Idea to Bring Optional Majors to SLC Sparks Discussion on College’s Academic Identity

Students in a typical Sarah Lawrence seminar class taught by Professor Bert Loewenberg in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Sarah Lawrence Archives

Students in a typical Sarah Lawrence seminar class taught by Professor Bert Loewenberg in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Sarah Lawrence Archives

Every Sarah Lawrence student has likely had some version of the same conversation during their time at college—that moment at a family dinner party, or while hanging out with high school friends over break, when someone inevitably asks, ‘What’s your major?’

The explanation that ensues is a familiar one; Sarah Lawrence, of course, doesn’t have majors. But an idea recently brought to students by Deans Kanwal Singh and Danny Trujillo could change that. 

On April 1, Dean Singh and Dean Trujillo sent an email to the student body describing the prospect of bringing “optional fields of study”—or, as they’ve been termed, “optional majors”—to the college, and seeking student input as discussion around this idea, which is currently in a very early stage, moves forward. They expressed hesitation around using the term ‘major’ to describe the idea, writing that if designated fields of study were to be implemented at the college, they would not resemble traditional majors as they’re handled at other institutions.

While Sarah Lawrence students today receive degrees in ‘Liberal Arts’ rather than a specific discipline, this proposed option would allow for the college to award degrees in twenty different fields of study—ranging from Literature to Mathematics to Dance. 

In 1982, New York State, which has defined criteria for the areas in which a college is permitted to offer degrees, gave SLC certification to offer majors in these twenty fields. Dean Trujillo said a combination of factors sparked the idea to consider reactivating this state certification: specifically, concerns voiced by some students that the lack of designated fields of study on SLC transcripts is preventing them from securing jobs and getting into certain grad schools, positive feedback on the idea from some student surveys, and optional majors giving the college the opportunity for better representation in college search databases.

In an effort to gauge student opinion, the issue has been the subject of several Student Senate meetings and town hall discussions, where the majority of students present have voiced concerns with the idea. At a town hall on April 5 where students were given the opportunity to vote on the issue, out of 90 students who submitted a vote, 80 voted no, 7 said they were undecided and only 3 voted yes. 

Many students have said they think the college does not have the logistical means necessary to support majors, arguing that course offerings are already limited and the registration process is already overburdened. 

Others have argued that the institution of majors, even if they’re optional, would go against the college’s unique pedagogy that allows students to structure their own education, and that it would also create unnecessary divisions on campus and add a level of competitiveness to the college environment.

“I want to believe that we are more academically egalitarian than other institutions, that’s why I came here,” said student Carolyn Martinez-Class at the town hall on April 5. “I think we put that at great risk when we start competing further with students to get into classes that are already impossible to get into.”

Dean Trujillo said the administration is currently awaiting feedback from faculty in the fields this would affect, who have been told to evaluate the offerings in their departments and come to a decision. In the April 1 email both he and Dean Singh ensured that if this idea were to become a reality, the seminar conference system would remain intact, academics would remain interdisciplinary and student-directed, and choosing a field of study to ‘major’ in would not be an option until a student’s third year at the college. At a town hall on April 12 with the Deans, they insisted that any proposal would be designed to complement, not alter, Sarah Lawrence’s unique pedagogy, and said students would still be encouraged to explore a variety of disciplines. 

Still, concerns that the school’s academic identity would fundamentally change if this proposal were adopted remain for many students, with alumni contributing their thoughts on the subject as well. 

Over 500 alums have signed a letter to Dean Trujillo, Dean Singh, and President Karen Lawrence arguing that elective majors would “ultimately erode the curricular liberty of all students.” The letter raised several logistical questions including, “Would students with majors receive priority in the course interview process? Would prerequisites be instituted?” It also argued that the absence of majors gives Sarah Lawrence students a leg up post graduation because the value of a truly interdisciplinary education allows them to be flexible in a constantly changing job market.  

Alum Audrey Irving, who graduated in 2015 and attended the April 5 town hall, said the school should focus more on strengthening career counseling rather than altering its academic philosophy.    

