There are two academic systems at the University that remain stuck in the past. The first is our academic calendar, which I am thankful is on the path to change. The second, however, receives less attention: the limited options for concentrations. Sophomores, take note: The options that were offered to you this spring are not nearly as comprehensive as those offered at other Ivy League and top universities. If we hope to live up to our reputation and values as a liberal arts university, this must change.
The University’s system of majors is extremely narrow compared to its peers. Princeton offers 37 academic concentrations. Harvard offers 49; Stanford, 65; Yale, 75; Columbia, 80; Brown, 79; Cornell, 80; Dartmouth, 63; and the University of Pennsylvania, 64. Moreover, the paucity of major options cannot be explained away by our small graduate school: Our 2,500 graduate students are comparable in number to the postgraduate students at Dartmouth and Brown. In fact, the only colleges even close to our number of majors are small liberal arts colleges like Williams and Amherst.
In my time at the University, I have learned the ins and outs of the academic system better than most. In February, I completed my term as the Undergraduate Student Government Academics Chair, and I am an independent major in the interdisciplinary field of environmental science and environmental studies. I have come to believe that there is no area in which University academics need more improvement than in the limited number of concentrations offered to our 5,400 undergraduates.
The additional majors offered by our peer institutions are far from secondary fields. For example, Harvard offers majors in statistics, environmental science and public policy, applied mathematics, and linguistics. Other majors offered by our peer institutions include Latin American studies, cognitive science, biophysics, gender and sexuality studies, materials science, and urban studies. These are established fields, and yet the University does not provide adequate pathways for students to explore them.
The University’s narrow tracks are not sufficiently alleviated by our 53 certificate programs. The capstone of the University experience, the senior thesis, must be advised and supported by the student’s home department. Students seeking to do primary thesis research in an expansive, thoroughly researched field like environmental studies must instead shape their thesis work around the confines of departmental requirements.
Meanwhile, the University’s independent majors, once a form of relief for students seeking to explore the full opportunities of a “liberal arts” curriculum, have been narrowed in recent years. New guidelines from the Office of the Dean of the College note that “Proposals that seek primarily to ‘major’ in a certificate ... are strongly discouraged.” The exception is linguistics, which has been “grandfathered” in based on a lengthy history of independent majors. The current sophomore class of independent majors is made up eight linguistics majors and one concentrator in complex adaptive systems.
My own independent concentration in environmental studies enabled me to do crucial independent work on the communication and modeling of climate change — work that would not have been possible within the confines of any other existing department. This research ultimately led me to become a Rhodes Scholarship finalist and now a Sachs Worcester Scholar headed to Oxford University.
But my concentration would likely not have been accepted under the new rules. The current policies catch students in a double bind: An independent major not supported by a certificate program will likely have too few course options to be accepted, while one that is — even if it is an accepted disciplinary field at almost all of our peer institutions — will not be accepted either.
The University’s most recently established departments — neuroscience and African American studies — grew out of certificate programs elevated by student interest and demand. Neuroscience was once, like linguistics, a certificate program that attracted many independent majors. African American studies — long overdue for its own department, particularly given the University’s racial history — was made a department in May 2015, after protests by the Black Justice League raised awareness for the Black experience on campus.
Nevertheless, incredible obstacles remain for students simply trying to pursue their academic passions. A current junior was denied an independent concentration in Latinx studies last year, owing both to a lack of classes and the preexistence of Latin American studies as a certificate program.
I have been heartened by the University’s Strategic Planning Task Force’s call for a department in American Studies, which could eventually house student interest in Latinx, gender, and Asian American studies, as well as the possible expansion of the statistics and machine learning certificate into a department of its own.
But many fields, including my own, have been left behind: Despite the profusion of evidence that environmental issues are not only scientific, but also social, recommendations for environmental studies have been limited to expanded facilities and increased cross-disciplinary work in the humanities. The University is constructing a new environmental studies building, but there has been no substantive discussion of a major.
The University’s General Education Task Force rejected suggestions to allow double majors due to the University’s strict thesis requirements. That said, the task force did mention the possibility of mixed concentrations that would be housed in one department but involve cross-disciplinary work. While I applaud this recommendation, it leaves the onus for creating these mixed concentrations to the faculty of individual departments, and does not suggest a clear pathway to the creation of such concentrations.
The University’s current 37 undergraduate majors are highly insufficient for both the increasingly interdisciplinary academic world and the multitude of intellectual and academic passions that students bring to this campus.
The University mission statement calls for “a program of liberal arts that simultaneously prepares students for meaningful lives and careers, broadens their outlooks, and helps form their characters and values.” Our admission pamphlets laud our academic flexibility. As an incoming student, I was not aware of our small number of majors, but high school seniors who have done their research may opt for a university that better supports academia’s growing interdisciplinary nature.
There is no one solution for the University’s limited departmental options. That said, I respectfully submit a few suggestions. First, future planning of University academic life should closely examine the small number of majors and its effects on student academic satisfaction, matriculation, and future opportunities.
Second, task forces should examine existing certificate programs that are accepted fields at other universities. These task forces can determine whether, and when, these programs could become departments of their own. The program in statistics and machine learning has already begun this process. The programs in linguistics and environmental studies should follow its lead.
Finally, highly-motivated and self-guided students should be encouraged, not dissuaded, to independently concentrate in certificate programs that are established disciplines. Independent concentrators have a history at the University of using their experience, enthusiasm, and proof of demand to push for the creation of much-needed departments. These new departments would expand academic opportunities for all.
We are a liberal arts institution seeking to expand the frontiers of knowledge. We must institutionally support the creation and exploration of emerging and established fields.
Shannon Osaka is an environmental science and environmental studies major from San Jose, Calif. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.