1997 WASC Proposal

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This page contains the 1997 Proposal to WASC for a topics-based review. --Murray 13:12, 25 March 2006 (PST) (updated 28 Mar to include entire proposal)

I. Introduction

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) proposes to submit a topics-based review in preparation for the reaccreditation team visit scheduled fro 10-13 March 1998. The review will cover three special topics and will also include a Data Portfolio of documents and data relevant to reaccreditation. The three topics proposed for study are:

  1. The Honor Code and Its Effect on Student Life and Students' Lives
  2. Undergraduate Research and Its Relation to Undergraduate Education
  3. Graduate education

In addition there will be a description of the evolution and status of the new Core Curriculum, and a Data Portfolio will be prepared, guided by the spirit and intent of the nine accreditation standards described in the WASC Handbook of Accredditation.

This proposal is organized as follows: Section II presents a description of each of the three topics, explaining why each is both timely and important to Caltech. These descriptions will form part of the charges to the committees that will be appointed to study these topics. Section III discusses the methods to be used in preparing gthe committee reports and assembling and diffusing the review before submission to WASC, and Section IV is a timeline for preparation of the review and the team visit.

II. Topics

1. The Honor Code and Its Effects on Student Life and Students' Lives

Each year, approximately 215 of the best science and engineering prospects in the nation enter Caltech to begin thier undergraduate educations. Even before they start classes, they are taken on a retreat at a location remote from the campus to learn the essential principles of life at Caltech. Formeost among these is the Honor Code.

The Honor Code has profound influence on the way education is carried out at Caltehc. Fr example, proctored, in-class examinations are virtually nonexistent. The primary tenet of the Honor Code is that no member of the Caltech commmunity shall take unfair advantage of another. Alleged violations of the Honor Code are brought before a studen-elected body called the Board of Control for adjudication and disposition. Typically, one or two students per year leave Caltech as a consequence of actions taken by the Board of Control. There is general agreement that the Honor Code fosters mutual trust and confidence amoung students and faculty, and that it serves Caltech well.

Nevertheless, there are reasons for concern. The proceedings of the Board of Control are held in secret and have resulted in recent years in a number of decisions that have dismayed some faculty members. A few faculty members, after unsatisfactory experiences, have indicated that they might not be willing to refer future apparent violoations to the Board. Such a development is worrisome. If it were to become widespread the system would break down. The Institute also incurs legal liabilities if members of the faculty fail to honor its published rules. Morevover, some faculty members are concerned tha tthe secret judicial proceedings of the Board of Control are not compatible with the ideals of the larger society our studnets must eventually enter.

For these reasons, the Honor Code and all of its consequences are in need of careful study.

2. Undergraduate Research and Its Relation to Undergraduate Education

The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program has become an important part of Caltech's undergraduate education, but it is not part of the curriculum, and it is administered in a way that owes more to history than planning.

Students who wish to participate collaborate with a faculty sponsor to prepare a proppsal for a research project that may be completed in 10 weeks of summer work. The proposals are read by a committee of faculty members, and those approved (about 80%) are awarded a stipend (currently $4,000). During the 10-week summer period, activities and seminars are organized for the benefit of the participants. Roughly 200 students participate each summer. The results of the projects are reported by the students to their peers and other observers in a public forum patteened after a scientific meeting. About half of all Caltech students and 70% of those who graduate with honors do at least one SURF project during their undergraduate careers, and about 20% wind up as authors of papers published in the open scientific literature. Recently SURF has started publishing its own scientific journal. The SURF program is widely admired and imitated in other institutions.

Although many, perhaps most, Caltech faculty members participate in SURF as mentors or commiteee members, the program is not run under the supervision of the Faculty (which does supervise all matters having to do with curriculum). Instead it has an external Board (largely donors) and an Advisory Committee (largely faculty). Caltech provides salary and office support for its small staff (perhaps 2 FTE's-the office has some other responsibilities as well as SURF), but the staff raises the funds needed to pay the stipends (roughly $900,000 per year).

