April 30, 2004

Cornell to Create Chinese Major

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In an initiative which might set the precedent for other colleges around the nation, Cornell will offer a major focusing on the language, politics and history of China — the first of its kind at an American university.

The new China and Asia-Pacific Studies major will be the first at Cornell which requires students to take classes off-campus, according to Prof. Edward Gunn, chair of the Asian studies department. Gunn said that CAPS students will spend two semesters abroad — one at Cornell-in-Washington and another in China.

Although the major’s proposal received unanimous approval from the College of Arts and Sciences’ faculty members at their annual meeting this month, it still needs to be cleared with Provost Biddy Martin, President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 and the New York State’s Department of Education, according to Prof. Sherman Cochran, a main organizer of the CAPS major.

As a result, it is probable that CAPS will not be offered until fall 2005. Because of the new major’s rigid structure concerning curriculum’s plan abroad, this year’s freshmen will also be unable to apply for CAPS.

Many of the required on-campus courses will be offered in the Asian studies, government and history departments. In addition, students in the new major will be required to take four academic years of Mandarin Chinese.

“This is a bold step we’re taking,” Cochran said. “I think that we are strong in Chinese studies so we do want to build on those strengths.”

The birth of the CAPS major started almost two years ago, when Michael Zak ’75, a former engineer who also studied in Asian studies, approached President Emeritus Hunter R. Rawlings III about making a donation for a new Chinese major.

After a four-member committee unanimously voted in favor of the creation of the new field of study during the winter of 2002, Cochran took the main role in meeting with different departments around campus.

Besides the study abroad and language requirement, students will also be required to take courses tailor-made for the major. These include a freshman year on-campus gateway course as well as specialized classes in Beijing and Washington. Cochran is currently coordinating with professors about the new curriculum. “We have a sizable body of faculty that can teach the right courses,” Cochran said. “I think the new major will fit neatly into Cornell’s existing curriculum.”

Gunn, who along with Prof. Stephanie Hoare, Asian studies, helped coordinate many of the logistics concerning language and studying abroad, said that students who decide to do the CAPS major later on in their college careers could also enroll in FALCON — an intensive, year-long program focusing on the Mandarin Chinese language.

Although organizers are unsure of the major’s possible popularity, Hoare was encouraged by the fact that FALCON has been experiencing an enrollment increase over the past few years and many of these students are interested in international relations — a field with CAPS will specifically address.

“We think it’s going to start out small, but over time, there will be a demand for [the major],” Gunn said. “Twenty to 30 years ago, you’re talking about a much more arcane study. There is [now] a greater interest in China.”

Cochran expects that eventually, each class will have about 20 students, and cited the fact that the subject matter is growing as approximately 200 secondary schools in the United States teaching Chinese language courses. He added that two freshman have already inquired about the new major.

In an April 27 article in the New York Times which examined Harvard University’s undergraduate curriculum review, one issue which was addressed was the expansion of the university’s focus in creating connections with countries such as China. This point was mainly brought up by Harvard’s William C. Kirby, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences and a scholar of modern Chinese history.

“At this time of American influence and growing responsibilities in the world, institutions such as Harvard bear a responsibility to educate its students to be knowledgeable and responsible as they go out in the world — to know the languages, to know the culture, the economics and the policies of the countries they will visit, to interact in a knowledgeable way,” Kirby said in the article.

Many of Kirby’s remarks have been echoed by Lehman over the course of his first year. Labeling his vision of Cornell as a “transnational university,” Lehman, in a recent interview with The Sun, said he will visit China this summer in hopes of establishing further communication and connections with groups and individuals in the world’s most populous nation.

“It is the cutting edge of what you’ll see universities are moving towards,” Gunn said.

Lehman said that he heavily supports the creation of CAPS and, according to Hoare, the University hopes to create its own center in China — a fact which is particularly significant since three years ago, Cornell did not even have its own study abroad program in that country.

Cochran thinks that many prospective students could choose Cornell just because of the unique nature of offering of CAPS. And according to several students including Katharine Pan ’06, “[the expansion] is a good idea.”

“I think there is a very important place for China in the 21st century,” Cochran said.

Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Senior Editor