Harvard Adopts Quantitative Reasoning, Studies Preregistration

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences enacts a full agenda of undergraduate academic and social policies.

Facing an unusually full agenda during its last full meeting of the academic year, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) this afternoon:

  • legislated a new committee to “improve the current system” of undergraduate course registration;
  • adopted the “Quantitative Reasoning with Data” requirement that completes the architecture for the General Education curriculum debuting this coming fall;
  • accepted changes in the Handbook for Students, including language bearing on campus alcohol and drug policies;
  • endorsed a new S.M. degree in biotechnology: life sciences, which will be offered in combination with a Harvard Business School (HBS) M.B.A. degree; and
  • for good measure, heard an exchange on the implementation of the policy sanctioning undergraduate membership in unrecognized single-gender social organizations (USGSOs, principally the final clubs and fraternities and sororities)—a policy adopted administratively in December 2017 after protracted, contentious debate.

Course Registration

As previously reported, moving from the present shopping period at the beginning of each semester to a system of preregistration for courses has been a recurrent subject of discussion. Preregistration would make it easier to recruit and train graduate teaching assistants (thus assuring them of employment and enabling them to master course material); assign classrooms; and begin instruction from the first day of classes—but it would be at odds with the faculty’s commitment to accommodating students in pursuing their desired schedules, and could undercut undergraduates’ ability to discover new intellectual passions. These conflicting objectives were clearly surfaced by professor of philosophy Bernard Nickel and colleagues, whose committee examined the issue during the fall semester (see “Rethinking Course Registration,” March-April, page 23).

Their report, aired at the April 2 FAS meeting, highlighted the diverse values and interests at stake, and resulted in a recommendation for further, more formal study, pointing toward possible revision of registration in 2022, or after. In the interim, it suggested that shopping be limited to two days and restructured as a “course presentation” period, during which the teachers of large, open-enrollment classes, for example, would offer 30- to 45-minute samplers of the content and format at multiple times, so students could drop in on several and get a sense of each course. This period would precede the first week of instruction (when the current shopping period takes place), and might be accommodated, the committee suggests, by removing two days from reading period—a calendar change that may raise other questions or challenges.

Given the scheduling difficulties of implementing that interim suggestion, dean of undergraduate education Amanda Claybaugh advanced at the April meeting a more general motion for immediate discussion. She proposed a joint committee “to improve the current system of registration,” to be charged with:

  • implementing an improved system for predicting enrollment in courses so as to allocate classrooms and teaching staff more appropriately;
  • reviewing the current system of “shopping” for courses and proposing improvements if necessary;
  • creating a coordinated system of course lotteries and of admission to courses with limited enrollments;
  • reporting to the Faculty, in the spring of 2022, on the current state of registration; and
  • recommending to the Faculty, if necessary, an alternative system.

Somewhat complicating any projection about the lifespan of shopping week in its current form, an explanatory note accompanying Claybaugh’s motion read, “The committee will prepare, in detail, an alternate system, whether registration the semester before or pre-term planning, and, if necessary, propose that system to the faculty in the spring of 2022, for implementation soon after that.”

That language is what the faculty debated and adopted on May 7. By 2022, presumably, the College will have some experience with full-scale classes in Allston (where the sciences and engineering center is to open as a major teaching facility in the fall of 2020), and with the terms of the University’s contract with the graduate-student union, now the subject of a protracted, complex negotiation.

Thus, for now, the faculty, through its new committee, is committed to a tricky three-part course of action:

  • It will retain the shopping period, but attempt to improve it with incremental changes (a common date for lotteried admissions; algorithms and other methods for trying to predict enrollment more accurately).
  • It will accommodate changes, perhaps large ones, stemming from the negotiated conditions of graduate students’ work as teaching assistants.
  • And it will, simultaneously, devise a new, different system that might improve predictability of enrollments, and staffing for classes, while simultaneously preserving maximum flexibility for students to choose courses, and bring that before the faculty three years hence when FAS evaluates the results of the incremental changes and the new environment for graduate teaching assistants.

The intent is to be ready for a full debate on what works best, in light of the best thinking that can be brought to bear on the problem between now and then.

Quantitative Reasoning—with Data

The last element of the General Education curriculum to be defined before it comes into effect for undergraduates this fall was the quantitative-reasoning requirement. During the debate on April 2, mathematics faculty members raised concerns that the “data” part of the course definition cheapened, or disparaged, education in pure mathematical reasoning or formal logic, therefore shortchanging what they saw as a crucial element in a liberal-arts education (read about the extended debate here).

The subcommittee that devised the new requirement came back to the May 7 meeting with a list of qualifying departmental courses—including such large-enrollment favorites as Computer Science 50, “Introduction to Computer Science,” and the Physics 15 A-B-C sequence (“Introductory Mechanics and Relativity,” “Electromagnetism and Statistical Physics,” and “Wave Phenomena”), and the statistics introductions to quantitative methods for the social sciences and humanities, life sciences, economics, and data science.

