Christina Paxson, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School
Christina Paxson, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School

The faculty of the Woodrow Wilson School has approved changes to the under­graduate curriculum that call for more structure, field experience, a multidisciplinary emphasis, and a different approach to the hallmark junior policy task forces.

Beginning with the current freshman class, Wilson School majors will be required to take courses in four disciplines — economics, politics, science for public policy, and sociology or psychology — but will be limited to no more than four courses in each area. Other requirements include an ethics course and ­foreign-language study that extends a semester beyond the University’s language requirement. Electives will be chosen from a pre-approved list. 

The field-experience requirement is intended to encourage students to “take what they are learning on campus and apply it to something off campus,” said Christina Paxson, dean of the Wilson School. Students may study or work abroad, participate in a policy internship, or work in a paid or volunteer position “in an underserved community” for a period of at least four weeks. ROTC enrollment also will meet this requirement.

Traditionally juniors have taken two policy task forces or conferences, but the faculty concluded that the task forces, though valuable, were not adequately preparing students for ­senior-thesis research, Paxson said. 

As part of the redesigned major, students will take one policy task force; the other will be replaced by a policy research seminar. The seminar will focus on a policy issue, but will incorporate a “methods lab” designed to enhance students’ ability to use quantitative and qualitative research tools in their own work. “Students will do serious research,” Paxson said, and the policy research seminars — like the policy seminars of 25 years ago — will be taught primarily by faculty members, rather than visiting practitioners.

Professor Stanley Katz took issue with the new curriculum. Shifting toward a more methodological basis at the expense of policy analysis, and from less structure to what he termed a highly structured, disciplinary-focused approach, is a “disastrous move,” he said. The school is “giving up something that really made us stand out among our peers as liberal undergraduate educators,” he said. 

“Flexibility was always a hallmark of the school, but [faculty members] agreed that structure needed to be more important,” Paxson said. “But within all the elements, students will have a lot of choice,” she added.

All of the Wilson School’s course offerings except the policy research seminars and task forces will be open to all undergraduates, the dean said. 

The new curriculum will be reviewed by the dean of the college and the ­Committee on the Course of Study. The Wilson School’s faculty endorsed the changes a year after voting to end selective admission and open the major to all students who meet prerequisites that include four courses: introductory micro­economics, a history course, a statistics course, and a course in politics, psychology, or sociology. 

Paxson said the school administration is uncertain how many students will sign up for the new major with the end of selectivity. “When students see that this is really a demanding major, they will think hard about it,” she said.