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A major difference

Routinely reevaluating major requirements has benefits across the board

The economics and politics departments will soon expect majors to fulfill different curriculum requirements, therein altering the expectations of both undergraduate programs. The way both departments retooled major requirements, however, illustrates why other University departments would do well to follow suit. Although the changes to the foreign affairs requirements stem from budget cuts, both departments’ changes have positive implications for majors and reinforce the importance of constant reexamination of department standards, regardless of the cause.

The economics department’s revisions were brought about by department faculty identifying necessary improvements to the structure of the undergraduate curriculum. The new standards will hold students more accountable by requiring at least a C+ in major courses rather than a C. The new requirements will also better prepare students for real-world application of economics, which relies heavily on math, by requiring another statistics course. Ron Michener, director of undergraduate studies in the economics department, said in a separate interview that the modifications have been under consideration for several years, indicating that the department has dedicated time to ensure its programs remain up to par. The new requirements may deter students unwilling to sign up for a major now requiring better grades and more math, but that selectivity may be just what the economics department had in mind. Both changes could mirror success already achieved in the Commerce School: Requiring an extra statistics course echoes the Commerce School’s foundational basis in math, while making the major more academically rigorous should serve to curb the idea that the economics major is the second-best option for would-be Commerce School students.

The politics department’s changes to the foreign affairs major requirements arose largely from concerns about staffing following budget cuts. Despite the regrettable situation that prompted the new requirements, foreign affairs majors will have more leeway to pursue their interests following the change. The department will relax some of its more stringent course selection requirements by allowing students to take any combination of international relations and comparative politics courses and by broadening the area-specific regions available to count toward the major. While the economics department revised requirements to make its curriculum more stringent, the foreign affairs major might seem a little less so. In fact, the new requirements allow foreign affairs majors to remain generalists should they be less interested in concentrating in a particular geographic region. An unfortunate side effect of the new requirements leaves areas of vast cultural difference lumped into broad categories, but the old curriculum might have discouraged qualified students from studying foreign affairs if they were not prepared to limit themselves to a very particular region. Here, too, the changes will better prepare students for real-world application, in which a more comprehensive education might be desirable in the early stages of a career in foreign affairs. Additionally, opening the required course load to more student discretion retains the possibility for a student to specialize but allows him to make that choice on his own.

As Commerce School Dean Carl Zeithaml noted in a separate interview, constant reexamination of departmental policy and course curricula is the key to consistent success. Although department heads will never be lining up for budget cuts and typically force administrators to cut the number of classes offered, the changes in foreign affairs major requirements look to be an improvement, perhaps making the major more appealing without diminishing its academic rigor. The economics department also implemented changes that will encourage stronger overall academic performance and help students apply their degrees after graduation. Other University departments would be wise to engage in the same sort of constant reevaluation, with real-world preparation and higher academic standards always in mind.


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