It is the fall of 2015. As summer wilts, Columbia’s campus again transforms into the ant colony of activity that invariably defines the beginning of each academic year. Amid the moving in, the exploring and rediscovering, and the registration days, major pedagogical change looms large on the horizon.
This change would come at the hands of the Committee on Instruction, a joint committee comprised of dean, faculty, advising, and student representatives from both Columbia College and the School of General Studies, which oversees a wide range of academic affairs, including approving new courses, majors, programs, and policies.
The COI would later, after two years of discussion, propose a seemingly straightforward policy that aimed to reduce student workload, to reduce the number of classes students could take. In reality, this complex decision implied huge stakes, as it would indiscriminately apply to a diverse array of 6,000 students, the entire student bodies of both Columbia College and the School of General Studies. The policy is two digits, but those two digits had far-reaching, qualitative goals: They sought to reshape the meaning of the undergraduate experience at Columbia, allow students to interact with their course material in a more meaningful way, and alleviate student stress. In the end, however, all of this would inevitably be distilled into a single quantitative figure: the number 18.
The credit cap policy is a line of best fit. By nature of its blanket-ness, the cap cannot possibly address the needs of every student, and it does not seek to. The policy’s goal is to change the culture surrounding academic success, altering the way students conceptualize their learning, their expectations, and their undergraduate experience.
In the first half of the past decade, a distinct phenomenon began to crest in which students felt pressure to take on heavy workloads and multiple programs of study, even when it was unnecessary for their individual goals and career paths. This phenomenon has been retroactively identified by a few key actors in Columbia’s academic policy discourse. Chemistry professor Laura Kaufman calls it “credentialism”; Caitlin Carey, who graduated from General Studies in 2017, calls it “credit collecting.” Both Kaufman and Carey were on the COI in the 2016-17 academic year. Professor Brent Stockwell, the former chair of the Educational Policy and Planning Committee which advises on educational policy concerns across Columbia’s schools of Arts and Sciences, told Spectator in December 2015 that “there’s a general feeling, I think among a lot of faculty members that students take too many courses. And it’s like an arms race to take more courses and show how impressive you are, and to the detriment of a lot of students in the end.”
Steven Castellano, then a Columbia College senior, a Columbia College Student Council academic affairs representative, and the policy chair for the Student Wellness Project, described a trend among students to take on an unreasonable amount of responsibility. In a 2013 op-ed for Spectator, he called on his peers to “use college to make ourselves happy,” and reconsider if they really need to have the longest resume to feel successful and fulfilled.
“Drop a class,” his article concludes. “It’s refreshing.”
As a result of this “credentialism,” some faculty members noticed a developing trend of students coming to class unprepared, and they were further concerned by students’ ability—or lack thereof—to engage with class materials in a meaningful way.
Professor Jacqueline van Gorkom of the astronomy department, who served on the COI during the 2015-16 academic year, tells me it’s frustrating for professors when students come to class unprepared. “You try to teach a very good class, and then you find interest in things, and students just are too busy.”
In this Columbia ant colony, free time can become analogous with wasted time, and success can be conflated with stress. This culture puts a strain on students, which manifested in proposals by student councils to reduce the number of credits students could take per semester. In the fall of 2015, the COI began to consider how they could address these problems within their academic jurisdiction.
On Friday mornings, the committee gathered under the leadership of Columbia College Dean James Valentini and the late GS Dean Peter Awn to discuss, among other things, the implications of lowering the credit cap. Their meeting place in the Center for the Core Curriculum, Hamilton 202, is flanked with rich wood paneling on every wall and anchored by a stately, flowered red rug. The conference table seems to stretch out infinitely, easily seating 10 people on each of the two long sides.
The questions on the table were also immense and often complicated: What is the problem a credit cap would try to solve? What is a reasonable workload? How much is too much, even for somebody exceptional? What would, say, an applied mathematics major’s schedule hypothetically look like under a lower credit cap? These were some of the many inquiries explored by the COI in conversations that Kaufman, who is serving on the committee again this academic year, says were “wide-ranging,” from the “logistics and operational aspects” of a credit cap, to “more philosophical discussions.” Up for discussion, she adds, were not just numbers, but also “the experience of the student.”
The policy was a cultural response as much as a bureaucratic one. In an interview with Spectator in 2016, Valentini said, addressing a question about students who overwhelm themselves by taking on a large course load, “you do not have to overload yourself. I know how hard you worked to get here… Now you’re on a different phase of your life; it’s a different kind of journey.”
After two years of weekly, hour-and-a-half-long meetings, the COI announced via email in May 2017 that the new credit cap for Columbia College and General Studies students would henceforth be 18 credits per semester, lowered from the previous maximum of 22. “The cap of 18 credits per semester allows you to fulfill the requirements for graduation, while also leaving room for students who may wish to take additional coursework from time to time.”
The quantitative nature of the credit cap policy requires a closer look at its fundamental increment: a credit. Dean Valentini and Dean Lisa Hollibaugh of Academic Affairs for Columbia College defined a credit in their co-authored email announcing the policy. They write, “Each point of credit assumes a minimum of three hours of work per week, including time spent in and out of class.” This definition is in sync with the definitions provided by two important entities that Columbia looks to when it comes to academic credit: the Office of College and University Evaluation at the New York State Department of Education and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, by which Columbia is voluntarily accredited every 10 years.
