Brown’s undergraduate curriculum has evolved progressively since the University was founded in 1764.
But the curricular framework in place today — first called the New Curriculum and now called the Open Curriculum — has its roots in the cultural, social and political changes of the 1960s. Coming to campus in record numbers and from increasingly diverse backgrounds, students at Brown brought new perspectives to campus, as well as the shared experiences of activism around the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
In that context, Brown students coalesced around the idea of taking a more active role in shaping their own education. They wanted an experience that would enrich them as individuals, prepare them academically and equip them with the knowledge and skills to change the world for the better.
Courtesy of researchers at the Brown University Library, here’s an abbreviated history of how Brown’s Open Curriculum was created.
Elliot Maxwell, Class of 1968, and Ira Magaziner, Class of 1969, created a Group Independent Study Project (GISP), formally approved by the Brown Committee on the Curriculum, to inspect and rethink methods of teaching and learning at Brown. The GISP, made up of 25 students and faculty advisors, aimed to transform the curriculum at Brown to one that was student-centered.
With University leaders also exploring curricular reform, Brown President Ray Heffner charged what became known as the Stultz Committee — named for its chair, Professor of Political Science Newell Stultz — with investigating curricular reform and making recommendations to the Committee on the Curriculum. Members included students, faculty and staff.
Based on the work of the GISP — and on behalf of the many who contributed their ideas, perspectives and experiences — Maxwell and Magaziner released a 400-page report titled “Draft of a Working Paper for Education at Brown University.” It recommended the complete elimination of distribution requirements, the addition of four semesters of interdisciplinary “Modes of Thought” classes and the choice of receiving letter grades or a Satisfactory/No Credit option.
Spring 1968 to Winter 1969
Magaziner led a committee of 20 members in a grassroots effort to build support for the report’s recommendations across the campus community. Eventually, after distributing thousands of copies of the report, meeting with faculty members, hosting discussions in student residences and conducting campus rallies — including one in November that drew 700 students — the GISP members’ petition to the faculty to consider the report’s recommendations was signed by more than half of Brown’s undergraduate students. Lively discussion about the curriculum took place in all corners of the University throughout this time.
The Stultz Committee submitted its report to the University’s Curriculum Committee, recommending that students be empowered to design their own concentrations and take courses on a pass/fail system.
A Special Committee on Educational Principles was appointed by the president, “charged with examining the educational philosophy underlying the undergraduate curriculum at Brown University and with making recommendations concerning this philosophy… .” It was chaired by Paul F. Maeder, a professor of engineering who served as associate provost and later vice president for finance and operations.
April 10, 1969
The Special Committee on Educational Principles released an interim report that outlined the purpose and principles of the University. In October 1969, it would release a final report that made further recommendations regarding academic counseling for students, language requirements, honors and distinction, physical education, the bachelor of science degree, and advanced standing. This came to be known as the Maeder Report.
May 7, 1969
Students gathered in support of the proposed curricular changes on the College Green as many of the Maeder Report’s recommendations were approved by the faculty during an all-day meeting that was broadcast live on the Green. On that day, faculty voted to eliminate distribution requirements and to give students the option to create independent concentrations and choose to receive letter grades or a Satisfactory/No Credit option. The number of classes required to achieve a bachelor’s degree was changed, and the Modes of Thought courses that the Magaziner-Maxwell Report recommended for all students were approved to be offered, but not required. What remained was for the faculty to address the call for educational principles that would serve as the foundation and the core of a new approach to undergraduate education at Brown.
May 8, 1969
The Brown faculty approved a statement of educational principles that had been co-written by students and faculty the evening before and represented a compromise between the ideas of both groups. With only minor changes, these are the principles that guide the Open Curriculum today. They begin: “At Brown University, the purpose of education for the undergraduate is to foster the intellectual and personal growth of the individual student. The student, ultimately responsible for his or her own development in both of these areas, must be an active participant in framing his or her own education… .”