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Duke University arts and sciences pulls back from curriculum proposal

A statue of James Buchanan (Buck) Duke greets visitors to West Campus at Duke University. Duke Chapel is pictured at rear.
A statue of James Buchanan (Buck) Duke greets visitors to West Campus at Duke University. Duke Chapel is pictured at rear. The Herald-Sun

It’s back to the drawing board for Duke University’s arts and sciences faculty, as its dean, department chairs and elected representatives agree a proposed replacement of the undergraduate curriculum lacks enough support to make it worth implementing.

The “reset” of the curriculum debate, solidified Thursday at a meeting of Trinity College’s Arts & Sciences Council, came after a prior council discussions left it abundantly clear faculty members were deeply split on the change.

At the council’s March meeting, at least a third of the council’s members signaled that they’d vote against the revision, in service of their own views or on instructions from department colleagues.

On Thursday, Trinity’s dean, Valerie Ashby, said the debate had left her worried that even if the revision passed, there wouldn’t be enough buy-in from professors and departments to actually follow through on it.

“What if we pass something and it’s 51-49?” Ashby asked, rhetorically. “That’s not OK. A narrow passing doesn’t feel great to me as the start of a successful implementation.”

She added that the in-house debate among professors had “degenerated,” to the point some people had “crossed the line” into unprofessional behavior.

Divisions underscored

A consultation with department chairs underscored the divisions about the proposal, with the only point of agreement among the 30-some people involved being that they “wanted to take a pause,” Ashby said.

Thursday’s Arts & Science Council meeting was originally supposed to feature the final vote on a curriculum change that’d been a couple of years in the making.

But the wording of meeting’s agenda changed several times in the days leading up to the session, with the last one leaving little doubt that a delay of some sort was in the offing.

Duke officials have kept details about the curriculum proposal somewhat under wraps, but it’s been clear for a while that it would alter the present requirement that undergraduates take at least two courses each in arts and literature, civilizations, the natural sciences, quantitative studies and the social sciences.

Its replacement instead would’ve asked them to new students to take three “thematic” courses by the end of their first year in the humanities, the natural sciences and the social sciences, and in their second year do additional “foundation” work on writing, language and quantitative techniques.

In public, many participants in the debate characterized the decision as a choice between an existing, prescriptive list of required courses, versus a replacement “open curriculum” that would give students more leeway to pursue their academic interests.

Along the way, professors voiced fundamental, philosophical disagreements on that point, some insisting a prescriptive curriculum gives students clear guidance about the knowledge and skills they should have, and others contending the prescriptive approach stifles their intellectual development.

Underneath that, it’s become obvious the undergraduate curriculum that’s been in place at Duke since the early 2000s “works better for certain majors than other majors,” said Jonathan Mattingly, chairman of the mathematics department.

Not just philosophy

Nor is the issue merely a matter of philosophy.

Some smaller departments fear an open curriculum would torpedo student interest in their courses, with follow-on budgetary repercussions that would undermine faculty hiring and ultimately the ability to sustain their disciplines, said Randy Matory, cultural anthropology professor.

Regardless, “we don’t like where we are right now as a faculty” and “just need to take a moment and regroup,” Ashby said.

The “reset” marked the second delay this week of a major initiative that Duke officials at various points had hoped to wrap up before the university’s current president, Richard Brodhead, retires this summer.

The other involved a proposal to build an on-campus, gas-turbine power plant. Amid criticism of the plan from environmentalists, officials announced Tuesday they wouldn’t put it to an approval vote by trustees next month.

Both issues thus devolve to Brodhead’s successor, incoming President Vince Price.

As it happens, Price visited campus last week and, in a meeting with an all-units faculty group, the Academic Council, faced a question regarding his views on prescriptive versus open curricula.

He responded by more or less saying it’s a balancing act between inducing “productive confusion” in students and challenging them to overcome it, versus laying the academic groundwork for them to do so successfully.

And to Price, it’s not an either-or proposition. “If you just put them in a classroom and start teaching the basics, without that motivation that’s driven by a desire to make sense of all this, I think it’s just wasted words,” he said.

He added that he’s “not a believer in radical revisions of practice when incremental revisions will prove faster at getting to the goal,” and that he’s looking forward to working with the faculty to address the issue.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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