'Incredibly Painful' Year at Mudd Ends With Plans to Address Curriculum

In the wake of recent protests, sit-ins, walkouts, rallies, and community meetings at Harvey Mudd College, the school released an external evaluation of its core curriculum April 6.

The curriculum evaluation provides an outside perspective on recent student demands and protests, sparked by the leaked Wabash Report, which included anonymous faculty and student quotes criticizing HMC's burdensome curriculum.

The core curriculum review, conducted by Cassandra Horii and Jennifer Weaver of the California Institute of Technology’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach, includes the results of conversations with 40 faculty, 27 students, and five alumni, and discovered both the strengths of the core and the areas that require improvement.

“We wish to strongly emphasize in closing how very unique and important HMC’s core is, and how many outstanding benefits it confers to students, faculty and the institution as a whole,” the researchers wrote. “From the summer after their first year through their post-graduate experiences, current and former students gain a remarkable set of scientific, mathematical and engineering skills and ways of thinking, which they apply with innovation across their careers.”

Similar to the results of the Wabash Report, students surveyed in the core evaluation reported feeling overwhelmed and lacking adequate time to take care of themselves.

“While faculty value students’ mental health and well-being and realize that they are overworked, each department seems unwilling to reduce hours and/or homework to accommodate the mental health goal,” the researchers wrote.

Students suggested reducing “overloading, overworking and overwhelm,” and wanted “room for mental health and non-tech electives.”

Increased mental health support and funding has become a common theme across the 5Cs in recent months, from demands made by Scripps College resident advisors to complaints with the 5C Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services program. At HMC, a popular health and wellness dean was placed on paid administrative leave over what was described as a deteriorating relationship with Monsour.

HMC has shown willingness to compromise, however. After a student sit-in demanding more mental health funding, Dean of Students Jon Jacobsen promised a proposal to increase mental health funding, and President Maria Klawe dedicated $1,500 to each student diversity group. The college also canceled class April 17 and 18.

According to Klawe, Harvey Mudd implemented this slate of changes  “to ensure that additional support is in place for the students’ health and well-being — as well as for their academic success — and that this support is adequate and accessible for the remainder of the semester and through the 2017-18 academic year.”

The core curriculum evaluation was distributed to students, who had the chance to weigh in during a community forum Monday. As a result of discussions at that forum, HMC created a website dedicated to “information related to health, wellness, diversity and inclusion, and the Core Curriculum review,” according to Chief Communications Officer Tim Hussey.

Students believe that the evaluation, especially the student comments, provided valuable information for the HMC community.

“By the reactions of many of the students, it is clear that the curriculum isn't the best for some," Priyanka Agarwal HM '20 wrote in a message to TSL. "Of course, this may not be the case for all students, but if it is still problematic for some students that's still an issue."

HMC Dean of the Faculty Jeff Groves said the evaluation was meant to inform the college in preparation for next year’s curriculum review.

“The consultants wrote, in my opinion, a very useful report that will help us to move through a successful program review next year,” Groves wrote in an email to TSL.

Groves said he is sure the review will address staff and diversity, two areas the evaluation singled out as “charged” issues on campus.

The researchers noted that faculty seem to be overstretched.

“If not addressed, growth and staffing concerns may lie just beneath the surface in conversations about Core and other aspects of curriculum; if these concerns can be allayed or clarified, it may facilitate more productive conversation and action,” the researchers wrote.

Some students believe the administration has responded well to concerns raised by the core curriculum report and student activists.

“I am consistently amazed by the receptiveness of the administration to student concerns,” Carla Becker HM ‘18 wrote. “At pretty much any other college, these concerns would be ignored, the demonstrations would be forgotten, there would not be follow up forums, budget information would not be released, the workload would not be adjusted in an effort to take a breather from everything happening, and the words ‘shared’ and 'governance' would never appear together.”

Others, however, believe that the administration has made mistakes in its responses to students.

“Not providing transparency into the Dean Q fiasco was a mistake," Radon Rosborough HM '20 wrote, referring to the dean placed on administrative leave.

"President Klawe failed to be as direct as was necessary during the first forum," he added, noting that the situation was mitigated somewhat by an explanation from Groves.

According to Klawe, the administration will continue discussions with faculty and students, evaluate the changes that have been put in place so far, and analyze what modifications are necessary in other areas.

“We are committed to examining changes to curriculum, resources, culture, and other elements of our community that will strengthen learning outcomes and health and well-being for all students while supporting our faculty and staff,” Klawe wrote.

Students would like to see additional changes. Agarwal believes the core curriculum must account for student needs and follow HMC's mission statement.

“I think the curriculum needs to find a balance between addressing the needs of the students and fulfilling the mission statement, which is to make students well versed in all areas of STEM,” Agarwal wrote.

Becker proposed increased flexibility for deadlines.

“We already implement [flexible deadlines] in the form of take home exams, where there is a not-unreasonably-long window of time in which the assignment can be completed," Becker wrote. "This allows students to plan around their schedule, but at the same time is not too lenient."

Rosborough thinks HMC needs to collect more data on the core curriculum and student workload, increase transparency on diversity issues, and provide additional administration funds to mental health.

“There needs to be a culture that does not look favorably on sacrificing sleep and health to complete problem sets, and that values the humanities and social sciences as highly as STEM classes," he wrote. "These changes come from all fronts, not just the administration."

Klawe wrote that the past year has been "incredibly painful" for the school.

"But as we refocus on helping each other," she wrote, "I am confident we will come through this together and be better able to address the challenges we will face in the future."