The trouble seems to emerge out of the phrase “a minimum.” A course must have at least two hours of outside work for every one hour spent in class, but what about a maximum? If a class has eight hours of outside work per week, and another has 20, according to the provided definition, both would be considered four-credit courses. And this is not purely hypothetical. Workload at Columbia does vary between classes of the same credit value, making the idea of a credit seem arbitrary.
In a statement to The Eye earlier this month, Dean Valentini acknowledged that credits are not a perfect proxy, stating that “The value of the academic experience is not measured by the number of credits, but by the level of engagement with courses.”
In addition to varying from class to class, the concept of a credit has been historically volatile as well. As part of their election platform, 2015 CCSC President Ben Makansi, and Vice President of Policy Vivek Ramakrishnan, advocated for lecture courses with discussion sections to be raised from three to four credits. In December 2015, the Educational Policy and Planning Committee recommended the same initiative. Ninety courses across five departments heeded the recommendation and started being offered at four credits the following year.
The University avoids using the rhetoric of mental health in discussing the credit cap policy, instead using terms like wellness and well-being. The actual policy literature opens: “The faculty of Columbia College and the School of General Studies expect all undergraduate students to make a serious and substantive commitment to their academic studies, while also having sufficient time to engage in co-curricular activities and to ensure individual well-being.”
Dean of Advising for Columbia College and Columbia Engineering Andrew Plaa, in a statement to The Eye earlier this month, said that in his engagement in COI discussions over the two years the credit cap policy was being discussed, “mental health concerns were rarely, if ever, raised.” He suggests that faculty wanted to encourage more substantial depth in student learning.
Although responding to mental health concerns was decidedly not a goal of the credit cap policy, the campus backdrop in which the policy was passed was rife with indications that a mental health problem was catapulting to the forefront of campus conversation.
The results of the University Senate’s first biannual Quality of Life Survey, conducted in 2013, were mediocre. Seventeen percent of students attending Columbia’s undergraduate, graduate, and affiliate institutions completed the survey. From their responses, on a scale from +3 (most satisfied) to -3 (least satisfied), satisfaction with mental health averaged 0.35 among undergraduates. Overall satisfaction averaged 0.87.
Two years later, the senate’s second set of survey results rolled out, showing that on a scale of one to seven—one being very dissatisfied, four being neutral, and seven being very satisfied—General Studies students rated academics 5.38, mental health 4.09, and overall experience 4.85, while Columbia College students rated academics 5.33, mental health 3.89, and overall experience 4.86. When the scales between the 2013 and 2015 surveys are equalized, mental health satisfaction for both CC and GS was slightly lower than the results from all schools in 2013, while overall satisfaction was virtually the same. School-specific results were unavailable for the 2013 survey.
During the 2016-17 academic year, just two more years later, Columbia was shaken by a series of student deaths, four of which were confirmed as suicides.
That March, with news of the suicides still fresh, University President Lee Bollinger announced the formation of a steering group on undergraduate mental health. The group would partner with the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded and run by Columbia alumni, which focuses on using educational activism to bolster the mental and emotional health support systems on college campuses in order to prevent suicide among teens and young adults.
Bollinger, in his statement introducing the partnership, said its aim was “to develop a comprehensive assessment of the mental health support in place for our undergraduate students.” He punctuated the statement with a powerful sentiment of ambition and commitment. “Altogether, I hope we can develop a deeper and more insightful approach to ensuring the health of our students and our entire University community. Nothing is more important.”
According to Carey, “People weren’t … able to connect with their community in a way beyond just, ‘We’re in the same class, we’re gonna study in the library together.’” Her personal experience as someone who suffers from anxiety and depression was heard within the COI discussions. “That was something that I felt comfortable talking about at the committee meetings. … So I do know that that was a perspective that was valued during those meetings,” she says.
A credit cap was not always the clear solution to what professor Kaufman calls “credentialism.” Dean Valentini, in the same interview in 2016, also commented on his feelings about prohibiting double majoring. “I am fundamentally reluctant to impose blanket restrictions on 4,500 students, no two of whom are the same.” He drew a parallel between the idea of major restriction and credit restriction, citing the difficulty of legislating across a diverse array of students, each with their own path. “I don’t want to say you can’t have two majors. Because it’s not necessarily, again, that in itself is not a bad thing ... In the same way I am reluctant to impose a cap on the number of courses you can take.” He suggested targeting academic stress through individualized advising and mentorship as a better alternative to a hard limits on majors and credits.
As quoted in a Spectator article a year later, shortly following the spike in student suicides, Valentini adopted the opposite stance. “We, the College, need to act as knowledgeable, sensitive, experienced advisers to you, which means that we should set constraints on you that we believe are appropriate to ensure that your academic experience is a good one,” Valentini said. “We do this already in so many ways—there’s no reason this shouldn’t also be done in terms of the totality of your academic work.”
The credit cap policy, more than simply imposing academic restriction, has also exposed diverging opinions among students and the administration about the relationship between academic success and mental health. The University denies that mental health was a consideration in the credit cap policy’s conception—they instead emphasize that it was about ensuring a fulfilling, successful academic experience—but it seems difficult, at least for students, to split the two.
“The hard line on the [credit cap] policy is way more about creating a culture shift than disrupting any individual student’s plans,” Carey says. The credit cap, in other words, isn’t your usual bulletin fodder: It is situated in a larger effort by the University to shift the way they think—and subsequently the way the student body thinks—about what a college experience is.”
Enjoy leafing through our sixth issue!