University of Rochester

Rochester Review
May-June 2009
Vol. 71, No. 5

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The Rochester Curriculum By Joel Seligman

The undergraduate College in Arts, Sciences, and Engineering is hot. For next year, we have again had a record number of applications, with Early Decision applicants up a particularly impressive 25 percent.

A key reason for the student enthusiasm is the Rochester Curriculum. At our University, each student chooses a major and two clusters, which are three-course sequences within a division (Humanities, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences) or department. As implemented a little over a decade ago by then College Dean Bill Green, we threw out a complex group of general education requirements in favor of a system that promotes student choice and coherent depth. Each student studies a major in one division and a cluster in each of the other two divisions. Students in engineering take only one cluster in another field.

The cluster element of the curriculum works because it gives students the opportunity to choose among 250 pre-designed choices of sequences or custom design their own. For students, this means they take ownership of their academic program and can study what they love. Typically, students do this one of two ways. The first is to study a common problem from a variety of viewpoints such as different ways of looking at global warming; the second is to find clusters unrelated to a student’s major. Both approaches work here.

Our Commencement Guests

I am pleased to welcome some of the most prominent leaders in business, Congress, public service, and the performing arts to campus this spring as our University celebrates its 159th Commencement. Over the course of four days of ceremonies, our graduating students will hear from Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, one of the nation’s highest-ranking women in the House of Representatives; Antonio Perez, the chairman and CEO of Kodak; Carola Eisenberg, one of the founding physicians of Physicians for Human Rights; and Christopher Seaman, the music director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

They and several other honorees will be recognized for their distinguished careers, achievements, service, and teaching. They also serve as inspirations to our students as the graduates begin the next phase of their own careers as leaders in their own right.

You can find more information about this spring’s ceremonies at

The success of the cluster system is also based on spending enough time in a field for students to feel as if they have begun to master it. As one academic put it, the cluster system is “the anti-mish-mash approach.” Provost Ralph Kuncl amplifies: “With clusters, students drill down three different mine shafts around the landscape, at varying experimental depths, as a kind of exploration.”

Erica Wellington, a health and society major from Needham, Mass., who is graduating at this May’s Commencement, says she was intrigued by the freedom to chart her own academic course. “You’re not set into anything your freshman year. There’s a lot of freedom with the class choices.”

Erica completed a cluster in biology, which was her original major, and a cluster in philosophy with a focus on ethics. Both complement her major in health & society, a Rochester program that takes a broad interdisciplinary approach to the study of health care policy, administration, and planning. She found her cluster work so appealing that she turned both of them into minors.

The flexibility to follow her interests was important in her choice of college. “That was one of the major reasons I came to the University of Rochester—because of the open curriculum.”

Kali Cohn, a political science major from Basking Ridge, N.J., who is graduating in May, says the Rochester Curriculum clearly stood out when she was looking at college choices. “I really like our curriculum,” she says. “I’ve a had a lot of room to try a lot of different things, and I think that’s extremely valuable.”

Kali began her academic studies as an English major, but over the course of her studies found herself gravitating toward international law, so she switched to political science with a minor in legal studies. By combining her English department courses in debate, rhetoric, and theater, she was able to round out her legal studies minor. And while she admits she was excited about not being required to take assigned mathematics and science courses while in college, she completed a cluster in brain & cognitive sciences, which she says, turned out to include some of her favorite courses.

“I think it’s very valuable to make people think outside their academic boxes,” she says.

Being able to take such a broad view across a range of disciplines is the hallmark of a liberal arts education. By encouraging students to explore and discover ideas and how they connect, we prepare them to take their places as scholars, scientists, leaders, and engaged citizens.