university’s international engagement. But several language faculty members aren’t convinced.

“To require one semester of foreign language instruction is ludicrous,” said Beth Holmgren of Slavic Languages and Literatures. “They need more encouragement. Language instruction is important, particularly now. We need to go against the mainstream in America, which apparently is to make it all English all the time.”

Other faculty expressed fears that the students would use the freedom of the curriculum to build a pre-professional education rather than one based on the liberal arts values inherent in the proposal.

In addition, opponents noted a loophole that would allow a few students to avoid taking at least one class in each of the three divisions: humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. The proposal does require that for most students, but there’s an exception that could mean students in the FOCUS program could bypass it.

Again proponents responded that all the innovations in undergraduate education over the past decade – from DukeEngage and DukeImmerse to Bass Connections – would inevitably attract students to a variety of courses in a range of disciplines. Around 80 percent of all undergraduates already graduate with double majors, minors or certificates.

There also were faculty protests that when the vote is taken in April, it is scheduled to be an up or down vote, with no amendments. Only if the proposal is voted down will amendments then be considered, which Jose Gonzalez of Classical Studies and others said, “had it backwards.”

In other council action, the faculty voted in favor of a resolution introduced by Professor Frances Hasso that opposed President Trump’s immigration policies and “to facilitate the core mission of education, research and creativity by offering needed support and sanctuary and assuring a safe zone for all threatened members of the Duke community.”

The action followed a resolution passed by the Academic Council in February that said the president’s travel ban “directly undermines the free exchange of students, faculty and staff across international boundaries, an exchange that lies at the heart of the 21st century research university.”