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Bureau of Study Counsel, R.I.P.

6.3.19

A rendering of the new Academic Resource Center, opening in late July

Courtesy of LAB / Life. Science. Architecture, Inc


A rendering of the new Academic Resource Center, opening in late July

Courtesy of LAB / Life. Science. Architecture, Inc

The College today announced a significant change in academic counseling, including a fall-semester transition from the Bureau of Study Counsel (BSC) to a new entity, named the Academic Resource Center (ARC), which will likely result in

  • a much-changed staff; 
  • quite different approaches to assisting students in their transition from high school to college, through challenging phases of graduate study, and in the course of their Harvard academic work; and
  • even a new location, in space being fitted up at 1414 Massachusetts Avenue, opening July 29 (rendering above; the space is fully accessible, unlike BSC’s long-established facility at 5 Linden Street).

Information disseminated to students today (including access to the academicresourcecenter.harvard.edu website) hints at the changes in store as the ARC starts operating and the BSC is closed on December 31. The FAQs posted on the two entities’ websites include a question about where to seek “one-on-one academic support”—the answer to which describes the availability of academic counseling services via BSC through the end of 2019, and the introduction of academic coaching at ARC, ramping up in the fall term.

Although the changed services and approaches are known in outline, detailed programs await the hiring of a new ARC director, the search for whom begins this week. Some BSC staff members may apply for positions in the ARC, but they are not transferring automatically: the expectation is that ARC services will involve new and different skills.

The Context for Change

During a conversation last Friday at University Hall, overlooking the post-Commencement calm in Tercentenary Theatre, Sindhumathi Revuluri, associate dean of undergraduate education, and Amanda Claybaugh, dean of undergraduate education, outlined a generational change in the perception of student needs and in thinking about academic support.

Revuluri, who has been interim director of the BSC during the past academic year, following the retirement of Abigail Lipson, who was director from 2005 until September 2018, defined “academic support” broadly, to include advising, accessibility, and learning assistance, and put it in the context of the College’s still-broader emphasis on academic inclusion and engagement. 

At Harvard, she said, the BSC—created by faculty legislation in 1947, when returning World War II veterans surged into the academy—was built on a model of human development and of mental-health services: accommodating the needs of (largely white, male) students who had to simultaneously acquire, or buff up, their study skills and, often, adapt to traumas stemming from their combat experiences.

As such, she limned an organization and a culture that were relatively more oriented to mentorship, pastoral care, and students’ mental well-being, and accordingly relatively less focused on academic advising per se. Those traits have persisted, she said, and set Harvard’s services, through BSC, somewhat apart from what some peer institutions, and other schools, now do. Lipson’s trajectory may be somewhat illustrative in this regard. A BSC counselor with a background in clinical psychology, she led the reading-strategies course. After 15 years at BSC, she moved to American University in 1997, where she was director of psychological and learning services and of counseling. And then she assumed the BSC directorship in 2005. During her tenure, BSC moved from reporting to Harvard University Health Services (HUHS), where the structural tie seemed to emphasize mental health, and into the College and undergraduate-education organizations. 

(Among the topics covered in BSC counseling conversations are “attend[ing] to what leaves you feeling uncertain, unsettled, inspired, or intrigued in your life and work as a student,” “reflect[ing] on and mak[ing] sense of your intellectual, social, and personal experiences,” and “reconsider[ing] your assumptions about your learning and your life direction.” BSC counselors also facilitate “reflective practice” conversations on subjects such as being aware of boundaries and limits, “co-creating community” by careful listening and embracing differences, and coping with “instances of dissonance or unsettledness.” Ironically, a May 29 op-ed in The Harvard Crimson by BSC academic counselor Ariel Phillips, Ed.D. ’89, who directs the Success-Failure Project there, conveys some sense of the organization’s culture and approach—just before they are modified in a new organization, or phased out.)

Today, Revuluri said, much has altered. The College has changed its advising structure. The student body is, of course, far more diverse. And mental-health support is embedded in the separate campus Counseling and Mental Health Services arm of HUHS. Among those dimensions of diversity, she pointed especially to “neurodiverse” students who have learning differences and distinct learning challenges—some recognized as a result of greater understanding of an alphabet-soup of cognitive and learning issues (ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, challenges with executive function). Those issues have been increasingly addressed through new evidence-based educational practices—one sign of which is the huge increase in the number of K-12 students nationwide who are on Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) meant to tailor instruction and related services for those with legally identified disabilities. Revuluri said that at the end of high school, not enough attention had been paid to those students’ transition to college—suggesting a need to “scaffold” services, particularly for students with learning difficulties.

