Duke’s last attempt at curriculum reform failed to reach consensus. How is this time different?

When the Arts & Sciences Council votes in April on a new Trinity College curriculum, it will attempt to reach a consensus it failed to achieve in 2017.

Trinity has maintained the same curriculum since 2000, though it was adjusted in 2004. The University launched a new committee in 2014 to reconstruct this curriculum in response to a request delivered by Laurie Patton, who was the Dean of the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at the time. 

The “Imagining the Duke Curriculum Committee” was chaired by Suzanne Shanahan, then a sociology professor and associate director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Shanahan thought the curriculum needed to be updated because many faculty members — especially the two-thirds who did not work at Duke when the curriculum was approved in 1999 — did not understand the reasoning behind it. 

In 2017, the plans were halted after faculty disagreements, verbal attacks against committee members and inadequate support.

The most recent charge to renew the Trinity curriculum was delivered in March 2022 by then Provost Sally Kornbluth and Valerie Ashby, dean of Trinity College at the time. 

Now, the Council is trying again. Following meetings throughout the academic year, the Trinity Curriculum Development Committee hopes to implement a new curriculum starting fall 2025.

Comparing proposals

Student feedback in 2014 suggested that the curriculum encouraged a “fill-the-checkbox behavior.” The curriculum, which remains unchanged, requires students to take courses which fulfill five Areas of Knowledge and six Modes of Inquiry categories. 

The halted 2017 proposal maintained an emphasis on Areas of Knowledge and Modes of Inquiry.

In contrast, the 2024 proposal eliminates the Modes of Inquiry requirement. In its place, students would be required to fulfill two courses in each of six updated “Areas of Knowledge” categories. Up to two categories could be fulfilled by taking one Century Course, a proposed course model that has been met with mixed reviews from faculty.

The 2017 and 2024 proposals also diverge in their treatment of language requirements. 

The 2017 committee sought to reduce the foreign language requirement to a single semester, a change that was met with firm criticism from some professors. 

On the other hand, the 2024 curriculum maintains or increases the language requirement depending on a student’s course sequence. Currently, Trinity students need either three semesters of foreign language or one 300-level course. The new proposal would require three semesters or two 300-level courses.

Both the 2017 and 2024 proposals include a new first-year program that links together three courses by topic. Beyond foundational knowledge, these courses are intended to explore the societal impact and ethical challenges of an issue.

Faculty raised concerns about the idea in 2017. According to a Duke Today article announcing that the curriculum change was put on hold, “efforts had been made to accommodate effects on the writing program, the popular FOCUS seminar program for first-year students and other successful academic programs.”

However, the plan may not be feasible given the current capacity of some departments. In a February Council meeting, one professor expressed concerns that smaller humanities departments lacked the resources to support programs like the proposed first-year experience.

Reaching consensus

In response to the hold on reform, Ashby said in 2017 that while “not every faculty member has to be in total agreement with any changes… they do need to be more supportive and excited about the prospect.” The goal was to take a moment to regroup more “productively” and “collegiately,” with no timeline for revision.

Joshua Socolar, professor of physics and current chair of the Council, said at a December Council meeting that he will not bring the proposal to a vote until a supermajority of the Council supports the revisions. 

“I’m expecting consensus,” he said. “We want to do [the curriculum] right.”


Michael Austin profile
Michael Austin | Associate News Editor

Michael Austin is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor for the news department.  

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