“What we’re talking about is a marketing problem, not a pedagogy problem,” Irving said.    

Current students added on this note, expanding on how the college’s open curriculum has shaped their academic experiences for the better.     

“Because I’ve been able to explore, I have a lot of random skills which I really think will help me in the job market,” said Sophie Bazalgette. “I am primarily an arts student, but I know how to code because of Sarah Lawrence, I know how to conduct a proper oral history interview.”     

Student Nathan Naimark took issue with how he feels the rhetoric from administration has changed from when he was first introduced to the college to now.     

“When I applied to this school, I was told that having a liberal arts education would be good for grad school and jobs and all that,” he said. “And then recently I was told by administration that students are having trouble getting into grad school and getting jobs because they don’t have their majors listed on their transcripts.”     

A major aspect of this idea is the college’s need to boost enrollment. Dean Trujillo cited surveys in which the lack of majors was a top reason for why students who were admitted to Sarah Lawrence chose not to attend, as well as a top reason for why students transferred out. In terms of specifics on the visibility of SLC on college websites, Sarah Lawrence does not show up on the College Board Search and the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard when searching by major because the school does not offer them, and the hope is if the college is on these databases, student recruitment will be easier.

Senior Class President Toya Singh, however, feels the financial issues faced by the college are just another reason why majors should not be considered.

“I think that we’re not in the right place to have this discussion,” she explained. “Something like majors is going to require, as we have reiterated fifty times, a building in of layers and levels that we don’t have—we are, as we speak, firing professors.”     

While several professors declined to comment on this issue to the Phoenix because the discussion is currently in such an early stage, those who did offer their thoughts voiced cautious support.    

“My main thought is that if we do end up offering students the option of declaring a major, it really won’t change the way we either teach or learn at the college,” said literature professor Ann Lauinger. “As I understand it, although the existence of a major must be ratified by the NY State Board of Regents, the college is empowered to make its own decisions about what would constitute a major. Since major requirements typically vary widely across disciplines, I believe each faculty group will be free to essentially shape its majors.”    

Psychology professor Linwood Lewis continued on this note. 

“The reasons why some believe it is necessary to make this change seem compelling (e.g, increasing visibility for HS seniors in online searches). My son and his classmates used the very methods described in his college search this past year,” he said. “It seems like an opportunity to lay out guidelines for the knowledge base we would like students to have in a discipline when they graduate. And most importantly, to pick a major is completely voluntary. As long as that remains the case, I’m cautiously in favor of it.”     

Russian professor Melissa Frazier said she thinks getting Sarah Lawrence on the college databases referenced above is especially important, particularly for bringing more diversity to the community.   

“We do a lot of preaching to the choir, i.e. we tend to draw a lot of upper middle-class students who already know and value progressive education and accordingly already know who we are,” she explained. “That’s wonderful, but: there are a great many people out there from different backgrounds who would also benefit from our open and individually-designed curriculum. I really want them to be able to find us.”     

Professor Lauinger, however, said a concern of hers is that the official list of majors will give prospective students a somewhat skewed perspective of the school, as some disciplines the school still offers courses in despite not being part of the official list of degrees offered would be overlooked.     

“Such omissions may lead people to think that they can’t do any work at all in subjects that don’t appear on the list as majors. That would be sad, not to speak of unhelpful!” she said.

Some students expressed frustration that such few details have been made available to them of what would ultimately be proposed if this discussion were to move forward, but Dean Trujillo says administration has not gotten that far, and that the idea is being brought to students now in an effort to increase transparency.     

“One of the biggest concerns that we’ve actually been hearing from students in previous years as well as this year is the lack of transparency on our campus, so in the effort of moving toward a more transparent space between administrative decisions and the student body we’ve been informed of the possibility of majors at SLC,” said Student Senate Chair Mahi Chopra. “With that in mind, one can understand why there are such few answers.”     

Repeatedly emphasized in all forums is that the discussion on this issue is ongoing, and students can expect to hear more details in the coming weeks and months.

Janaki Chadha '17

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.