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Core curriculum changes discussed at faculty meeting

The faculty heard an update from the committee charged with refining new proposals for MIT's core curriculum at the Feb. 20 faculty meeting.

Robert Redwine, professor of physics, and Charles Stewart, professor of political science, presented a status report from the Educational Subcommittee of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, which they co-chair.

The subcommittee is reviewing and refining core curriculum changes proposed by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons in October 2006.

Later this semester, the subcommittee plans to present its full recommendations to the faculty. The final version of the recommendations will likely be slightly different from what the task force originally proposed, according to Stewart and Redwine.

Revisions are most likely to occur in the task force's proposed changes to the General Institute Requirements (GIRs).

The task force recommended that students take eight required subjects in their first year. Three of these would continue to be prescribed as they are now (single-variable calculus, multivariable calculus and classical mechanics). The remaining five would be selected from a small number of subjects organized into six categories: chemical sciences; computation and engineering; life sciences; mathematics; physical sciences; and project-based experiences. Students would have to take at least one course from five of these six categories.

After the task force made its proposal, some faculty expressed concern that the new freshman core curriculum would no longer prepare students for any major at MIT.

"The feedback was clear that the core content is critical for most of our departments," said Redwine.

The subcommittee wants to ensure that the GIRs continue to prepare students for any major, he said.

Another goal is to make the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences requirements more flexible than the original task force proposal, to allow first-year students time to study a foreign language or take music classes.

In other business, the Committee on the Undergraduate Program recommended making permanent the option for sophomores to take one "exploratory" course per semester. With the Sophomore Exploratory option, students can elect to convert from Grades to Listener status at any time before registration day of the following semester.

The exploratory option was originally introduced as a five-year experiment and is now in its fifth year. Dennis Freeman, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who presented the proposal, said that 25 percent to 30 percent of sophomores take an exploratory subject each term. Many of them use the option to explore a minor, a second bachelor's degree or a new major.

The exploratory option is well used and well valued by the students, said Freeman.

However, he noted that many students and their advisors seem to be unaware of the option or confused by it, so plans are in the works to better inform students about it.

The faculty will vote on the motion to make the option permanent at its next meeting.

Stephen Bell, a professor of biology and chair of the Committee on Graduate Programs, and Steven Lerman, dean for graduate students, reported on a proposed option for graduate students to take courses outside of their degree subject with a Pass/D/F grading system.

The option is designed to allow grad students to gain skills in fields related to their major, which will help them with their research, said Lerman. The grading option would only be allowed for classes outside the student's graduate program and Institute requirements, and the units for such courses would not count toward any degrees. In addition, use of this option could be further restricted by individual departments.

The motion will be presented for a vote at the next faculty meeting.

Theresa Stone, executive vice president and treasurer, and Seth Alexander, president of the MIT Investment Management Company, presented an overview of MIT's financial-planning framework and spending policy.

Stone said that MIT has closed a budget gap that required the use of unrestricted endowment funds in recent years. In 2007, the budget gap was $65 million, in 2008 it was $30 million and in 2009 the budget is projected to be balanced.

Alexander reported on a plan for MIT to adopt an endowment-spending rule that will reduce the variability in the annual flow of funds to the operating budget. He noted that the new plan incorporates the Institute's goal of targeting (approximately) a 5 percent spending rate over time to balance current and future needs, so that the endowment will retain its purchasing power to fund MIT's research.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 27, 2008 (download PDF).

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