MSA wants policy for open syllabi

The change would require faculty to post past syllabi before students register.

by Haley Hansen

To assist students in making better course decisions, professors may be required to post their syllabi before the semester begins.

University of Minnesota student leaders are pushing faculty to release their past syllabi so students know their impending coursework before enrolling. And so far, faculty members are on board with the idea.

The Minnesota Student Association has been pushing for the open syllabi concept since last spring and plans to take the idea to the University Senate in hopes that the senate will move their efforts forward by creating a new policy.

Physiology senior Jake Gustafson said the syllabi would be a valuable resource for him and other students when designing their schedules.

“It’s sometimes tough to know what you’re getting into,” he said.

MSA hopes to tackle that uncertainty with the new policy, said Valkyrie Jensen, MSA’s University policy and student concerns committee director.

The project is still in its beginning stages, she said, but MSA hopes the University will implement the policy within the next couple of years.

If implemented, instructors would be required to post their syllabi from previous semesters. The policy change wouldn’t apply to new courses and would only include syllabi for classes taught previously by the same professor, Jensen said.

Sophomore Natalie Ward said she thinks seeing syllabi before enrolling would make students less likely to drop classes because they’d know what to expect.

“[Students] would be more excited about the classes they’re taking,” she said.

The proposed policy may also benefit faculty members.

Mechanical engineering professor William Durfee said he supports an open syllabus policy because it would help students pick classes that are the right fit.

“Information that enables students to make wise selections is great,” he said.

While he backs the plan, Durfee, who also formerly chaired the University Senate’s faculty senate consultative committee, said it would be important that the syllabi information stays up to date. He said that may be difficult to implement.

Some departments, like the design, housing and apparel department, currently offer students access to old syllabi online.

But Becky Yust, a professor in the department, said the course information isn’t very accessible and is hard to locate.

“I think there’d be some caveats [with the policy], but I think overall students could have a much better idea about those expectations,” she said.

One of those caveats could be regarding the practice of forcing faculty to release their syllabi, which some could argue breaches their intellectual property rights.

Chemistry professor Christopher Cramer said while he supports a policy change, some faculty members may not be so willing to share their syllabi.

“There are certain academic fields that feel very protective of their syllabi,” he said.

It will also be important for old syllabi to include a disclaimer stating that it’s not an official syllabus for the coming semester, said chemistry department chair William Tolman.

Jensen said MSA plans to implement a disclaimer with the policy.

Other universities currently have different forms of open syllabus policies in place.

The University of Maryland-College Park is currently implementing a system in which faculty post their syllabi a few weeks before the first day of class, said the school’s associate provost for academic planning and programs, Elizabeth Beise.

The change will allow students more time to prepare their schedules and to get a better sense of what the course entails, she said.

The University of Minnesota’s Crookston campus also has a website where students can view course syllabi from the past decade.

“Hopefully this will be a good tool for students,” MSA member Valkyrie Jensen said.