Student Voices

The University, like this magazine, is paying special attention to undergrads.

January/February 1998

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Quick -- what's the toughest issue facing research univerities today? Cutbacks in federal funding? The need to better integrate technology into teaching? The proliferation of campus fruit-smoothie shops?

None of the above. The top concern, many believe, is maintaining the quality of undergraduate education. At issue is the question of how to reconcile faculty teaching with research. "We are accustomed to think of the four-year bachelor's program as a natural part of the [research] university, but the integration of one with the other has never been easy," writes President Gerhard Casper in "Cares of the University," his 64-page report on his first five years at Stanford. Chief among his explanations for this tension: Faculty tenure and compensation rest heavily on research performance.

Casper's predecessor, Donald Kennedy, takes up these topics in his new book about the state of higher education, Academic Duty. In a chapter devoted to teaching -- and excerpted in this issue -- Kennedy criticizes universities for not offering the close faculty interaction students need to develop both as scholars and human beings. "It is plain that many faculty members do not arrive at the university eager, or even prepared, to take up this kind of responsibility," Kennedy writes. Indeed, he adds, it appears that many professors regard this kind of work as entirely outside their domain as researchers.

To address these and related problems, Casper established a commission on undergraduate education shortly after he arrived at Stanford. It provided the first comprehensive look at the University's curriculum in 25 years, and many of its recommendations are now in effect. Among them: the creation of a rigorous science, math and engineering core for nonscience majors and the launch of an introductory humanities sequence to replace the Culture, Ideas and Values track, which itself had replaced the much-debated Western Civ core. Perhaps most important for those concerned about teaching, there now are expanded opportunities for students to have close contact with faculty. This year, about two-thirds of all freshmen and sophomores will take seminars (average size: 14 students) through the Stanford Introductory Studies program.

Here at the magazine, covering the student experience is an important part of what we do. In 1992, we launched the "Student Voice" column to give readers some insight into campus life today. In this issue, we publish our 25th consecutive "Student Voice," an essay about courage and downward mobility by Leslie Gordon that appears in this issue.

The other day, I read all 25 columns in one sitting. It was an invigorating exercise; far from Gen X slackers, students in the '90s are energetic, passionate and idealistic. I also learned a few things: Students worry a lot about what they'll do after graduation; there's no dating at Stanford; and even the telephone operators here are friendly. (Note to students: Why not ask an operator out on a date?) Several essayists wrote about being different in one way or another -- being black, gay, diabetic, a transfer student, an evangelical Christian, a Dollie. A few criticized the University for flaws real and perceived. One faulted his fellow students for whining so much about the University's shortcomings.

Several of the columns stand out. In March 1994, N'Gai Croal wove passages from Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man with his own thoughts about how young blacks are treated. "Don't let your eyes deceive you," he wrote. "We are not human."

In December 1995, Heather Williams wrote about her transformation from intellectual agnostic to evangelical Christian during her Stanford years. The column was unflinchingly frank -- and alienated some students. "People who weren't Christians thought I had defected to the evil empire led by Ralph Reed," she chuckles. But she also received an unsolicited offer to write for the Campus Crusade for Christ. And many readers called our offices to track her down. "I'm not sure of the copyright rules," she says, "but people have duplicated the column for whole congregations."

Last spring, Aly Remtulla voiced some of the same concerns that Don Kennedy raises about student-faculty contact. Remtulla described how he approached Nobel laureate Paul Berg -- and soon was doing research in his chemistry lab. "While working for Paul, I realized how few undergraduates . . . had the chance to interact with top-level faculty," Remtulla wrote.

That observation struck a chord for many of us who remember large lecture classes with sections run by teaching assistants. If that sounds familiar, look at this year's catalog listing 175 freshman and sophomore seminars. It makes me want to start all over.

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