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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Undergraduate Update

January-February 2002

Propelled by faculty interest and prodded by Harvard's new president, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) appears to be embarked on an ambitious review and perhaps overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum. The work began at the first FAS faculty meeting of the academic year, held on October 16. That was four days after Lawrence H. Summers, in his installation address, gave high priority to "thinking carefully about what we teach, and how we teach, recognizing that any curriculum, course of study, or form of pedagogy can always be improved." The goal, he said then, was to "assure more of what lies at the heart of the educational experience--direct contact between teacher and student."

FAS dean Jeremy R. Knowles sounded two themes for the faculty's work. First, he envisions a year of "curricular planning." Among the elements he cited are further growth in freshman-seminar offerings (so first-year College students can have an intense experience working with senior faculty members) and continued scrutiny of Core curriculum courses--both to be tied into a review of departmental concentration requirements. He raised the issue of facilitating study abroad, a common interest among students, faculty, and the new president. Given improved graduate-student fellowships, he spoke of the need to coordinate those guaranteed teaching experiences with suitably scheduled and related undergraduate courses. Curricular planning, he said, ought also to drive decisions on where new faculty positions will be created. Finally, as FAS seeks to enhance the leave policy for senior faculty members, he noted that it would be necessary to assure sufficient teaching resources remain in place so that essential courses are offered.

Knowles's second cluster of priorities related to space planning, as a majority of FAS's departments are now space-constrained, limiting growth of the faculty ranks. Among the hundreds of millions of dollars of planned projects, he cited only two: the pending final permit for the Center for Government and International Studies, on either side of Cambridge Street--a complex first envisioned in 1992; and construction of underground parking in the North Yard (north of Kirkland and east of Oxford Streets), beginning next spring, as the first step to making room for expanded science facilities.

Summers followed, recapping his principles for strengthening Harvard: embracing change, taking risks, and keeping the University young. Recalling his own tenure as an economics professor as "some of the happiest years of my life," he underscored the faculty's central role in the life of Harvard, but emphasized that that meant not only who serves on the faculty, but also "how those who are here work together to advance teaching and scholarship."

Peter T. Ellison, professor of anthropology and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), enunciated four priorities for the academic year. (The first and third goals were satisfied November 26, when FAS announced $4 million in added scholarships and research-support fellowships, beginning next fall.) Each of Ellison's priorities has implications for the undergraduate experience, given doctoral candidates' role in College classrooms.

First is improving financial support for, and the initial-year experience of, graduate students in the sciences (following similar steps for humanities and social-sciences students in past academic years). An important element in these plans is discouraging use of first-year students as teaching fellows; rather, Ellison urged, their first year of classes should help them identify research interests and mentors before they settle into a laboratory. Second, he cited the need to make teaching an integral part of graduate students' education--in their own interest, and for the sake of the undergraduates whom they instruct. Third, he proposed exploring ways to speed students' completion of the Ph.D., since Harvard's record appears worse than those of competing institutions. (Unduly protracted graduate study, he maintained, diverts students to other universities and discourages them from academic careers altogether.) Finally, Ellison raised the issue of training graduate students in professional ethics--the integrity of data, protection of subjects, obligations to sources, ownership of ideas--an area where GSAS, alone among the graduate and professional schools, does not have a formal curriculum requirement.

The last issue echoed not only with faculty members, who advanced examples from their own students, but with the president. Summers used the occasion to underscore his interest in teaching. The paramount concern, he said, was the ethic of instructors' obligation to do a good, conscientious job of teaching their students. Faculty members must instill that ethic as they recruit teaching fellows, he said, ensuring that the fellowship is not seen merely an aspect of financial aid.

Susan G. Pedersen, professor of history and dean for undergraduate education, then sketched the College's agenda. The fifth item of seven perhaps raised the most eyebrows: reversing earlier dogma, she said, the Educational Policy Committee had determined from a review of the past quarter-century that Harvard does have a problem of grade inflation. FAS should be concerned, she said: professors' ability to distinguish work of varying quality had been compromised, and incentives to student performance had weakened. (See "The Gamut of Grades from A to B," page 63.)

The other issues concerned legislation to allow students to count freshman seminars for either a Core or a departmental requirement, so they won't be discouraged from enrolling; a review of ways to ease study abroad; recruiting sufficient new courses for the Core and securing enough teaching fellows; curricular planning in relation to faculty leaves; formal legislation on the granting of summa cum laude honors; and, in general, thinking about the role of teaching fellows, whose ranks will diminish in the future as GSAS students receive better support for research and dissertation writing.

