Friday, June 7, 2019

The end of the Bureau

The Bureau of Study Counsel was Harvard's counseling service. It served as both a study-skills advisory resource, and as a personal counseling service for troubled Harvard students. Most of the staff had backgrounds in education, counseling, and psychology, but were not physicians. Harvard also has a mental health service as part of the University Health Services, staffed with trained and licensed clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. The Bureau was located in a welcoming and slightly decrepit Victorian house with overstuffed, sometimes tattered sofas and comfy chairs; the mental health service is in what is now known as the Smith Campus Center, and used to be Holyoke Center---a modern concrete-and-glass structure of ten stories, with lots of clean white walls and scrubbable tile floors.

Following the standard protocol for announcements that need to be made but are hoped will go unnoticed, Harvard disclosed after Commencement that the Bureau would be closing. Or rather, the announcement says that a new "Academic Resource Center" would be opening and mentions the closing of the Bureau in paragraph 9. The ARC will have modern, untattered furniture which seems tio have been selected, like the color scheme of Dunkin Donuts, to make people not want to linger there too long. (Harvard Magazine has a good account of the plan.)

The Bureau was an act of genius, and was run by a series of wise leaders---Bill Perry, Kiyo Morimoto, Charlie Ducey, and most recently Abigail Lipson. These people were superb diagnosticians and interpreters of adolescent development. The basic idea of conflating academic and personal counseling always was, it seems to me, that Harvard students are much more comfortable seeking help for their academic problems than for their personal problems, even though the problems they have with studying may be due to their relationship issues. And many of their relationship problems are subclinical; they are ill, if anything, with the condition called growing up and breaking away from parents and other aspects of their origin.

Counselors at the Bureau have seen it all. I directed a student to the Bureau because his girlfriend was pregnant and he was in severe distress but had no one to talk to. I directed a student to the Bureau because her mother was tracking her electronically and she thought that was normal. The Bureau took all comers, and also had a diverse staff that proved especially helpful to students who were having trouble making the adjustment from socially conservative cultures in which they had been raised. Created in 1947, the strange name ("bureau" was of a piece with wartime vocabulary; "counsel" was often misspelled as "council," even by recent deans) was helpfully confusing; students could seek and get counseling without telling their families what kind.

The relation of the Bureau to the mental health service was never simple, and grew more complex as worries increased about the risks and liabilities of having seriously emotionally or mentally disturbed individuals in treatment while in the residential college. I don't want to suggest that the division of labor was ever right, or will be wrong in the future. But I do worry about those students who simply would never see someone labeled as a mental health professional; even if they can be reassured that there is no stigma in doing so, their parents may not be.

And in the short run, some students will return in the fall to find that the Bureau counselors with whom they developed relationships are no longer available to them. And it is not clear where faculty will be urged to send students who need caring guidance with the conflicts in their lives before their inner turmoil turns pathological.

As has also become standard in these matters, there is no suggestion that faculty were consulted in the decision, except for the relevant deans. That faculty are left out of such decisions is not surprising given recent trends in the administration of student affairs. Still, it seems to me to mark a new low that there was not even a whisper about this decision at the last faculty meeting of the year, given that the Bureau was created by vote of the faculty.  In the old days, you needed a faculty vote to undo a decision the faculty had taken, even decades earlier in allegedly simpler times.

Added 6/9. For some reason I am having trouble replying to Bill Gasarch's comment, so here goes.

Well, Dean Khurana said, "Harvard needs an academic learning center that can help our students engage fully in the educational opportunities on campus. By enhancing the College’s support for our students’ intellectual transformation, we hope to foster the conditions for social and personal transformation as well.” Now it's true that students who are academically more confident feel more at home at Harvard, and are less likely to act out their academic frustrations as personal conflicts. But for many students this is putting the cart before the horse. If you feel trapped because your father insists on having your email password, he might well want you to take a speed reading course, but it's not going to get at the root of your academic problems.

I suspect that what has happened is that the normal stages of adolescent development have become medicalized. Psychiatry has names for things, and protocols and treatments. In this litigious society, when something goes wrong, some self-harm for example, lawyers and courts want to know if all the procedures have been carried out by the book. If there is a pill for it, they want to know that the pill was prescribed. I bet Harvard's lawyers decided that the medical profession runs a tighter ship than the developmental counseling profession, and consolidating all emotional counseling under the CAMHS (counseling and mental health service) would reduce risk and liability.

There is also a hint that the Bureau's study skills programs, which were superb, were not up to date, did not represent "the most recent research and practice in academic support," as the announcement haughtily sniffs. That  phrase is another marker that the Bureau was considered OLD, and what is coming will be NEW, and NEW is obviously better than OLD.

Finally, Harvard just doesn't want to be nonstandard. It is remarkable how fearful we are of looking different. We never hear about why things are as they are, we instead hear constantly about "best practices." We no longer have Senior Tutors, we have resident deans. We no longer have Masters we have faculty deans. (Never mind that we create as many confusions as we resolve with such renamings.) We no longer have the stock of the Puritans, we have the stars in the firmament. And we no longer have a Bureau, we have a Center. We will not rest until Harvard is precisely exactly, indistinguishable from every other American college. What an exasperating aspiration.


  1. Was a reason given as to why it was closed?

    Whether or not a reason was given, any speculation as to why it was closed?

  2. Thank you so much for both entries. I posted a long comment on the Harvard Magazine website to correct what I see as errors in Dean Rivuluri's understanding of the office and to express my regret at the change. I left the Bureau in 1984, but have stayed in touch. Ann Fleck-Henderson