Freeman: historic number of minors added this year

This semester, MIT introduced four new majors and seven new minors.

“It’s [historic]. We’ve never had this many in one year, in one term,” Dean for Undergraduate Education Dennis M. Freeman PhD ’86 told The Tech in an interview

Starting next fall, students will have the option of majoring in Management (15-1), Business Analytics (15-2), Finance (15-3), or Mathematical Economics (14-2). Students will also be able to minor in Computer Science, Design, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Statistics and Data Science, Management, Business Analytics, and Finance.

Freeman said that each new major and minor was created in response to needs that the faculty identified. For example, he said, many students are interested in entrepreneurship, and faculty thought there were concrete things these students should know.

If a minor isn’t available, students often take a sampling of classes in a field of interest. Such sampling is “perfectly okay,” Freeman said, but “the value of a minor is a credential.”

“A group of faculty got together and said, ‘if you want to demonstrate competence in computer science, what should you do?’ Well, you should have a programming course, an algorithms course,” he said.

Freeman identified GEL as an already-existing optional program that students could enter to learn about entrepreneurship. “We need something,” he said, and “students are probably ill-advised to do something that they get zero credit for.”

The computer science minor, for example, was created in response to the large fraction of the student body enrolled in Course 6. As Freeman explained it, when one third of undergraduates are in EECS, “there’s something funny going on.”

Freeman said there is a difference between learning about computer science “because you want to apply it someplace” and learning about it because “you want to improve computer science.”

“If you’re interested in advancing computers or making networks do more things.,” he said, the major could be an appropriate choice. But for students who want to learn programming skills or algorithmic thinking — which he noted are “increasingly important everywhere” — and apply them to other fields, a minor could be better fit.  

Several factors, such as resources and outside regulations, constrain the creation of majors and minors.

Departments need to have department heads, administration, and undergraduate and graduate offices. There has to be “some kind of a minimum number [of students] that makes it reasonable to have all that structure,” Freeman said.

“We don’t want to limit what the students can do, but we don’t want to have an overly bureaucratic place where every professor is the head of a department. We’d have a thousand departments,” he said.

It was for this reason that folding the ocean engineering degree into Course 2 made more sense than having it continue as an independent major, Freeman said.

It is also difficult to create majors when the faculty who would contribute to those majors are spread across multiple departments. For example, many departments house robotics faculty. These departments “wouldn’t necessarily be all that happy” with the creation of a robotics department because it would take away some of their faculty and resources, Freeman said.

There is also the additional problem of meeting requirements for accreditation by organizations like the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Some students want to be able to say, for example, that their mechanical engineering program in college was accredited. “It’s sort of a trade-off — trying to provide credentials that satisfy a lot of different students’ needs.”

Freeman himself minored in religious studies in college. He said he was fascinated by world religions and there was value in getting the broad view that the minor gave him.

He emphasized the importance of exploration and of “being able to take whatever [classes] you want.” But at the same time, he said, faculty have identified skills that students need to know to demonstrate competence in the area of study. “Hopefully the designers put some thought into it and there is a reason for those [required] courses that you weren’t as interested in,” he said.  

Freeman said that they were not planning on retiring any existing programs.

“Enrollments go through cycles,” he said. “You don’t want to retire a major simply because it doesn’t have students.”

Rather, he said, they consider whether small majors are expected to recover: “What we usually try to do is we say, ‘Is there a future?’”