Gen Ed Transition Plans Take Shape

The 29-year reign of Harvard’s Core Curriculum is coming to a close—just how and when will likely become clear by winter’s end.

The group of professors and students charged with plotting the transition to a new general education program is moving toward a plan that could eliminate Core requirements for the current freshman class and possibly for sophomores as well.

By the start of the spring semester, undergraduates may know which Core courses will count toward the new general education requirements, which were approved last spring with the goal of emphasizing the real-world applications of a liberal arts education.

Jay M. Harris, the chair of the committee, said that the group hopes to bring freshmen under the new requirements, but that requirements for sophomores are a “big question mark.” He said juniors and seniors “are just going to have to finish under what we hope is an open and expanded Core.” The College hopes to offer several Gen Ed courses in time to count toward Core requirements for juniors, he said.

“I don’t think we can keep the Core as is alive until 2011,” Harris said.

Harris’ committee is exploring two possible ways of implementing the new Gen Ed program. A “hard” transition would simply end the Core for all students, probably starting in September 2009. A more gradual or “soft” transition would allow students in eligible classes to choose whether to graduate under the old or new system.

Under the hard transition, a student who had already taken four of the seven required Core courses would only have to take three Gen Ed courses.

“If you did a hard transition, then you owe it to every student to say that they get credit for every Core that they took,” Harris said.

At its second meeting yesterday, the committee used anonymous course transcripts to examine the effects of an abrupt curricular switch.

After the exercise, “there were several people who began to doubt the wisdom and feasibility of a hard transition,” according to Assistant Dean of the College Stephanie H. Kenen.

In a “soft” transition, Gen Ed and the Core would co-exist for an adjustment period, and students could decide whether to stay under the Core or adopt the Gen Ed requirements instead.

The difficulty of fitting Core courses into Gen Ed categories stands chief among the committee’s concerns, since many students could be forced to scramble at the last minute to fulfill new requirements.

Students who chose to switch to Gen Ed, Harris said, would not be guaranteed Gen Ed credit for the Core courses they had taken.

A third option, to retain the current requirements for all classes that entered under the Core, has no support on the committee, Harris added.

According to University lawyers consulted by the committee, Harvard has no contractual obligation to let students graduate with the program of study under which they entered, Harris said.

“We feel that morally, you can’t add to, as opposed to change, the requirements of students already here,” Harris said.

The committee’s goal, which Harris says is an ambitious one, is to choose the implementation plan in time for a vote by professors before the start of the spring shopping period in February.

By that time, the committee also hopes to have at least a partial list of Core courses that will count for Gen Ed credit, Harris said.

Using the guidelines set by the Gen Ed legislation passed in May, the committee has full discretion to decide which Core courses will make the cut under Gen Ed.

The committee is also actively working to recruit departmental and newly created courses for each of the eight Gen Ed required categories: “Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding,” “Culture and Belief,” “Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning,” “Ethical Reasoning,” “Science of Living Systems,” “Science of the Physical Universe,” “Societies of the World,” and “The United States and the World.”

Harris and Dean of the Faculty Michael D. Smith chose the nine faculty members on the 14-member committee from a list of more than 150 names recommended by professors.

The Undergraduate Council selected three student representatives, and Harris said he requested that the group contain at least one international student and at least one student benefiting from the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative.

The faculty members are Indo-Muslim languages and cultures professor Ali S. Asani ’77, Slavic languages and literature professor Julie A. Buckler, former provost and political economy professor Jerry R. Green, philosophy professor Edward J. Hall, history professor Evelyn B. Higginbotham, government professor Jennifer L. Hochschild, natural history professor Andrew H. Knoll, molecular genetics professor Andrew W. Murray, and engineering and applied mathematics professor Howard A. Stone.

The student members of the committee are John M. Sheffield II ’09, Alexander “Zander” N. Li ’08, and Alex N. Chase-Levenson ’08.

—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at lbeckett@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Johannah S. Cornblatt can be reached at jcornbl@fas.harvard.edu.