A number of these themes are distilled in the ARC mission statement, published today. It reads, in part:

The Academic Resource Center (ARC) at Harvard University exists to support the academic mission of Harvard College and the GSAS by ensuring every student has full access to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education. The ARC is committed to empowering students to reach their full academic potential in an inclusive and equitable academic environment. Using evidence-based methods and drawing on recent research in learning assistance, the ARC supports Harvard’s students in developing reading strategies, time management skills, and metacognitive approaches to learning. Students will have access to consultations, workshops, academic coaching, and skills-based resources.

…At the ARC, you can expect to find workshops to help you develop time management skills, plan your semester, enhance your reading and retention, and approach your problem sets.  You can learn more about your ideal learning styles and environments, how to customize your semester if you are returning from leave, and how to find and connect to instructional support opportunities with your instructors and courses. The ARC can support you if you are recovering from a concussion, resetting mid-semester, or writing your thesis.  You can explore all of this and more through workshops or one-on-one coaching.

What’s New

Accordingly, Revuluri said, the time had come to build an organization focused on the core functions of academic support: the new ARC. Discussions with students and professors, she said, surfaced issues familiar (student reports of academic stress) and new (faculty members’ concerns about making their academic work fully inclusive). The practical issues are perhaps not so different: making the transition from high-school to college work,  managing time between course work and extracurriculars, study strategies, how to do problem sets and prepare for exams; and for the graduate students who used the BSC and will use the ARC, how to conduct research, prepare to teach, and work with an adviser.

But the tone and tactics Revuluri described are different. Rather than, say, creating a long-term, one-on-one counseling relationship to talk about coping with academic stress in weekly, 50-minute sessions (the BSC model, as she summarized it), the emphasis will be on teaching academic skills and strategies meant to overcome or eliminate those sources of stress. The ARC is thus envisioned as offering targeted, focused programs, delivered in some cases online; in others through less frequent and shorter one-on-one sessions; and in still others through multiperson “accountability groups” that focus discussion on a particular issue and associated solutions.

She talked about effecting a transition in how students and faculty members perceive the services. If BSC operated on a drop-in model (come in and talk, and we’ll help you), she envisioned ARC letting students know “this is what you will be able to do” after participating in a program or group discussion. The hope is that this skills-focused presentation will remove any stigma associated with accessing services, and will “normalize” seeking coaching support.

Similarly, conversations with departments, directors of undergraduate studies, and the faculty heads of large introductory courses are intended to progressively familiarize them with ARC services, in the hope that those instructors and advisers will mention ARC, point to it in syllabi, and know when to suggest to students that they might benefit from taking advantage of an ARC program.

Ultimately, Claybaugh hopes, if ARC staff start seeing a number of students from one course appear with similar challenges, they can reach out to the course head to suggest ways ARC could be helpful—or ways the course might be adapted, or students helped through it in the classroom and assignments. She mentioned faculty resources such as the Bok Center, which teaches pedagogical skills, and the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, which underwrites pedagogical innovation, to which professors might be directed. She said she saw increasing faculty interest in recognizing the “fullness of the opportunity” for more effective and inclusive learning through such feedback and conversation.

As Claybaugh put it, the ARC aims to help students adapt to Harvard and their studies here, and to “help Harvard adapt to all of its students.”

In Prospect

Clearly, much depends on identifying ARC’s new director, who will report to Revuluri. She and Claybaugh hope for applicants who

  • have experience in “the field of learning assistance and academic support”;
  • can manage a large program of one-on-one peer tutoring (which will be regularized, with known, scheduled appointments—so more students who seek such services can acquire them readily—and more training for the tutors); and 
  • are equipped to develop programming, protocols, accountability measures, and the required managerial and administrative systems for a restaffed, multiperson organization that will network with other undergraduate education offices, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, academic departments, and myriad other Harvard units.

Although much of the conversation focused on accessibility and students with various learning challenges and disabilities, Revuluri and Claybaugh acknowledged that as the College admits a larger cohort of first-generation students and those from under-resourced high schools, there is an element of acculturation to the “hidden curriculum” of a college in a research university (see “Mastering the ‘Hidden Curriculum’”). But they emphasized that those skills apply across the student body. So there are needs for the ARC in this realm, too—opportunities that are not being met either by jamming still more contents into matriculating students’ busy opening days each August, or by simply hoping students will figure out Harvard and its culture on their own.

Significant ground has already been ploughed: ARC sets up shop in its new facilities before the end of July.

On the other hand, much remains unknown. Its unveiling today may come as a surprise to many faculty members and the student body as a whole. Some students who have built close relationships with BSC counselors may find the transition unsettling, and concerns will no doubt be raised about the continuing demand for, and adequacy of, University-provided mental-health services, broadly defined. Real estate, always a prime subject for speculation in Harvard Square, comes into play: as of now the use of the Linden Street building after the end of the year is unknown (or at last undisclosed).

Most important, of course, is the search for an ARC director, to whom will fall the responsibility for effecting a significant change in the definition and delivery of academic support services to undergraduate and graduate students in the arts and sciences.

The College announcement appears here.

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