APR. 13, 2018 9 min read

Three-Group System to Take Effect Fall 2019

In a faculty meeting on Monday, April 9, faculty voted to replace Reed’s 30-year-old group requirement system with a new three-group system. Championed primarily by mathematics and STEM faculty, the replacement is the product of years of discussion addressing shortcomings in the current five-group system. The three-group system will come into effect in the fall of 2019, at which point incoming students will be required to adhere to the new system, while continuing students will be allowed to choose which system of group requirements that they want to satisfy.

Most notably, group X has been removed completely, and group D, the awkward marriage of math and languages, has been dispersed into other groups. Roughly, the three groups consist of languages and literature, social sciences, and hard sciences. The first, Group 1, in addition to foreign languages and literature, includes dance, theater, art, philosophy, and English, and includes, for the first time, creative writing, thanks to a last-minute proposal from Pete Rock. Group 2 includes anthropology, classics, economics, history, humanities, linguistics, political science, religion, and sociology. Finally, Group 3 brings together math, the lab sciences, and, as another notable first, psychology as a lab science. Students are required to take three units of each group, with two of the three in a single discipline. A few minor changes remain to be addressed by the Committee on Academic Planning and Policy (CAPP).

In the faculty meeting on Monday, Vollum Lounge was packed, discussion abounded, and opinions were divided. Kara Cerveny of the biology department introduced the proposal and presented her points in favor, following up from a previous meeting. Following this, Zhenya Bershtein of the Russian department read a statement against the three-group system, arguing that it strongly disfavored the language departments. President John Kroger opened up the floor for discussion and amendment proposals. Over an hour later, the group still had not agreed to vote, and amiability was dwindling. One attendant commented that the current group requirement system had not been delivered “by Moses.” Just vote already! seemed to be the overarching feeling of the room.    

Kara Cerveny, Angelica Osorno, Kyle Ormsby, Andrew Bray, and Adam Groce were the faculty members spearheading the three-group proposal. According to Cerveny, CAPP originally brought up a proposal to shift group requirements four years ago. “The faculty as a whole at some point had said we need to look at these distribution requirements, they don’t really jive with our students and the breadth and depth we expect from the curriculum,” she said. But after extensive discussions, the committee decided to stick with the status quo. In the fall of 2017, the new CAPP hosted a series of listening sessions and drafted a four-group proposal which had Groups 1, 2, and 3 resembling the current system, and Group 4 combining together languages and linguistics. “During those discussions last fall it became very clear, at least to a subset of us, that what CAPP was proposing didn’t seem viable. When that first CAPP solicited input about what we wanted out of distribution requirements, we got together and put together a proposal in January informally,” said Cerveny. That proposal, with some amendments, was passed on Monday. Cerveny took the lead, in part because, as she said, “I had just gotten tenure so I felt like I could stand up and not get any pushback … I’m not gonna lose my job.”   

Mathematics professor Andrew Bray noted, “the original objective was to encourage breadth of study by finding three groupings of departments that were as internally consistent as possible.” Bray attributed the switch in group of the psychology department to a shift in focus on observational to experimental data, saying, “Even this move isn’t perfectly consistent.”

While implications and consequences of the new system will be nuanced and largely unpredictable, faculty opinion toward the proposal has been roughly split along disciplinary lines. Of the five faculty members spearheading the proposal, all are from STEM departments with three from mathematics (Osorno, Ormsby, and Bray), one from computer science (Groce) and one from biology (Cerveny). Cerveny said her major motivation for reform had been that Group D seemed like an “odd pairing that to me didn’t make pedagogical sense.” She hopes the new system will encourage greater flexibility and “encourage students to broaden their horizons,” although she also acknowledges that “there are certainly going to be bumps in the road as we think precisely about what it means for all the different majors.”

    Many language and humanities faculty voiced concerns about the three-group system. Their opposition was reflected in their questioning of the size and coherence of Group 1 (languages, literature, arts, philosophy), and their concerns about the three-group system pandering to a nationwide trend favoring STEM fields at the cost of disciplines in the humanities. “Moving the language courses into the enormous and variegated Group 1 would discourage the freshman enrollment in the language classes,” said Bershtein in his introductory statement. Bershtein also posited that adding an additional unit of Group 3 (mathematics and sciences) would escalate existing enrollment pressures on introductory courses in biology and psychology. Nathalia King of the English department agreed, speaking out strongly against the lack of sustainability of the new system, stressing the lack of representation for interdisciplinary measures.