Claybaugh’s enacting motion, brought forward on April 2, would replace the current requirement in “Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning” with the “quantitative reasoning with data” (QRD) requirement, aimed at ensuring that Harvard undergraduates “reach a level of quantitative facility involving mathematical, statistical, and computational methods that will enable them to think critically about data as it is employed in fields of inquiry” across the FAS. Qualifying courses, as approved by the standing committee on general education, “may be offered in any FAS department, committee, or division,” but cannot displace the distribution requirement (a notion that had been bruited about in the past, at least for students who are concentrating in an obviously quantitative field).

Salil Vadhan, Joseph professor of computer science and applied mathematics, proposed an amendment that would subject the QRD requirement to a full review (“including its goals, rationale, and scope within the wider context of the College’s curriculum”) in the 2022-2023 academic year. That carried.

Over the continuing objections, some passionate, by mathematics faculty members (one of whom was speaking for the first time in more than three decades of Harvard service), the main motion, as amended, was then enacted. That means that QRD—drawn from very diverse existing courses found to have the right stuff for teaching students about “quantitative approaches to analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and making predictions to answer questions” (in the subcommittee’s formulation)—in effect becomes a fourth, more narrowly defined distributional requirement.

Thus Gen Ed now comprises:

  • four purpose-built courses from the curriculum’s overarching themes (aesthetics and culture; ethics and civics; histories, societies, individuals; science and technology in society);
  • plus three distributional requirements (one course each in arts and humanities, social sciences, and science and engineering); plus
  • QRD.

The Students’ Handbook

The annual revision of the Handbook for Students incorporates changes in the College’s academic and social rules. This year, these include:

  • the elimination of advanced standing, given the faculty’s disinclination to award Harvard College credit for Advanced Placement courses, and resulting changes in the process to earn a concurrent master’s degree during four years of undergraduate residence (see “A College Path to Dual Degrees,” May-June, page 28);
  • changes in the language requirement, allowing students to waive it through a more liberally defined set of tests, including those appropriate for American Sign Language; and
  • refined language on substance use, including the clearer, more direct formulation that “We expect students to abide by the law and Harvard policy on the use of drugs and alcohol. The University is not a sanctuary from the existing laws of the city, state, or federal government and students must recognize the consequences of their personal decisions as well as the impact those decisions can have on themselves, others, and the wider College community”—while maintaining, in simplified language, the reassurance that those who seek help for themselves or others for the effects of drug or alcohol use “will not be subject to disciplinary action from the College for violations pertaining to the use or provision of drugs or alcohol.” That safety-oriented measure “does not provide immunity from disciplinary action related to any other conduct violations, including…assault, property damage, or the possession in quantity or the sale or distribution of drugs.”

The Biotech Joint Degree

The proposed dual-degree program in FAS, HBS, and Harvard Medical School packages a new S.M. in Biotechnology: Life Sciences, offered only in combination with an M.B.A. (not as a freestanding master’s degree). The proposal was presented for discussion April 2 by professor of stem cell and regenerative biology Mark Fishman (who previously served as founder of the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, with huge research facilities in Cambridge) and Xander University Professor Douglas Melton (another stem-cell scientist).

The program draws on the stem-cell and regenerative biology advanced by the joint FAS-HMS department, and would combine training in that multidisciplinary field with business studies being pursued by students at HBS, aiming for careers in biotechnology.

It was approved by the faculty, joining other recently adopted, entrepreneurial programs combining expertise in engineering, for example, with training in design and in business—the ultimate in applied science.

An Update on USGSOs

During the meeting’s regular question period, Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis—a former dean of Harvard College, and a leading opponent of the current USGSO policy—rose to ask the current College dean, Rakesh Khurana (who proposed the policy which was ultimately adopted) about “the policy you announced three years ago in order to push certain off-campus social clubs to go co-ed, a policy that this Faculty discussed at some length.” Lewis continued, 

You were quoted in the Crimson on February 22 to the effect that you were pleased with the success of the policy. The Crimson also reported, however, that while the policy has wiped out almost all the women’s clubs, it has had only a small impact on the men’s clubs. So that the faculty may know the facts of the matter without relying on the Crimson, can you tell us as of today, how many of the men’s clubs have gone co-ed (perhaps under a new name), how many went out of business, and how many remain all-male; and similarly for the women’s clubs, how many went co-ed, how many went out of business, and how many remain all-female? 

The point of his question was that the policy has made it difficult for women to maintain their recently established social organizations, while the long-established male final clubs (including those with private facilities in Harvard Square, and in some cases significant endowment resources built up over many decades), have been relatively less affected to date—an outcome perhaps different from the one Khurana sought, or that faculty members who voted for the policy in late 2017 intended.

Khurana pointed to data available from the dean of students office. Among 13 social organizations now qualifying as gender-neutral (and therefore recognized, so that membership does not expose a student to the sanctions), he said, four were former fraternities; eight were former sororities; and one was a final club. Seven final clubs or similar male fraternal organizations had not become gender-neutral, and therefore remain unrecognized social organizations, whose members are subject to the new policy’s sanctions.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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