Over the years, a number of issues have arisen with regard to the SURF program. Should the Faculty as a body play a more active role in supervising the program? The faculty seem decisively opposed to allowing academic credit to be awarded for SURF projects (tehre is a strict rule against getting paid and getting credit for the same activity but there may be other academic connections, including a possible involvement in a scientific communication componnent of the new Core Curriculum. Is it wise to allow what has become so important a part of the Caltech education to be dependent on the fund-raising skills of the program's Director? There are a number of innovations, either existing or under consideration that broaden the scope of SURF (off-campus SURFs, industrial SURFs, entrepreneurial SURFs, SURFs abroad, minority students from other institutions doing SURFs, and so on). Is it sufficient to allow the present govering structure to decide which and how many of these ideas to pursue?

In addition to SURF, CAltech undergraduates may particiapte in research for academic credit, may do research theses in some options (majors), or may simply be hired to work in a laboratory. The purpose of this committee is to examine all aspects of the role of research in the Caltech undergraduate education.

3. Graduate Education

Graduate education in science, mathematics and engineering has become the subject of an intense national debate. Reports have been issued recently by the National Academies, the National Science Foundation, and others, and there have been many articles in journals, newspapers and maganzines, exchanges via the internet and so on. The factor motivating these debates is primarily the scarcity of suitable jobs for Ph.D. graduates in many fields. The central issues in this debate include:

  • Are we producing too many Ph.D.'s, and if so what ought we do about it?
  • What is the effect on this situation of international graduate students (about half of all U.S. graduate students in this fields are from abroad)?
  • Should the nature of Ph.D. education be altered in some fundamental way to meet the demands of the job marketplace?
  • What is the role of temporary academic postdoctoral appointments?
  • All of these issues resonate at Caltech, but sometimes in special ways not equal to the national situation. Moreover, there is an increasing tendency on the part of federal agencies to try to avoid paying the full cost of the research they support, particularly the tuition of graduate students working as Graduate Research Asssitants. This is a special problem for a private institution like Caltech, heavily dependent on federal research support.

Graduate education at Caltech needs to be studied in light of these developments. In some fields, a shift from graduate education to postdocotral scholars might be generally beneficial, while in others there might be abundant applicants and vigorous demand for graduates. It may be that in some cases, broadening the basic Ph.D. education, to include, say, courses in business and economics might be useful. Possibly, a new kind of degree at the masters level might be fruitful. On the other hand, it may just be the case that the kind and numbmers of Ph.D.'s that Caltech turns out is so critical to the future of the scientific enterprises, that any tampering at all would be profoundly unwise, and ways must be sought to preserve our Graduate Education just as it is.

All of these issues are in need of thorough examiniation.

III. Methods

Committees will be appointed to study each of the three topics, and a task force will be formed to assembly the Data Portfolio. Each of these groups will be chaired by a senior faculty member or administrator, and will include as deemed appropriate faculty members, students, staff, postdoctoral scholars, and alumni.

Both the composition and the working methods of each committee and the task force will be decided by the Accreditation Liaison Officer and the chair of that group, in consultation with the relevant standing committeees of the faculty, and deliberative bodies of the faculty and the Administration.

Each of the four groups will go through three stages of preparation before a draft review is presented to WASC: Information gathering, deliberation and writing of a report or assembly of a portfolio, and presentation of the report or portfolio to the faculty and Administration.

The information-gathering stage typically will involve one-on-one interviews of group members with relevant members of the Caltech community, interviews of individuals or groups of individuals with the entire committee or task force, and if appropriate, fact-finding missions to other institutions. The committees and task force will be provided with clerical support as needed.

When reports have been drafted to the satisfaction of the committeees, the reports and the data portfoio will be presented to the Faculty Board (an elected body that meets monthly) and the Institute Administration Council (a committee of senior administrators that meets monthly) for consideration and deliberation before being assembled for submission to WASC. The final review will be assembled, completed and edited by the Accreditation Liaison Officer in consultation with the chairs of the committees and the task force.

IV. Timeline

January 31, 1997: This proposal is submitted to WASC. All three committees and the task force should be appointed by this date.

June 15, 1997: Information-gathering phase complete.

Summery 1997: Drafting of portions of committee reports by individual committee members.

September/October 1997: Deliberation and final drafting of reports and data portfolio.

November 1997: Draft reports and data portfolio submitted to Faculty Board and Institute Administrative Council.

December 1997: Draft Acreditation Review submitted to WASC.

March 10-13, 1998: Reaccreditation team visit to Caltech