“My impression is that there is almost a consensus in my division that the new requirements will further marginalize languages and literature by encouraging further reduction in enrollment,” said Bershtein in a later interview. “One would think that what would happen is that our educational trend goes rather dramatically in the direction of absolute domination by STEM and sciences, but that the academic policies would work to preserve literature and humanities. On the one hand there is this huge wave that threatens the existence of languages and literature as subjects, on the other hand instead of taking measures to preserve that … this will worsen this situation. That’s the worry.”

Meanwhile, linguistics professor Sameer Khan commented that even the linguistics department, which has traditionally found group requirements difficult to navigate, favored the proposal, and Kambiz GhaneaBassiri in Religion expressed the opinion that the three-units-per-group model would allow students more time to explore before getting locked in on a subdiscipline.

The Student Committee on Academic Planning and Policy (SCAPP), which is open to the public and meets on Mondays at 8:00 p.m. in PAB 131, came to a consensus in favor of the three-group system. Aditya Hariharan, SCAPP co-chair, noted, “A lot of us liked it but had reservations, and we had spoken to a lot of different faculty members and CAPP. We formed a consensus through a lot of sessions of discussion” In an April 3 memorandum to the faculty, SCAPP summarized their arguments as follows:

“We feel that the increased flexibility offers students more diverse educational opportunities in the sense that: (1) it allows students to pursue a greater breadth of subjects within each group requirement; (2) it presents requirements in a more straightforward manner that is intuitive for both students and advisors; (3) it encourages students to take sciences at Reed rather than at Portland State University and other colleges/universities; (4) and finally, it emphasizes quantitative learning, a set of skills that keep opportunities open for students regardless of their discipline and future plans after Reed.”

The memorandum was mentioned only briefly at Monday’s faculty meeting. Nevertheless, it did seem to have an effect. “The SCAPP memo was also a big boon for us. It was gratifying to see that the students agreed at least about the principle that we were proposing,” said Cerveny. Bershtein, on the other hand, commented that he thought SCAPP didn’t fully understand what the proposal was trying to do, noting that the stress on equity of introductory sciences was not relevant.

In the memorandum, SCAPP referred to a survey in which 51 percent of respondents felt that Reed’s introductory science courses were not accessible to non-STEM majors. Second-year SCAPP co chair, Gio Ramirez added, “One of the things I thought we made very clear is that it expands your options for Group C, which I firmly believe makes it more accessible, because students might like psychology or like math more … We would be incentivising more students to take science courses at Reed.”
    As to the problem regarding the marginalization of literature and language, Hariharan said, “One of the most important points in our memo … was that no system is perfect, there will always be problems, and it’s a matter of compromise. In our perspective, it’s a con that languages might face decreasing enrollment, but we found that the increased flexibility that the group requirements provide offsets that and is a stronger positive.”

Long-term effects of enrollment, staffing shifts, and hiring are as of yet unpredictable, and intertwined with other institutional trends such as escalating major requirements. As Andrew Bray noted, in terms of staffing, Group 3 — math, sciences, and psychology — would be the largest in the new system, followed by Group 1, and lastly Group 2. “As it stands, each group should have sufficient staffing to offer enough courses. Predicting how enrollment will shift under this new structure is really difficult, but this is something the college will be keeping an eye on this in the coming years,” noted Bray. Creative writing professor Pete Rock proclaimed strong ambivalence towards new group requirements. “I hope that the new requirements do, as they propose to, allow students more flexibility and choice, especially early in their time at Reed. This — I know, from many years of advising — would be welcome,” Rock said. “The effects of these changes on enrollments really can’t be foreseen, but I suspect that in time shifts in demand will be seen as occasion for reallocating FTEs across departments. That will not likely be harmonious.”

Regardless of disagreements concerning the details of the proposal, most attendants at Monday’s faculty meeting seemed to agree that, after 30 years of stagnation, change was at least necessary.

A last-minute attempt by Bershtein to move an amendment to transfer philosophy from Group 1 to Group 2 was overwhelmingly shot down, and after a few minutes of chaos, the ballots were cast: 65 yes, 26 no, 6 abstain.

“I was surprised that it passed. I was very happy that it passed but also a little bit shocked, especially that it passed with such a margin,” said Cerveny.

While the new system won’t come into effect until Fall 2019, it certainly could influence how many current freshmen and sophomores select courses in the coming academic year.