Sunday, June 16, 2019

History of the Bureau of Study Counsel

There is a bit of a tussle going on about the history of the Bureau of Study Counsel, and the ways in which the new Academic Resource Center represents a clean break from what the Bureau used to be. The history may be significant as it relates to whether the ARC is a new new thing, and therefore it is proper to let go all the Bureau staff since their jobs no longer exist, or is a repackaging of some of the Bureau's functions, in which case some greater continuity might have been expected.

Harvard Magazine's account of the closing of the Bureau of Study Counsel has been expanded at the bottom by a substantial comment by former counselor Ann Fleck-Henderson. Here is part of her comment correcting some of the history as it was related to the Magazine by the College administration:

The Bureau of Study Counsel began in 1947 as a collection of academic support services: tutoring (then called supervision), help with English writing and with speedier reading. It was not built, as Dean Revuluri claims, on a model “... of mental health services.” It was overseen by a committee of faculty and administrators with the intent of feeding back to those most responsible for the curriculum whatever was learned from students with whom the Bureau staff (originally of two) consulted. It is inaccurate to characterize the Bureau as “creating a long-term, one-on-one counseling relationship to talk about coping with academic stress.” The Bureau was designed to be an academic support service. It has offered, from the start and continuing today, a variety of individual and group academic services (eg, tutoring, reading course, study strategies, exam-taking skills), which have varied in different eras as student populations and needs have changed. From prior work as a teacher and administrator Bill Perry, the Bureau’s founder, knew that some well-advised and well-supported students continued to struggle. Those were the students for whom “study counsel” was recommended.
In other words, BSC always had the academic support function that is being described as the sole agenda of the ARC. To sharpen this comment on the Bureau's history a little more, the organization was originally started in 1939 and at that time was called the Bureau of Supervision. (The 1947 vote was just a name change.) From the 1938-9 President's Report:
On June 19, 1939, the [Administrative] Board presented to the Faculty a tentative plan for setting up a supervisory service under the control of the College and recommended that there be established a standing Committee on the Supervision of Students, which should exercise a general oversight of the activities having to do with the provision of special assistance to students who need help in solving their academic difficulties. … The Bureau operates on the principle that students should be taught how to do their own work rather than to have information handed out to them. Some exceptions to this rule are made according to individual needs, particularly in the elementary languages, elementary sciences, and other fields where work of the current assignment is directly dependent upon a knowledge of previous assignments. 
The report emphasizes that the advising would be individualized, since the staff "have been selected … as the most competent persons available to assist students to meet their particular problems." (The 1947 report does specifically mention veterans: "The services of the Bureau have been particularly valuable in this period of large classes and heavy burdens on instructors when so many students have been handicapped by wartime interruptions of their academic careers.") Even in 1938 it was clearly understood that personal and academic counseling were intertwined.
The conference rooms are equipped inan informal fashion - simulating studies or living rooms - sothat the student will feel entirely free of official restraint in his relations with the supervisor. Often the troubles of a boy who has a poor scholastic record are partly personal rather than purely academic, and they may be frankly revealed in an informal atmosphere which will inspire confidence between the student and the supervisor.
So the Bureau's homey furnishings, on which I commented in my first post on this subject, were part of the original design and philosophy, from 80 years ago.  

Does Harvard really believe that the College student body does not need something of this philosophy, that academic difficulties often can't be remediated without personal counseling? The new Academic Resource Center, which it seems will be focused exclusively on academic skills to the exclusion of personal counseling, and will emphasize group rather than individualized academic counseling, does seem to mark a clean break with the past on mission as well as furniture, in the sense that the mission has been shrunk. But that transition leaves it unclear if personal counseling as it relates to academic struggles will be available anywhere, except at the Counseling and Mental Health Services, and if not, where troubled students can be directed if their emotional problems are primarily developmental or if they are unwilling to go to CAMHS because of the shame that is for some still attached to mental distress.

It seems that Harvard is not so much setting a new direction as shrinking its vision, and in the process losing eight decades of institutional memory and significant human resources in areas where the ARC will need to staff up---because, in essence, the BSC staff have personal counseling skills Harvard is, however unwisely, declaring it no longer needs.

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