Mudd to revise Core Math curriculum: Two years after campus protests, first major change from review designed to decrease workload

Student's is pictured in foreground on laptop, while protests behind him demand curriculum reform.
A demonstration led by Black Lives and Allies at Mudd took place outside the Shanahan Center on March 30, 2017 in the wake of the leak of the Wabash Report. (Liam Brooks • The Student Life)

Two years after protests over high stress and excessive workloads rocked the Harvey Mudd College campus resulting in two days of canceled classes and promises to modify the school’s Core curriculum changes are beginning to emerge from the curriculum review process.

The incoming class of 2023 will be the first to experience the new pilot Core Math curriculum, according to the February update on the Core review process.

Mudd’s campus broke out in protests in March 2017 after TSL published a leaked report that included anonymous quotes from students and faculty criticizing the school’s curriculum, which was described so overwhelming that students didn’t have time to eat, shower or sleep.

Over the following weeks, Mudd students voiced their concerns to administrators in walkouts, rallies, sit-ins, town halls and meetings, and the school went into “crisis mode,” HMC President Maria Klawe told NPR.

Administrators and the board of trustees ultimately promised to add funding and resources for on-campus mental health and mentorship programs and planned a review of the Core curriculum.

Months after the tumult of the spring 2017 semester, Patrick Little, an engineering professor and chair of the faculty, told TSL that he expected the curriculum review would aim to make Mudd’s workload more manageable.

“Our intent is to … preserve those parts of the Core that the community believes are most important while at the same time addressing some serious shortcomings and defects that have already been identified,” Little said at the time.

In the ensuing period, the college has used grant money to contribute to diversity efforts and the core review, and hired more support staff in the student affairs office.

Mudd also conducted internal and external reports on the Core curriculum.

An internal report published in November 2017 concurred with the original leaked report, and said that the curriculum was excessively stressful and more strenuous than that of peer institutions.

An external report on the Core Curriculum commissioned by the college, published in December 2017, recommended restructuring Core “from the ground up” to effect persistent change.

The campus climate has cooled off significantly since the protests, Harry Fetsch HM ’20 said via message.

“I think it’s become more subdued, especially compared to spring 2017. Of course, students still care, but it feels like as a community we’re less close to a complete breakdown,” he said. “I don’t know if concerns have really been addressed or if they’re just less visible, but I certainly think the consensus has shifted away from the complaints about overwhelming workload that we heard two years ago.”

Since the upheaval, Mudd’s development of a new pilot math program is the first major change to the curriculum.

The current Core Math consists of six half-semester courses: “Calculus,” “Probability and Statistics,” “Introduction to Linear Algebra,” “Introduction to Differential Equations,” “Multivariable Calculus” and “Differential Equations and Linear Algebra II.”

The new Core Math removes “Probability and Statistics” and combines the remaining five half-semesters into three full-semester courses: “Calculus,” “Linear Algebra” and “Differential Equations.”

The new curriculum will be tested for a year and reviewed by faculty.

“Having three courses instead of six half-courses will … allow professors to tell a more cohesive and exciting story in each class,” said Francis Su, a math professor and member of the Core Review Committee. “We hope these changes will reduce compression in each course and allow more time for certain topics and show the joy and beauty of math.”

Su also said via email that the math department expects to develop the “Probability and Statistics” course into a full-course elective which will “also allow time to explore the ideas in depth.”

“Overall I’m happy with the core review process. The faculty have more experience than students possibly could, and the core review process ultimately belongs to them,” Fetsch said. “I think they’ve been doing a good job though of reaching out to students and hearing a wide variety of opinions.”

Emma Cuddy HM ’21 believes these changes are for the better.

“[‘Probability and Statistics’] tried to do too much at once, and I don’t think it was very effective. It seems like by making [Core Math] three full semesters, they’ll actually teach all the material at once,” Cuddy said, comparing it to the current Core Math program. “The new method seems more cohesive and a little less bouncing around, which I think will help.”

“We hope these changes will reduce compression in each course and allow more time for certain topics and show the joy and beauty of math.” — Professor Francis Su

Matthew LeMay HM ’21 agreed.

“Especially for people coming from high schools where they might not have learned as much math, this is going to help Core Math seem more digestible and less like getting shot with a machine gun,” he said via message.

Ishaan Gandhi HM ’21 said via message that the “Probabilities and Statistics” class that was removed was “almost universally regarded as terrible.” However, he acknowledged the usefulness of statistics and hopes it is incorporated into other requirements.

The changes will also benefit professors, according to Core Review Committee member Ben Wiedermann, director of the Core Curriculum and a computer science professor at HMC.

“It offers the opportunities for professors to focus on not just what we’re teaching, but how we teach it and think about pedagogical innovations,” Wiedermann said.

At the end of last academic year, the CRC solicited proposals for the Core curriculum, he said.

The committee laid out specific areas of focus for the proposals: student experience, in terms of workload, electives and curriculum flexibility; addressing “the impact of our work on society”; faculty experience teaching Core; and individual departments’ ability to “showcase their discipline” and provide a “technical toolkit” for students.

Over the summer, faculty developed some initial proposals, and the rest of the faculty submitted feedback in the fall.

“So these [were] rough ideas … they’re not complete, so we wanted to refine those ideas a bit more,” Wiedermann said.

This refinement stage of the Core review process began at the end of fall 2018 and the beginning of spring 2019.

“We’re also conscious that there are some ideas that we might think are wonderful, but we may not be able to do them yet because of say, the resources to do so, things like teaching staff, lab space,” Wiedermann said. “So there was the process of understanding what the implications would be on resources, what would be viable now [and] what may be viable in the future.”

Wiedermann also said that, in changing the Core Curriculum, the CRC had to take into consideration how these changes would impact HMC as a whole.

It’s important to recognize that Core is “not just a list of classes in sequence, but also everything else that goes along with it,” he said. Mudd’s Academic Excellence program, Peer Academic Liaisons and the faculty overseeing Core are all also impacted.

The Core review process is currently in its feedback stage. The CRC has been holding twice-weekly informal sessions since fall 2018.

“We’ve gotten some feedback on specific topics from students, like communication and [electives],” Wiedermann said. Still to come is feedback on the holistic student experience, and we’re excited to do that.”

In addition to math program changes, HMC has also added more administrative positions in student support in the past year. Amy Bibbens was hired as the associate dean of academic resources and student success, and Elizabeth Connolly, a visiting physics professor, was chosen as assistant dean for academic affairs.

According to the online update, the CRC will release additional updates “after the faculty holds significant votes on the core and a summary update at the end of the spring 2019 semester.”

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