Overhaul of Undergraduate Curriculum Put on Hold

“We need to pause this process for a while to bring us toward a stronger consensus.”

Plans to overhaul Duke’s liberal arts undergraduate curriculum have been put on hold until there is greater faculty agreement about what changes need to be made.

“We don’t have a fixed timeline,” said Sherryl Broverman, interim chair of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences Council, at a meeting of about 100 professors and deans Thursday. “We need to pause this process for a while to bring us toward a stronger consensus.”   

Valerie Ashby, dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, said she had met with 30 of the 32 department heads to discuss a draft proposal called “The Blue Print” to replace the 17-year-old Curriculum 2000. The draft was created by the Imagining the Curriculum Committee of faculty and staff who have spent almost three years working on it.

A major premise of the draft has been that students should take more ownership of their education, and through strong advising and faculty mentorship find their way to an education that has both breadth and depth and draws connections between different fields of studies.  Curriculum requirements are kept to a minimum.

Faculty concerns had been raised throughout the process and efforts had been made to accommodate effects on the writing program, the popular FOCUS seminar program for first-year students and other successful academic programs.  Numerous faculty continued to protest the single requirement for one semester of foreign language instruction, saying it falls short of educating students as global citizens. 

The deans expressed even deeper lingering differences, such as whether the curriculum just needs “tweaking” or a major overhaul, said Ashby, who came to Duke less than two years ago and did not initiate curriculum revision discussions. The group wanted to pause curriculum deliberations. “That’s all we could agree upon,” she said.

Most troubling was that related conversations had grown argumentative, Ashby said. Committee members who had spent so much of their personal time working on this project had endured personal verbal attacks. “We need to take a moment to regroup more productively, more collegially,” Ashby said.

Not every faculty member has to be in total agreement with any changes, Ashby said, but they do need to be more supportive and excited about the prospect. “The faculty own the curriculum,” Ashby said. “Period. We will never deviate from that.”

Thursday’s discussion ranged from faculty requests for more data to cautions against developing curriculum from polls. Some called for more discussion in larger, cross-departmental groups, where all members felt able to truly express their feelings. Some said they wanted to know what students and alumni thought about the curriculum.

One student in the audience, Surya Prabhakar, praised curriculum requirements, saying that without them he might have only taken economics and finance classes. “Requirements for me have worked very well in bringing out my intellectual curiosity,” said the junior who attended because his education professor David Malone recommended it.

Malone, a professor of the practice of education, told the group that he had never seen so many people attend an Arts and Sciences Council meeting in his 27 years at Duke, and encouraged more tenure-track faculty to get involved in leadership roles “Faculty governance has been outsourced to POPs (professors of the practice),” Malone said. “We need to work together to take responsibility.”  

Toward the end of the meeting, Broverman and Ashby summarized some next steps. There is no timeline for revision. The board of the directors of undergraduate studies will hold more discussions. Ashby will meet again with the deans. And she will also share more information with faculty about the estimated costs and issues associated with implementation of a revised curriculum.

Ashby praised the respectful and thoughtful discussion that had ensued. “This is good,” she said. “We made the decision to talk, to listen.”