Thursday, December 16, 2021

Harvard loses a piece of its soul—and then another

For the past 20 years or so, Harvard has been trying to rid itself, bit by bit, of its distinctiveness. At the same time as it touts its numbers of Rhodes winners and the size of its mammoth gifts, it has been striving to make itself function as a university like any other.  Unique local institutions, ones that don't conform to the general norms and forms of American higher education, are seen as anachronistic curiosities, serving no useful purpose, retained only to indulge the sentimentality of old timers. To make ourselves modern, goes the apparent logic, we must become less unique.


Some of the changes have been superficial. I thought it was a mistake to retire the title of “Senior Tutor” for the chief academic officer in a House, in favor of “Resident Dean.” Everybody is a dean of some kind now, and “Tutor” nicely suggested that these individuals had academic roles. This change was made strictly in the interests of modernization, oddly only a few months before a period of intense student advising was dubbed “Advising Fortnight.” It became sillier when the House Masters were restyled as “Faculty Deans” for political reasons, even though the Resident Deans are faculty too, and even though the ancient use of “Master” as an academic title had nothing to do with slaveholding. The title was just an easy, no-cost thing to give away, and doing so placated some who found it offensive.


Though these changes were mistakes, they were of no real significance. Students and faculty went on with their business barely noticing that the changes had been made. 


This semester, by contrast, has brought two changes that make me wonder if the change agents know what they are doing—if they understand the actual purpose and significance of now deprecated structures.


A long and detailed report recommends that “shopping week” be eliminated in favor of preregistration weeks in advance of the first day of classes. Even first year students will have to choose their courses by July. The fact that this change is deeply unpopular with students is not the most important thing about it. The important thing, which the report seems to have completely missed, is that “shopping” is educationally valuable.


The term “shopping” was always sure to set faculty teeth on edge—though not reasonably, it seems to me. The same faculty who are diffident about the idea that they might compete with other faculty for student enrollments surely shopped themselves around when they got hired, touring different institutions, trying to make the best case they could for the importance of their scholarship and the quality of their teaching, and then they negotiated for salaries and research funds, or at least compared competing offers before choosing to come to Harvard. And here students are consumers in a marketplace of ideas. It should offend no one that students wander among philosophy and art history courses, and computer science and statistics courses, before deciding whose classroom experience will teach them the most over  13 weeks.


But something deeper than offense at market forces is at stake. Harvard is an educational institution, not a training school. People form their identities here. They don’t simply paint by numbers on a canvas that was outlined before they arrived. Harvard captures students at the transition to adulthood, at a moment when they are likely to have the freedom to decide who they are—and when they need no longer persist in the identity with which they graduated from high school. Such opportunities for change are rare and precious in human life.


Requiring students to decide, months in advance, what courses they are going to take overwhelmingly biases their choices in conservative directions, towards fulfillment of a plan that might better be abandoned or diverted by some opportunistic nudge. In my Harvard Magazine piece A Science is BornI tried to explain how IBM Fellow Patricia Selinger got into computer science.


Nat Sci 110 changed lives, Selinger’s for one. Bored in her introductory logic course by the eminent but mumbling Pierce professor of philosophy Willard V.O. Quine, Selinger looked for a course that met in closer proximity to her 10 A.M. physics lecture so she would not always be arriving late, relegated to the back row. Thus she stumbled into Bossert’s passion for making computing interesting and fun. A few years later she finished her Ph.D. on programming languages and systems under the direction of Chuck Prenner, Ph.D. ’72, a student of Cheatham’s who had moved on from being his TF [teaching fellow] to assistant professor. Then Bill Joyner, another member of our group who had gone to work at IBM Research, aggressively recruited her. At IBM Selinger made fundamental contributions to database query optimization—the technology that makes it possible to find needles in haystacks without going through every stalk. In 1994 she was awarded IBM’s highest scientific honor, IBM Fellow. All because Nat Sci 110 was taught in a lecture hall near the physics building. Geography is destiny.


Choosing courses by the location of their classrooms—that sure sounds anti-intellectual. But the point is that any kind of disruption can be helpful in jarring nineteen-year-olds loose from their conceptions of themselves—low grades did it for me, a comment from a roommate or teammate did it for some friends, and so on.

Maybe the students with college-educated parents, the ones who grew up in households with books all around them, can figure out whether they'd rather take a course in Shakespeare or Schopenhauer. But what about the priority Harvard has placed on enrolling more low-income, socioeconomically disadvantaged students? The best ever students from the least of America's high schools? The ones we are so concerned to make feel included and belonging? How on earth can they begin to make rational course decisions before even setting foot in Cambridge?


It was always Harvard’s glory that nobody expected you to stay the same—that if you acknowledged not knowing where you were going, that was a positive, an indicator that you understood you were incomplete as a human being and came to Harvard, in part, to grow. You were taking control of yourself.  I fear that administrative convenience (supported by some unconvincing arguments about the impossibility of predictive enrollment models) is pushing Harvard toward becoming a place for preprofessional training, where students will arrive expected to know what they plan to become and what they are going to study, and will then spend four years executing their plan. Many will successfully do exactly that, until they wake up in a cold sweat senior year—or a decade or two later—wondering how they wound up so dissatisfied with their perfectly executed and utterly unexamined lives.


