Faculty Greets Law With High Dudgeon
The Faculty met the enemy in University Hall last week and greeted it with supreme outrage. After the near-unanimous vote against the implementation of the files law, one senior professor suggested that perhaps the Faculty was overreacting. "I'm a little surprised that a little more humility wasn't shown," he said.
Other instructors vigorously deny that their objections to the law stem from the prospect of personal embarrassment at the revelation of once confidential comments. They say this will be borne out when, in the end, a "surprising" number of faculty members elect not to withdraw statements or letters from the files.
Nonetheless, personal concerns figured in Faculty criticism of the bill. John P. Marquand, assistant dean of the College, says that "uncertainty" about just what they've written in confidential statements has some faculty on edge but that this will clear up when instructors get to review those materials.
Beyond personal fears, though, Faculty members seem outraged by the federal government's presumption to interfere in academic matters. None of those instructors interviewed said they doubted that Harvard could adjust quickly to the imposition of the legislation. But it is the principle of such infringement that is so rankling.
Alan E. Heimert '49, Cabot Professor of American Literature and a drafter of the Faculty resolution begging postponement of the Buckley amendment, has been the major Faculty spokesman against government encroa hment in the files issue. Heimert says he objects to "interference with internal educational processes, whether the legislation is good or bad."
Other faculty warn of the hazard of "Faculty submission" to intrusion by the government. Lawrence L. Besserman, assistant professor of English and head tutor in the department, says that some faculty have augured that quiet acceptance of the files legislation will only provide a helpless precedent, ultimately even for "forced ROTC."
What makes the Buckley amendment yet more offensive is its wording. Any Harvard official who has read the bill will growl that it is "poorly-drafted." This is not only the administration line on the amendment, but it is a legitimate academic response: the manner in which the bill cavalierly avoids specifying such crucial matters as, say, the fate of statements made with the presumption of confidentiality is a real affront to academics who are accustomed to dealing with scholarly writings.
Glen W. Bowersock '57, chairman of the Classics Department and an author of the resolution says that "a substantial division of opinion "exists in the Faculty over the actual prescriptions of the law." But he adds, "If the law were clearer, one could be clearer about one's opposition to it."
Other instructors maintain that the Faculty is largely opposed to the Buckley Amendment "on its merits," and here the standard substantive arguments against the opening of student files come into the fray.
James Vorenberg '49, professor of Law and master of Dunster House, says the reasons for Faculty opposition are "obvious," but he emphasizes the effect the law will have on letters of recommendations.
Heimert says that when students gain access to recommendations, those letters "will lose their candor," and ultimately the effect of the law will be to "exaggerate the importance of the objective record."
But a greater fear is the concern of some instructors that open files will foster an "old-boy network" where teachers will pass on only verbal opinions of students. Bowersock speaks of an "old-boy network in the worst way," where "some people resort more to telephone calls, talks in corners, or statements that can't be recorded or denied."
One source muses that under the new files law a student's recommendation could consist solely of, "This student wrote a paper of Milton and I gave him a B-plus for the course." The nightmare gets worse: It's who you know, not what you know.
Thomas C. Schelling, Littauer Professor of Political Economy, opposed the Faculty resolution and says he doesn't accept the others' anxieties, because he says Harvard will be able to handle the difficulties "through legal devices." He refers specifically to an organized system of student waivers, wherein students sign away the right to peer into their folders.
The other "central element of the Harvard education," as Heimert says, which is allegedly endangered by the files law, is the tutorial system.
Mark S. Granovetter, assistant professor of Sociology and head tutor in the department, predicts that tutors' statements about students are "going to be pretty bland." The ultimate bugbear here, head tutors say, is the student with "emotional problems," whose tutor will avoid aggravating the condition by not reporting it to the next tutor. That tutor, the story goes, then needs a semester just to find out what his predessor could have passed on in one confidential memo.
Harvard has already shown that it can adjust the law to its advantage: any confidential documents in the files as of November 19 will be there only because instructors have left them there. Whether Faculty fears will prove false is unclear. Even if students do get into their files Harvard's illustrious Faculty will surely concoct new ways to write confidential recommendations and reports.