New Senior Thesis Policy Provokes Pushback

Beginning this year, Claremont McKenna College enacted a policy requiring all seniors to post their theses online as part of the public domain.  The 2010-2011 Senior Thesis syllabus (available online) requires that all seniors access the Claremont Colleges Digital Library (CCDL) within 48 hours of the due date in order to upload completed theses to the site.  From there, CCDL “staff” review the submission and post the final thesis to Scholarship@Claremont, a website which stores and indexes scholarship produced by the Claremont Colleges. According to members of the college administration, the shift in thesis policy was most directly a result of space limitations.  Until this year, CMC has maintained a hard copy of each student’s senior thesis in the Crocker Reading Room, where it is publicly available upon request.  “Theses take up a lot of space,” says Dean of the Faculty Gregory Hess, “and we don’t have a lot of space.”

Dean of Students Mary Spellman, who sits on the Academic Standards Committee (ASC), offered similar reasons for the move to online scholarship.  “Storage is an issue,” says Dean Spellman, “and of course, in the digital era, we are moving in that direction to digitize our records including the theses.”

The move to post senior theses online prompted considerable backlash from CMC students.  Senior Andrew Grimm takes issue with the new policy and wishes students had been a part of the initial conversation surrounding the move.  “The main problem is that there was no student deliberation,” says Grimm.  “It just kind of happened.”

Grimm was one of about a dozen students to appeal to the ASC for an exemption to the online requirement.  Thus far, all appeals have been granted, but Hess views the waivers as a temporary solution to the problems voiced by disgruntled students.  “We would always want to be open to granting waivers,” says Hess, “but we don’t want to be in the position of customizing [the policy] every year.”

Currently, the administration is looking into whether or not they will restrict access to the online theses by IP address or domain name, a distinction that could curtail the extent of public viewership.  When asked about this change in policy, Hess responded, “We’ve not come up with these determinations yet."

To avoid potential conflict with those students who wish to publish their work formally, Hess has allowed for an “embargo” option, in which the college refrains from publishing the student’s work for a period of 6 to 18 months after graduation.  Hess considers the embargo to be most helpful in the area of creative theses, such as an original artwork, novel, or poem.  However, says Hess, the embargo option is not intended for those considering a run for public office “20 years from now.”

While Hess notes that many faculty are in favor of the new policy, some have voiced their discontent with a move to require online publication of student theses.  Government Professor John J. Pitney Jr. opposes the upload requirement in its current form.  “At the very least, students should have a simple opt-out, without any need for signatures or committee approval,” explains Pitney.  Many CMC graduates move on to work in public life as staffers or even political candidates, and Pitney fears that the new upload requirement may endanger the reputation of those seeking such public careers.

“Material in senior theses can be damaging to [students] later in life,” notes Pitney.  “We do not want to assist people who want to harm the reputations of our alumni.”  As a former opposition researcher for political candidates, Pitney asserts that such danger is “real and present.”

In addition, some students might consider “dumbing down” their thesis topic in order to avoid potentially controversial subjects.  “Harsh criticism—even though it may be totally legitimate—may still trigger a lawsuit from a litigious person or group eager to strike back,” states Pitney.

Hess doesn’t see the threat of less scholarly work. “I think knowing that it’s publicly available and part of the intellectual stock of human knowledge will make students probably want to write that much better of a thesis and be that much more proud of their thesis.”

“People understand the intellectual phase you’re at as a college student,” asserts Hess.  “You just can’t live your life in such fear.”  Certainly, there is a degree of permanence that comes with posting material online.  However, says Hess, “the Internet is supposed to encourage freedom of thought, not prohibit it.”

While the college community may disagree over the specifics of the policy, few seem to oppose its promotion of shared scholarship.  An easily accessible online thesis, notes Hess, can be “one of the greatest selling points for a young person” looking to apply to graduate or law school or seeking job offerings.  Public networking sites like LinkedIn, for example, would allow for students to provide direct links to their academic work, and professors could cite online theses as part of their recommendation letters.

Grimm, among other students, believes the opportunity for communal scholarship is worthwhile, but the process for doing so deserves a second look.  “There are a lot of other ways to promote shared scholarship of theses,” says Grimm.  Among them, he notes, are student thesis presentations held at the CMC Athenaeum.  Students, such as those enrolled in CMC's Finance Sequence or writing an honors thesis in Government or International Relations, already participate in thesis defenses held at the Athenaeum.  As of now, such presentations are not mandatory, but Grimm sees real benefits in viewing his peers’ work.  Watching classmates share their theses in person, says Grimm, is extremely valuable to promoting intellectual curiosity within the college community.

Calls for the reassessment of the upload policy have not been ignored.  “I think that students have raised legitimate concerns and issues that we need to explore more, and the committee wants to explore them more,” says Spellman. “This is our first year.  We went into it with the right intentions and with what we thought was the right way to go about it.  Now, we need to take a step back and look at what the right way to do this is.”

While the process may change, the digitizing of theses will most likely continue.  While the new academic policy may need some tinkering on a case-by-case basis, Hess does not see the college as catering to each individual concern.  “I don’t want to turn this college into a short-order cook for senior theses,” says Hess, “but on the other hand, it doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all either.”

As the administration continues to explore the technological options for storing and indexing online theses, students should feel welcome to contribute to the process.  “One of the things I love about CMC is we get that change isn’t just final, change is a process,” says Spellman.  “We listen to students, and students have a voice.”