A look into the creation of new academic majors

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Eddy Dabsys (senior) browses counts.oxy.edu at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. Spencer Patrick/The Occidental
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In successive years, Occidental has added new majors to its catalog. Occidental’s most recent additions include computer science in 2016 and Black studies in 2017, both of which had long been requested by students and faculty, according to Occidental’s website. Ron Buckmire, associate dean of curricular affairs and chair of the academic planning committee, said that updating academic offerings to reflect a changing world and student body is the most important role of the academic planning committee.

According to Buckmire, after Wendy Sternberg became Occidental’s dean of the college and vice president of academic affairs in June 2017, his position was created as Sternberg reorganized her office. Buckmire’s position, which he assumed in August 2018, was created to better organize academics to best suit students’ needs.

“In this new role, I see it as my goal to be more intentional about what we want the curriculum to look like, what programs we should be offering and what programs do we not need to change to better use the synergy between existing programs,” Buckmire said. “Figuring out what all of that should look like is my number one job.”

Buckmire said that gauging faculty and student feedback allows the academic planning committee to provide students with a dynamic list of majors, and he added that permitting students to explore many different areas of study before deciding on a major is one of the most important aspects of any liberal arts school.

“The dean’s office and academic affairs are very interested in maintaining a robust and diverse listing of academic topics for students to study, and we’re always open to suggestions of what else could be done,” Buckmire said. “Some things will go away and some things will be introduced because in an academic environment, it is unlikely that the set of academic programs can monotonically increase and grow forever. We would like it to remain constant or grow slowly at a sustainable rate.”

Sternberg said that she plays a central role in academic organizational decisions.

“We ask every department chair to put forward a list of courses that they want to offer and who they have available to teach those courses,” Sternberg said. “Where they want to offer more than they have resources available, that’s where the requests for part-time faculty or one-year positions to fill some gaps come in. That process does not go to the full academic planning committee, that comes to the dean’s office and we have to prioritize and weigh different departments needs.”

According to Vince Cuseo, Occidental’s vice president of enrollment and dean of admission, what sets Occidental apart from other similar schools is the way Occidental is able to integrate its unique location and advantages into academics.

“Many liberal colleges are located in more extra-urban or rural areas, but we are not,” Cuseo said. “We are the liberal arts college located in the most globally influential city in the United States.”

Cuseo highlighted majors such as Diplomacy and World Affairs, Urban and Environmental Policy, Media Arts & Culture and music production as majors that benefit from the college’s place in Los Angeles.

“It does not mean our English department or chemistry department are any less attractive or effective as other places, but where we have a distinctive niche is our location and how that will play out in our curriculum,” Cuseo said.

Other majors such as Critical Theory & Social Justice are deeply tied to Occidental’s specific mission as a school devoted to diversity and justice, according to Cuseo.

“At college fairs and admission events, we often have students come ask, ‘Well, what are your best majors?” Cuseo said. “Well, how do you define what is best? I usually will respond and tell them which majors are most popular, but those are probably the most popular majors at other colleges, too. The quality of our majors are consistent across the board, and it really depends on the student’s individual interests. We rest our hat on the urban and global piece, as a liberal arts school located in such a large and important city.”