From The Faculty Chair
A Guide to Proposing, Revising,
and Terminating Curricula
At MIT, our shared governance system means that the faculty play an important role in setting educational policy. Overall, the role of the Institute-wide standing faculty committees is to work with proposers and the administration to ensure the continued strength of our educational programs. The role of the Faculty Chair is to facilitate collaboration and dialogue, particularly at the level of degree programs.
The committees usually see multiple proposals for major curricular changes each year, and try to ensure such proposals reflect common standards. While committees attempt to expedite the process as much as possible, the common experience is that significant curricular changes, such as a new degree program or minor, can take several months to move through the system. Thus, as part of normal planning for a new academic year, the committees request that proposals for new programs or for significant changes to existing programs be submitted for review as soon as possible during the fall term. (The committees will start working on proposals for 2016–17 during the Fall 2015 term.)
As former chair of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program and now Faculty Chair, I have seen the ways that this impedance mismatch (to borrow an engineering term) between proposers and the governance system can be surprising and frustrating to proposers. One aspect that can surprise proposers who are engaging in the process for the first time is its iterative nature. There is a natural tension between the role of governance to apply past experience as part of a careful vetting, and the forward-looking evolution of our curriculum.
Because our system brings together faculty from different parts of the Institute and sees proposals from all units, committee review is intended to provide a broad, Institute-wide perspective. In many cases, committees will raise questions based on comparative experience, and in fact, it is unusual for committees to approve a proposal at the meeting in which it is first presented.
For proposals that must be voted on at a faculty meeting, committees also want to help proposers resolve issues that might otherwise put the proposal at risk of a negative vote.
Below, I briefly describe the processes for the approval of curricular changes. All of the processes have defined timelines to help ensure that proposals can be fully vetted and made effective at the requested time. Except for individual subjects, it is difficult to approve proposals initiated in the spring in time for the following academic year.
In reviewing proposals, committees look for several core elements, such as educational rationale and student demand. In the case of minors and degree programs, sustainability, oversight, and resources are equally important considerations. In all cases, the committees expect that proposals have been discussed with and approved by both the sponsoring departmental and School bodies, as well as any department or School on which the program will depend for continuing support.
Subjects are the building blocks of the curriculum, and any significant proposal will require approval of any new subjects required for the program.
The faculty has authorized the Committee on Curricula (CoC) to act with power on proposals to create, revise, and eliminate undergraduate subjects, including freshman advising seminars, ROTC subjects, and for-credit IAP offerings. The Committee also reviews proposals for subjects that may be used to satisfy General Institute Requirements (GIRs), and acts with power concerning subjects that satisfy the Restricted Electives in Science and Technology Requirement (REST) and the Laboratory Requirement within the General Institute Requirements.
Depending on the type of subject, proposals may be reviewed by other committees. Any proposals that involve significant changes to undergraduate educational policy, particularly related to the GIRs, will be referred to the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP). Proposals to add or delete Science Core subjects require approval of the full faculty. Prior to final review by the CoC, the standing subcommittees on the HASS Requirement and Communication Requirement review proposals for subjects that will satisfy the HASS Requirement, or that will receive a Communication Intensive (CI-M, CI-H, or CI-HW) designation.
Jurisdiction for proposals to create, revise, or eliminate graduate subjects sits with the Committee on Graduate Programs (CGP). The Committee works with CoC to review proposals for undergraduate subjects that meet with graduate versions.
Two points of clarification are noteworthy. First, departments may develop and offer special subjects at any time without CoC or CGP review; however, the CoC must approve any such proposals for which either GIR or degree credit is to be awarded. Second, in terms of changes to existing subjects, either CoC or CGP must approve changes to units, title, description, status, enrollment limitations, equivalency relationships (including joint and meets-with subjects), and special grading policies.
Additional information about the subject review process, including the general timeframe for review and how the committees are addressing the use of digital content, is available on the Registrar’s Website.
Currently, departmental exchanges for undergraduate students are routed through CoC. Depending on curricular content and impact on the general educational program, CUP and the standing subcommittees may also be involved. The Office of the Provost should be consulted early in the process and plays a role in final review. While such proposals are relatively rare even within the committee system, they tend to raise unique, cross-cutting considerations. The normal deadline for submitting such proposals is the first week in December.
Minors were first established in HASS areas in 1987 and expanded to other areas in 1992. There are now three types: departmental minors (reviewed by CoC), HASS minors (reviewed by CoC and SHASS), and interdisciplinary minors (reviewed by CoC and CUP). All consist of 5–7 subjects, with the objective of providing a depth of understanding in an area outside of a student's major.
In reviewing minors, the committees look for cohesiveness, solid governance and advising, and evidence of interdisciplinarity (where appropriate). They will consider dependencies or overlap with other programs, with the expectation that appropriate consultations have taken place. Committees will look at compliance with existing policy and rules and, of course, focus extensively on curriculum. In most cases, committees will prefer to see that a good portion of subjects have been offered successfully in the past.
Again, the typical starting point for review of minors is CoC. A proposal template and full guidelines are available through the CoC Website.
Changes to undergraduate majors may be proposed to, and authorized by, CoC; graduate proposals go through CGP. Depending on the scope of changes, committees may request that the procedures for new degrees be followed.
The same paths apply to proposals to terminate existing curricula. In this case, the committees look to ensure that currently enrolled students can complete their requirements and that reasonable notice is given to other departments whose curriculum may be impacted.
By far the most comprehensive review processes are reserved for new degree programs. The mechanisms for reviewing new programs are based in guidelines for the approval of undergraduate degree programs, which were presented to the faculty in May 2003.
The typical path for undergraduate proposals begins with a review of the communication component of the proposed program, after which it runs through the Committee on Curricula, the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, and the Faculty Policy Committee. Graduate proposals begin in CGP, then move to the Faculty Policy Committee. Templates are available through CoC and CGP; the undergraduate template and instructions are also available on the Faculty Resources Website.
All proposals are reported to the Provost and Academic Council. The final step is to seek the approval of the faculty. This typically involves presentations at two consecutive Institute faculty meetings, the first to introduce a motion to create the program, and the second to vote on the issue.
Both undergraduate and graduate programs require an outline of the curriculum, including required and optional subjects. Undergraduate degree proposals require thoughtful roadmaps for how students might enter the curriculum at different points in their educational careers.
Degree proposals can also raise bigger questions. For undergraduate proposals, it is important to consider how a new program will fit in the overall array of degree programs. Given the essentially fixed size of the undergraduate body, the creation of a new program may draw students away from other programs. In some cases, new programs may have embedded resource requirements, such as special classroom facilities or additional Communication instruction. A new graduate program, on the other hand, has the potential to add to the overall campus population, impacting areas such as housing, student services, and funding for stipends.
Because new degree programs (especially graduate programs) can have significant impact on resources, whether a program is viable or not depends on resources available, and commitments made by the administration at the department, School, and Provost level. While faculty committees cannot make decisions about resource allocation, they are sensitive to the fact that the success of a new program depends on adequate resources, and therefore ask proposers to obtain letters from the appropriate administrators that delineate the resources that will be available.
The goal of the faculty committees is to help departments maintain and initiate strong academic programs for our students. My hope is that this brief guide will be helpful to units contemplating new proposals. As always, please feel free to contact me or the other faculty officers with questions.