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Faculty Debates Proposals to Implement Data Requirement, Establish Biotech Degree

Faculty enter University Hall for a meeting in March 2018.
Faculty enter University Hall for a meeting in March 2018. By Karina G. Gonzalez-Espinoza
By Jonah S. Berger and Molly C. McCafferty, Crimson Staff Writers

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences debated proposals to implement a new data requirement for the General Education program, establish a new biotechnology degree, and study course registration changes at its monthly meeting Tuesday.

The new Quantitative Reasoning with Data requirement would replace the current Gen Ed requirement in Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning, which students can fulfill using classes that cover statistics, probability, mathematics, logic, or decision theory.

To complete the proposed requirement, students must take a course “involving mathematical, statistical, and computational methods that will enable them to think critically about data,” Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda Claybaugh said at the meeting. Though Claybaugh declined to provide specific courses that would fulfill the requirement, she said courses that engage with data in any department could count, citing Economics, Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science as examples.

The proposal comes as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences transitions to a new General Education program slated to start in the fall after a 2015 committee found that the current system is “failing on a variety of fronts.”

Faculty members debated the underlying philosophy of the proposed requirement, with some arguing that it privileges classes focused on data analysis or applied science over classes that teach basic science or logical reasoning.

"I would like to argue for a broad, inclusive requirement in quantitative reasoning per se, that would include the data-driven courses the committee has identified, that would affirm the value of basic science, and that would leave Harvard nimble enough to adapt to changing issues in science and society,” Mathematics Department Chair Curtis T. McMullen said.

Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs praised the proposal in response, saying he believes many undergraduates are “deficient” in data analysis skills — a problem he said he finds unacceptable, especially among students in the sciences.

“I have students that don’t have the capacity to fit data to a line,” Stubbs said.

The faculty also debated a proposal to establish a biotechnology master’s degree program that would be jointly overseen by the Business School and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology Professor Mark Fishman, who co-sponsored the legislation, said just 15 years ago, virtually none of his students were interested in biotechnology, but in recent years, he believes a clear majority are considering such a career.

“It’s becoming a tremendous emphasis by the students,” he said. “As an institution, we should be training the leaders of these biotech companies.”

Though Fishman said the proposed degree program would incorporate an ethical component, Medical Anthropology Professor Arthur Kleinman asked for further assurances that the “unintended consequences” of medicine would be highlighted in the curriculum.

“I want to be sure that in an undertaking like this, we give students the broadest possible understanding of their work for society in general,” he said.

The Faculty also debated legislation that would establish a new committee to explore methods to better predict course enrollment and coordinate class lotteries. The committee would have until spring 2022 to decide whether eliminating shopping week — the week-long period at the beginning of each semester during which students can explore courses before enrolling — is the only way to fix problems that plague the current system.

Some faculty members at Tuesday’s meeting said the hesitancy to eliminate shopping week sidestepped what they saw as its serious flaws, including a lack of instruction during the first week, uncertainty for graduate students, and some students’ tendency to use the time to seek out light-workload classes.

“Shopping week is shaped not only by students’ curiosity but… also other factors that we would do well to curtail,” Professor of German Art and Culture Jeffrey F. Hamburger said. “There are students who use it cynically to find the path of least resistance.”

Before the Faculty discussed the three pieces of legislation, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 updated the Faculty on Harvard’s negotiations with its student union. He said the committee has spent more than 60 hours at the bargaining table with Harvard Graduate Students Union — United Automobile Workers, but he noted the two sides “are not near to an end just yet,” urging patience during the months-long negotiation process.

Faculty will vote on the biotechnology degree, Quantitative Reasoning with Data requirement, and course registration proposals at its next meeting in May.

—Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at jonah.berger@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at molly.mccafferty@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mollmccaff.

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