Harvey Mudd Addresses Workload: Leaked Report Advocates Reform

TSL recently obtained a leaked report conducted at the request of Harvey Mudd College’s Teaching and Learning Committee in Oct. 2015. In the report, students and faculty participated in private focus groups evaluating the impact of HMC’s workload and honor code.

The findings of the researchers, Charlie Blaich and Kathy Wise from the Center for Inquiry of Liberal Arts, were emailed to committee members in Feb. 2016, and the report, which was not intended for public release, can be found in full below:

The researchers, who help liberal arts colleges self-assess, found that HMC students were talented and hardworking, but many suffered from feelings of inferiority and insecurity due to an onslaught of work that superseded extracurricular activities, non-STEM academic interests, and even essential activities like eating, sleeping, laundry, and showering.

In their report, Blaich and Wise provided their suggestions to the TLC after speaking with 24 students and 31 faculty members, all anonymous.

“Our recommendations are simple,” the researchers wrote. “First, be more generous in addition to being tough, and second, create time for students to develop the qualities that the institution values, including the values behind the Honor Code.”

On March 7, Mudd’s Faculty Executive Committee emailed an action document addressing the report’s findings to Mudd students and faculty. Though faculty were previously emailed the full report, only a summary appeared in the action document available to the student body.

The action plan notes that the report’s concerns “are important issues that call for a concerted and sustained effort from students, faculty, and staff at all levels of seniority.”

The document outlines “prior and ongoing activities” by HMC to address student workload, including a review of HMC’s Common Core curriculum, a faculty job satisfaction survey, a “faculty and student time expenditure” study, the Peer Academic Liaisons program, and the work of the health and wellness staff.

Students seeking immediate change will have to be patient; the FEC emphasized that substantial adjustments take time.

“Efforts to review and revise aspects of the Core curriculum may not seem to be producing change fast enough for many of our current students to feel their effects,” the committee wrote.

“However, we firmly believe that the curriculum ought not to change quickly nor without systematic, careful study and input from our college’s many stakeholders: students, faculty, alumni, staff, and trustees.”

Associated Students of Harvey Mudd College President Shailee Samar HM ’18 agreed that HMC’s Core curriculum needs improvement.

“We need to adapt our perspective to ensure that our students thrive, and not only survive,” Samar wrote in an email to TSL. “The action items listed should just be the first few steps, and I hope that we move quickly, take impactful action, and re-evaluate the big picture.”

ASHMC’s First-Year Class President Julia Wang HM ’20 thought the action document’s description of HMC workload “did a pretty good job of capturing the student life and academics.”

“Students don’t have the opportunity, really, to make time to actually enjoy all the subjects they’re taking,” Wang said. “Work-life balance is such a struggle that it becomes a joke. I don’t think it should be treated like that.”

Wang expressed disappointment that the college did not release the full report to students.

“It seems kinda hurtful that they know this is going on and that they, in a sense, didn’t want us to know,” she said.

Blaich and Wise found that faculty were split on whether to be accommodating to students who felt burdened by the workload.

“Some faculty were sympathetic, worked to help students deal with the challenges, and thought that Harvey Mudd needs to change to give students a little breathing room,” they wrote in the report. “These faculty checked in on students and ask[ed] how they were doing, were more flexible about deadlines, shared how they struggled with their workload, and encouraged students to ask questions.”

Others, however, “thought that Harvey Mudd students had, over time, become less capable of, and less interested in, meeting the challenge of Mudd’s difficult curriculum. While it is not unusual for us to hear faculty lament ‘the decline in the quality of students,’ what was unusual, in our experience, was that many students had heard and felt this sentiment from some of their faculty.”

Laura Palucki Blake, Mudd’s director of institutional research and effectiveness and a member of the TLC, urged TSL not to release the full report.

“Our strong preference would be to not have students’ and faculty members’ responses quoted,” she wrote in an email to TSL. “In projects like this, participants are encouraged to speak candidly with the understanding their comments are confidential.”

This year’s chair of the TLC, Jae Hur, joined the committee in the 2015-16 school year, and wrote in an email to TSL that releasing comments made in confidence “will do real damage to our ability to gather information in the future to improve our campus.”

TSL decided to release the report in the interest of transparency and to allow students to examine the information gathered by the researchers and provided by fellow students and faculty members for themselves.

Hur recalled that prior to the report’s release, “there was already a proactive, self-motivated effort by faculty here to look at … how to help our students really understand their sense of accomplishment and abilities.”

He said the report is “an important part of what we were doing, but it’s not certainly meant to be the entire thing.”

When Hur assigns homework to his classes, he wants his students to “take a step back and say like, ‘Wow, I did that. That’s amazing. That’s a lot of work and a lot of learning that I accomplished.’”

But faculty members quoted in Blaich’s and Wise’s report said that some HMC professors assign homework for a different reason.

“To get students’ time, you need to give them a problem set, something tangible to work on so they spend time on it,” one anonymous faculty member said in the report. “It’s an arms race.”

Blaich and Wise seemed to conclude that this approach was not productive.

“At some point, when students are stretched far enough, all this results in is departments stealing students’ time from one another in a zero-sum game,” they wrote. “Many of the students with whom we spoke appeared to be at this point.”

Faculty believed the resulting workload incentivized students to cheat and otherwise violate HMC’s honor code.

“The pressures students feel from the workload are putting pressures on the Honor Code,” one faculty member said in the report. “HMC has an oppressive curriculum.”

The researchers noted that some faculty members thought students needed to learn the “whys” of the code — the report suggests students and faculty members have different perceptions of what the code entails.

Aside from privacy and confidentiality concerns, Hur says there’s another reason not to release what he calls the “raw version” of the report.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not helpful,” he said. “The issues it brings up are clearly very helpful, but … it needs a better delivery if it’s not going to just make people reactive and actually approach an issue that’s important for everyone involved.”

Professor Lelia Hawkins, who was the TLC chair when Blaich and Wise visited HMC, agrees that the “negative tone could be off-putting.”

“I think that if you are external to Mudd, it’s easy to be surprised by the workload here, whereas if you’re a faculty or student here, you understand it’s more normal,” she said.

Hawkins emphasized that the report was a starting point, and wants to “look beyond [the tone] and sort of pick the pieces out that are useful to us — and that’s why the report was written for a committee to digest.”

She said no one at Mudd wants college to be easier, but agrees the curriculum can be “unmanageable” at times.

Hawkins does not know what the solution is, and wants a quantitative review to provide more information.

“If we’re going to say that workload is a problem, we need to know exactly what parts and why,” Hawkins said.

To that end, HMC hired “educational effectiveness consultants” who spoke to more than 75 members of the college community on March 6 as part of a core curriculum review, according to the FEC. Hawkins said the review was planned before the workload report’s release, but it is also “in some ways a response to the issues that were raised.”

“Do we drop units? Do we drop courses? Do we change courses? These are all on the table until people take them off the table,” she said. “We have a couple-of-years process ahead of us.”

Samuel Breslow contributed reporting.

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