When discussion resumed at the next faculty meeting on November 13, Summers voiced hope that any review of curricular rules would emerge "with a presumption in favor of freshman seminars." Students who turn down Harvard offers of admission, he said, often cite class size, and peer institutions have universal access to small first-year classes. He had also "become persuaded," he said--linking carrot to stick--that a more generous faculty leave policy was fundamental to faculty members' "scholarly productivity" and "sanity," given the demands on their time. But reconciling faculty leaves with the demands for adequate offerings in freshman seminars, the Core curriculum, and departmental courses, he warned, would require comprehensive curricular planning. The departments that did the best job in such planning, he noted, would be best placed to argue for added faculty slots as the professoriate expands.

Dean Pedersen then introduced an informational report on study out of residence. Today, although many undergraduates travel or pursue summer fellowships abroad, only 9 percent of College students receive credit for study abroad. Interest in such studies has grown beyond language and international-relations concentrators, she noted, to encompass history and a wide array of the social sciences. (Faculty members from other disciplines rose to note the broadening effect of such experiences for all students.)

Standing in the way of more widespread study abroad, the report noted, are confusing rules and procedures; the constraints imposed by satisfying curricular requirements for expository writing, the Core, and concentrations; and the appeal of spending one's college years in Harvard's residential academic community. (For a student perspective, see "Beyond Cambridge," March-April 2001, page 70.) Untangling those strands will require not only administrative improvements, but also, ultimately, fresh judgments about the curriculum overall.

William C. Kirby, Geisinger professor of history and director of the Asia Center, spoke on behalf of FAS's standing committee on out-of-residence study. The committee, which approves students' proposed courses of study abroad, "is one of the few FAS committees that is not overworked," he said. "Harvard is among the most insular of American colleges"--the only worse ones he could think of were the military service academies. He described the study-abroad office as understaffed and hidden in the basement of the Office of Career Services--a venue not naturally frequented by freshmen and sophomores, who were in the best position to plan future study abroad. The administrative hurdles are so high, Kirby said, that his committee was likely to approve any academic plan presented by candidates "if they haven't graduated by then."

The system "penalizes them for being intellectually curious" and needs to be turned upside down, he challenged, by loosening other Core and concentration requirements so that study abroad becomes a regular part of academic experience. "We think the planets will remain in alignment if a semester of tutorial has to be missed," he said, noting from his own field that "the best place to learn Chinese, it turns out, is in China." To facilitate such experiences, the history department voted to eliminate one course requirement for students who study abroad in Anglophone countries, and two courses for those who do so in non-Anglophone countries. Given an increasingly complex global society, Kirby concluded, "We have to help our students face such a world by giving them an education in the world."

Summers sought dissenting comment, and found little. Jay M. Harris, Wolfson professor of Jewish studies, decried piecemeal reform of the curriculum, citing the faculty's seriatim work over the past five years on the Core, concentration requirements, foreign languages, freshman seminars, and now study abroad. Each runs into rules imposed by the others, he said, so it was time to look at the undergraduate course of study in its entirety.

Summers concurred with "92 percent" of what Harris said, and noted that he was consulting with Knowles on how to take a "systematic look at undergraduate education." But he thought it a "serious mistake to be paralyzed by interdependency." Progress could be made on study abroad absent systemic review.

As the meeting concluded, Summers again urged the faculty on to action. Alumni surveys proved that not all education occurred inside classrooms, he noted. From his own experience, study abroad in developing nations was especially broadening, and he hoped for opportunities beyond those in the industrialized world. He welcomed the suggestion by Christie McDonald, Smith professor of French language and literature, and chair of Romance languages and literatures, that language requirements not be a burden that chokes off study abroad; indeed, such experiences might encourage students to pursue language study, then or later. Summers hoped that in making recommendations later in the year, the faculty would look for "safe harbors"--approved Harvard-affiliated programs, or Harvard programs proper--to which students might easily turn for study-abroad experience, even if they were not impelled to design personal courses of study. He urged House masters to ease returning students' reentry into rooming assignments on an "undisadvantaged basis."

Nettlesome as it might be to sort out all those issues over the course of the academic year, this list did not exhaust the matters pertaining to the undergraduate experience that the faculty wished to have addressed at the outset of the new presidency. During the October 16 FAS meeting, Ruth R. Wisse, Peretz professor of Yiddish literature and professor of comparative literature, raised anew the perennial matter of the status of ROTC on campus, in the context of terrorism, war, and recent student and organized alumni rallying for a program based at and supported by Harvard. (The current program is located at MIT and supported by alumni contributions.)

Rather than simply endorsing the status quo, Summers said military service was a "noble calling" and "vitally important to the freedom that makes possible institutions like Harvard." The issue was complex, he said, involving the imperatives of equal treatment and nondiscrimination, the University's role within the national community, and providing opportunities for students to participate in programs of interest to them. Given that complexity, and Harvard's long history of debate about ROTC, he said, "I have begun to acquaint myself with the record of faculty" discussion and decisions, and would continue to do so in consultation with others.

The faculty room at University Hall, more crowded for the first two faculty meetings than in recent memory, promised to remain so throughout the academic year.