And as if that were not bad enough: Commencement is being split off from reunions.


Graduation is on a Thursday. The formal exercises are in the morning, diplomas are handed out at lunchtime, and the afternoon is the annual meeting of the alumni association. The new graduates join the rest of the alumni to hear the major speaker. Class and professional school reunions take place in the days before and after Commencement. 


That is how it has worked in the past. In the future, the alumni will not be invited to Commencement. Reunions will take place a few days away from Commencement, after the graduates have left.


The change has not been explained, or even really announced. I can guess why it is happening. Commencement has gotten very crowded. Partly that is because transcontinental and transoceanic travel are much easier than they were decades ago, so more family members and alumni now return to Cambridge. Partly it is because Harvard is minting degree recipients faster than it used to, because it is offering more one and two year Masters programs and has grown its School of Continuing Education. And partly it is because graduates have more parents and grandparents than they used to (an unexpected result of the nation’s high divorce rate!), and they tend to live longer than the parents and grandparents of earlier generations of graduates.


So it is hard to get Commencement tickets, hotels are expensive, and so on. As with the end of shopping period, I am sure there will be great gains in administrative convenience when students and alumni are kept from being in the Yard simultaneously.


But something essential, some piece of Harvard’s soul, is being abandoned in treating students and alumni as disjoint groups. One of the most precious things one acquires by matriculating is becoming a member of the Harvard family. We treat each other with deference, with care. It is a fine thing for graduating students to brush up against alumni. That can still happen, of course. But for graduating students to witness the metamorphosis as a specific moment in in their lives is priceless. A graduation ceremony without alumni is just an ending, not both an ending and a beginning.

So much will be irretrievably lost from those encounters between alumni and new graduates. A sense of the depth of time, for example. I remember at my 50th reunion reflecting to a graduating senior that the Vietnam war was as distant for her as World War I had been for us when we graduated. The Great War had then seemed unimaginably far in the past for us, but Vietnam was with us then and has stayed with us every day of our lives.


And the sea-change in the Harvard student body, and thus in Harvard itself, evidenced by the visible shift in the appearance of the alumni and alumnae as the generations march past the seniors to fill Tercentenary Theater on Thursday afternoon. Will, perhaps, Harvard now remove from the Yard gate by the Science Center Plaza the now anachronistic plaque recording Emerson’s soul-chilling thoughts on witnessing the alumni procession on Commencement Day?


I went to the College Jubillee on the 8th instant. A noble & well thought of anniversary. The pathos of the occasion was extreme & not much noted by the speakers. Cambridge at any time is full of ghosts; but on that day the anointed eye saw the crowd of spirits that mingled with the procession in the vacant spaces, year by year, as the classes proceeded; and then the far longer train of ghosts that followed the Company, of the men that wore before us the college honors & the laurels of the state, the long winding train reaching back into eternity.


I am moved every time I read that, just as I am when I pause at Johnston Gate to be reminded what the settlers thought they were doing by founding Harvard College itself.

(I posted a related followup the next day.)



  1. Thank you, Harry, for reminding Harvard of itself. I am sharing this with my classmates.

  2. I am trying to imagine myself picking four courses (from a much richer catalogue, by the way) in the summer of 1965, without anyone to talk to about any of them, without the Confidential Guide (the ancestor of the CUE guide), and without any opportunity to hear a single lecture. I can't.

    There does not seem to be anyone left at Harvard who remembers what serious undergraduate education was like.

    David Kaiser '69

  3. The opportunity to visit various classes before committing to them was one of the most valuable parts of my education. I recall two classes that looked interesting until I listened to a horrible lecture. Conversely, as a fairly slow reader, I was fearful of a Dostoyevsky class until I heard a fantastic professor’s lecture, which got me so interested in the subject that I subsequently took three more classes on Russian literature. As a history major, I feared taking Bailyn’s colonial history class because it required reading immense volumes of difficult colonial pamphlets and a 25-page paper (longer than anything I had ever written before), but Bailyn was such a great teacher that I dove in and ended up doing my Senior thesis on an arcane topic in Colonial history. Because of that class and, as a lawyer, I have written and published multiple articles on constitutional law based on what I learned from Professor Bailyn.

  4. As you know, Harvard once had (from 1946 until 2019) an office that in many ways celebrated the uncertainty you reference. The Bureau of Study Counsel grew partly out of its first director’s (William G. Perry, Jr.) observation that while many academic difficulties were born from a deficit of study strategies or techniques, the more persistent issues, those resistant to good advice, often were born of shifts in a student’s sense of purpose and meaning in her or his work. The careful and disciplined listening which characterized the BSC’s “study counseling” was designed to give students the space to be confused: to articulate and sort out the doubts and conflicts that often come with challenges to long-held assumptions and with new perspectives and insights. This kind of confusion, described in Perry’s 1970 book, Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years, as well as in many other models of development in young adulthood, was understood as the very phenomenology of growth and transformation. Welcoming students into nonjudgmental conversations about their confusions, hopes, and doubts is an important way to support their learning and growth. Ideally, these conversations take place in a context that is independent of disciplinary or gate-keeping consequences as well as any implication of “illness.” Such conversations are only more critical today when a global pandemic, climate change and political conflicts contribute to students’ (and all our) deep concerns and confusions.

    Ann Fleck-Henderson
    (BSC 1971-1983)