Valerie Ashby, dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, spoke at Wednesday's Duke Student Government Senate meeting to discuss Trinity's academic priorities and curriculum plans.

Ashby used the phrase “inconsistent excellence” to describe Trinity academics. To explain how Duke stacks up against its peer institutions, she informed the Senate of the rankings of Trinity's three areas of study—humanities, social sciences and the other sciences. 

She said the rankings consider research publications, where graduate students go on to work, grants students receive from national and federal agencies, national and international awards won by faculty and the overall undergraduate experience.

Although the humanities are ranked within the 90th and 95th percentiles in the world, Ashby said that Duke's social sciences are given a “very generous ‘B’”—falling between the 80th and 85th percentiles. The sciences, meanwhile, are between the 60th and 65th percentiles. With quantitative sciences containing some of Duke's strongest departments within the sciences, computer science—one of the most popular majors on campus—is ranked 20th; physics is held at 25th and chemistry is ranked 41st.

Although Ashby argued that Duke still has 'A’ faculty and ‘A’ courses," she noted that such low science standings “pain [her] deeply"—especially after having served as the head of a chemistry department ranked within the top ten when she was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Ashby emphasized that, because Duke’s chemistry department only consists of 25 faculty members, it has limited room for competition. This necessitates a strategy that makes “every hire matter” through increased mentorship between the administration and faculty. 

She also noted that Duke's faculty within scientific disciplines significantly lack minority representation. In response, the administration is attempting to attract minorities to join Duke’s science disciplines, such as expanding opportunities for women in technology.

Still, obtaining more faculty members requires a staggering investment. Ashby said that the administration spends $50,000 to $100,000 to support the research of a humanist. A senior lab scientist, by comparison, costs $2.5 to $4 million. And because faculty members often have degrees in the subjects they teach and not education, this absence of a background in teaching incurs even more transaction costs for Trinity.

“We are counting on these great people that they will figure it out," Ashby said. 

Now, administrators conduct teacher evaluations more frequently to ensure that they are “on track,” which is especially important when such faculty members are seeking tenure. Ashby explained that Duke professors love this feedback because it maximizes their teaching capacities.

Ashby also discussed plans for the revised curriculum. She said the administration is still considering how to move forward with curriculum changes. Currently, a survey has been sent out to faculty to collect their opinions on how to improve the curriculum to see where commonalities lie.

"The faculty may be able to agree on big picture changes, but a wholesale change—I don’t think that’s going to happen," she said. "This process is going to reset and it's going to take a moment."

While the process of fashioning a new curriculum continues, the administration is also turning its attention to the first and second year experiences. Ashby said she believes the first semester of sophomore year is the most difficult time for undergraduates because they no longer have some of the extensive resources provided to them through first-year advising and do not yet have access to the resources from the department of their major.

In other business:

Junior Brian Buhr, DUU's vice president for external affairs , gave a presentation on the Duke University Union. Consisting of 13 committees on elements central to the Duke community—such as LDOC, the Arts Annex, and jazz at the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture—DUU is looking to engage senators in leadership opportunities to make them “better informed and equipped” about the University and to help them perform their duties as members of DSG.