The Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted yesterday to revamp the life sciences program and move concentration choice to the middle of sophomore year, capping a month of curricular reform and setting the stage for an uncertain debate on the future of the Core.
The extension of the concentration choice deadline, which will go into effect for next year’s freshmen, follows the secondary fields legislation approved two weeks ago in bringing the structure of the College curriculum more in line with Harvard’s peers.
Empty seats early in the session left some wondering whether the requisite one-sixth of the Faculty would show up to conduct a binding vote.
“It was close, there were a lot of people out of town,” Faculty Council Vice Chair Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said after the meeting.
But after a few professors trickled in late, the Faculty achieved a quorum and approved the legislation overwhelmingly by voice vote.
The first bill bars departments from restricting sophomore fall courses to would-be concentrators. But it allows them to declare certain courses as prerequisites for entering a concentration.
Social Studies, for instance, may leave its year-long sophomore tutorial in place, philosopher Warren Goldfarb said at the meeting. The first half of Social Studies 10 could become open to all students, but required of those who choose to declare Social Studies at the end of their sophomore fall.
Nevertheless, Goldfarb said the new legislation would take “pressure off the freshman year to free students from being concerned with minutiae of concentration requirements.”
Goldfarb, the head tutor in the philosophy department, presented the motion as a member of the curricular review’s Educational Policy Committee, which drafted the legislation.
The second motion approved by the Faculty yesterday creates a new “cluster” of five concentrations in the life sciences while setting the current biology concentration on the path to extinction.
Students will no longer be able to concentrate in biology. Instead, they will choose among four new concentrations—organismic and evolutionary biology, human evolutionary biology, neurobiology, and chemical and physical biology—as well as molecular and cellular biology, a renamed version of the current biochemical sciences concentration.
Current biology concentrators will be allowed to switch into one of the new concentrations if they can satisfy the requirements.
In explaining the need for the changes, Professor of Biological Anthropology Daniel E. Lieberman ’86, speaking on behalf of the Life Sciences Education Committee, said that “many of our concentrations are too large, too broad, and too confusing.”
Lieberman said that the new concentrations’ smaller size would “create an intimate, exciting environment with enhanced student-faculty contact.” And with more flexibility for students who want to count courses from other departments toward their concentration requirements, “it will be easier—not harder—for students to switch concentrations” under the new system.
After the meeting, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby said that the life sciences cluster—which will be administered by a range of departments, including chemistry and anthropology—provides a model for other areas to follow.
“What you see here is a decoupling of departmental structure with the curricular structure,” Kirby said.
Yesterday’s meeting was markedly less contentious than recent sessions, but it was not without a dash of drama.
Early on, University President Lawrence H. Summers interjected, “May I inquire if a quorum is present?”
The rules of Faculty procedure say that one-sixth of the Faculty—about 120—must be in attendance for a binding vote to be held.
Minutes later, an aide handed a sheet of paper—possibly attendance figures—to Secretary of the Faculty David B. Fithian. Two members of the docket committee that manages legislation hurried out of the meeting room.
Fithian did not respond to an e-mail last night seeking attendance figures. But Summers said during the meeting that a quorum had been reached.
“Usually there is a bigger crowd when there’s controversy, and it was pretty obvious there wasn’t going to be controversy today,” Ulrich, the 300th Anniversary University professor, said.
With secondary fields, concentration choice delay, and life science overhaul already approved, the Faculty will tackle a more explosive question: the reform of general education at the College.
The final report of the review’s Committee on General Education calls for the Core to be eliminated in favor of a broad set of distribution requirements.
The report has come under fire from some professors who see it as overly flexible and lacking a guiding vision.
Kirby, who chaired the Gen Ed committee, said he does not expect a vote on the report’s proposals at the two regular Faculty meetings remaining this semester, but hopes for a “serious discussion on General Education.”
Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 said the recent votes bode well for the future of the three-and-a-half year-old review. “A little movement gets the thing moving downhill,” he said.
—Staff writer Evan H. Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at email@example.com.