A Better Mousetrap
I WANDER AROUND this University these days trying not to lose my vision--not to get so enmeshed in the institution's rules and limitations that mindless obedience becomes a reflex.
You see it when you take the bus deep into Boston, to the bus station, to Dudley Station, when you head off for the summer to non-institutional life. Though euphemisms like "academic community" and "a community of learned men and women" cloak it. Harvard is, at the bottom line, an institution. "We grind you out like link-sausages," the professor says in Marathon Man. Look around you. Harvard is a singularly dangerous institution, at that.
Out of necessity, every institution--a hospital, a school, a prison--has rules which facilitate its operation. The Harvard Corporation has its rules. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences has its rules, and these are the rules which most affect and twist our lives here.
Those rules consist of academic requirements, registration and study card dates, prerequisites and selection for courses of limited enrollment, dormitory rules, maintaining a satisfactory record, and more.
It is the responsibility of the administrative board (or "ad" board), according to John Marquand, master of Dudley House and secretary of the administrative board, to see that the rules of the Faculty are applied judiciously. But for whose benefit are these rules made and applied?
If an undergraduate receives one F or two Ds in any semester, he has an unsatisfactory record and his case is discussed at a meeting of the ad board. Roughly half of those students who receive unsatisfactory records are placed on probation for a semester. Students who fail two or more are usually asked to withdraw. Failure of a course in two successive semesters usually results in either probation or withdrawal. Approximately half of those students placed on probation are restricted from participating in any extracurricular activities.
Members of the ad board insist that academic probation is a mechanism designed to help the undergraduate adjust and organize his life at Harvard. It is not a punishment, they say. But it is hard to imagine a bureaucratic device that often prevents students from partaking in extracurriculars and that is called "probation" as anything but punishment. Back out in society, probation is what juvenile court gives you before they send you to jail.
And sure enough, at Harvard, probation is what they give you before they ask you to withdraw. Further, it is difficult for any student--especially a freshman--to look upon a board of stodgy administrators who experience Harvard behind formica desks as paternal, caring figures.
AND HERE IS where the hypocrisy commences. Despite all the fanfare about seeking out a diverse student body, Harvard College does more to urge conformity than to nourish the diverse interests of its student body.
Students with outstanding talents in many fields come here--actors, writers, painters, athletes, dancers, musicians. If they are to find an outlet for their creative energies, they must do at least one of two things--either find courses in which to practice their art or find the proper extracurricular activity, both of which admit only a limited number of people.
The result is that many students do not have an outlet for their talents, and further, those who have found an outlet have often found it in an extracurricular activity. But if a student fails a course and is placed on probation, he can be barred from that activity for at least a semester.
The ad board took a step in the right direction last spring when it decided to lift the extracurricular restraint rule at its discretion. But the attitude with which this university regards its undergraduates remains fairly intact; it is an attitude of condescension.
There are recent examples. Acknowledging the fact that exam period sick-outs" have reached a record high, rising 14 per cent from last year, the ad board has decided to deal with the matter in a rather typical, ne'er compromising, institutional fashion. First, the ad board perceives the problem thusly: how do we lower the number of sickouts? There are three or four options, according to Dean K. Whitla, director of instructional research and evaluation. An asterisk could be attached to the final grade on a student's transcript, indicating the grade was completed with a make-up exam. Make-up exams could be scheduled at more inconvenient times--or perhaps the exams themselves could be made more difficult. All this to discourage the students from sicking-out."
Note, however, that the administrative board does not ask, Why are so many people sicking out?" Dr. Walter Jackson of the University Health Services (UHS) said two weeks ago that few of those who took medical excuses from exams were, in fact, malingerers."
If this is true, why should the ad board discourage sick people from petitioning for make-up exams? Assuming--as the administration seems to--that the list of medical excuses has risen because of abusers, is it really fair to inconvenience the truly ill in order to keep the malingerers in line? And why do more and more students feel compelled to duck their exams? These questions have been handled conveniently in the past two weeks, but not adequately.
Perhaps if the University's administrators could run their institution like an academic community"--where rules and regulations are more flexible to the individual in this treasured, diverse student body--the pressure this University imposes would not be so immense as to cause illness, deception, or problems of "adjustment."
But such prayers are a simplistic pipedream at Harvard. This is because Harvard is a particularly stolid institution, well-rooted and paralyzed by tradition. Brown University, for example, no longer takes any kind of action against students who fail one--or even two--courses per semester. The only requirement the university poses to a student who fails a course is that the credit must be made up in order for the student to graduate.
This seems like a fair enough deal--and it compels one to ask whether probation is necessary at all.
Both Dean Fox and Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, said last September that even though Brown and other Ivies may do otherwise with their undergraduates, Harvard has a "standard of excellence" to maintain, and probation is the most effective way to maintain it. But as Rev. Peter Gomes pointed out at the convocation of the Kennedy School of Government last October, "excellence is not enough." There are more important things than efficiency and excellence in an academic community. For example, there is the dedication to the quality of a student's education with concommitant respect given to the student as a unique individual.
As an academic institution of quality, Harvard must accept its responsibility to meet those individual needs and interests as closely as possible. But under the weight of bureaucracy and tradition and Godly excellence, Harvard does not do much for individuals. Perhaps it is time to abolish some traditions--and attitudes--and probation wouldn't be a bad place to start. But at Harvard, traditions die hard, and behind those nearly inflexible traditions stand attitudes, like shadows.
AND THOUGH I see the problems of unsatisfactory grades and make-up exams as a student, the University sees them as a logistical problem. In the process, I become a logistical problem, and I will remain one until I graduate or until the attitude changes, whichever comes first.
Despite all the sweet nothings uttered to the contrary, Harvard's attitude towards her undergraduates is best voiced by Fox himself. When asked last September whether the administrative board was the most helpful mechanism for students he could imagine. Fox replied, "If you could find a better mousetrap, you'd buy it."