Advice and Discontent

It has become a Harvard tradition of sorts to report periodically on the failures of advising and counseling. The post-World War II class protested the College's deteriorating advising system loudly enough that the Faculty saw fit to launch a study, now in the files under the title "Bender Report," which recognizes that a mere handful of people were shouldering the advising burden and recommended creating group tutorials and senior tutors. But College advising's troubles remained unshaken and in 1969 the Homans report remarked that tutors still believed they had little time to tackle "their main job, communicating with students and advising them."

The 1970s have come and gone, but not without another report--as yet unnamed--on that beleaguered subject. The discoveries were the usual: "There is considerable concern and disappointment about the quality of academic and personal advising," the 1978 report, produced by a task force chaired by President Horner, stated.

Despite the repetitive routine of advising's death gasps, a House-life survey released this winter indicated a new perceived downward spiral in advising in the 1970s. Comparing the 1979 findings with two other housing life studies undertaken in 1973 and 1976, the survey report pinpointed a definite "decreasing satisfaction" with certain aspects of advising: "Not as many students in the 1979 study knew tutors by name or felt they knew them well enough to visit socially." The most desired improvement cited by students was "more opportunity for contact with senior faculty." more than 10 per cent said they knew no House tutors well enough to visit socially. About 70 per cent of the students polled--25 per cent of the House populations--felt better advising would make a great deal of improvement in their college life.

The report approach, though, evidently was going nowhere, so the administration shifted into high gear: it formed a committee on advising and counseling. But reporting and committee work have left the "problem" of University advising intact. Many xeroxed copies and committee meetings later, students still rank faculty advising as the most troubled aspect of the college experience.

The admissions office reports that some students are turning down Harvard because of its reputation for weak personal contacts between faculty and students, Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, says.

If the reports and committees don't seem to resolve the apparent crisis in advising at Harvard, perhaps it is because this approach implies advising is a problem that can be diagnosed and disposed of. Dean Fox observes that "somehow, people like to think that somewhere there's a good body of information," a definitive statement on "good" advising. "This is not a problem to be solved." Fox likes to compare it with discussions over financial affairs: "Advising and counseling is like financial management; it requires continual awareness."

But many students feel this perpetual alertness to students' advising needs is just what Harvard lacks. Undergraduates claim the Faculty does not make the effort to insure that students get the personal help they need. Peter Dale, Adams House senior tutor, says that the longer a House affiliate member is around, the greater the tendency to be lax about seeking contact with students. Fifty per cent of the students surveyed in the 1979 housing study said they had "no experience" receiving academic or personal counsel from their senior tutors. Though 60 per cent of the students said they introduced themselves to their House masters upon arrival, 30 per cent believed the master did not even know their names.

But from the other side, faculty say they often feel the same rebuff in reverse. Students don't make an effort to meet them. They hold office hours and no one comes. Non-resident tutors say they are happy to share a meal, a cup of coffee, anything, with students, but no one asks them. "There's frustration and resentment among the Faculty that they are ignored by students," Fox says. "Students have to take the initiative--it's very difficult for faculty to lasso students on the street. Faculty are available if students would just state, "This is what I would like.'"

This reluctance to state "what I would like" is borne out by the House life survey, which shows that students who protested the most about Harvard's advising are the same students who indicated they have never sought out a Faculty member or administrator for advice. Harvard's advising system is most frustrating for the student who is not what Dr. Paul C. Walters, director of the mental health services at University Health Services (UHS), calls "a self-generating person." Advising at the College does not service the more reticent because it "relies heavily on student initiative," Epps observes.

While expecting students to seek assistance on their own makes a certain amount of sense in a University setting where students are supposed to learn to help themselves, a fine line exists between encouraging student independence and encouraging isolation from their elders in a community. Students further argue that after paying their $9000 term bill, the University owes it to students to live up to its part of the bargain and seek students out, not blame students for not pursuing it more actively. Fox disagrees, arguing that students should look at the money spent as an investment, not a swap. "If you want to buy a $9000 car and let it rust in the driveway, go ahead," he says.

The University, most students agree, does not lack advisory resources. Fox points to recent comparative studies that show that Harvard spends as much as or more than other American colleges on advising services. But inadequate resources is not the focus of student criticism.

Career counseling at Harvard illustrates the difference in advising goals between faculty and students. The shelves of OCS-OCL are lined with guides to grants, booklets on resume-composing tips, and job notebooks. Gerald H. Fowlkes, science adviser and coordinator of special programs for minorities at OCS-OCL, says a career counselor is always on duty at the information desk. "Our job is trying to direct students to the appropriate resources." But information is often not what students are after. Fowlkes says often he has the impression that students are saying, "I want you to make the choice for me." Fox echoes Fowlkes' assessment in discussing his advising experiences. "A lot of what it is about is decision-making. But should advising make decision-making easy?"

In some ways, Harvard's multiple advising system makes decision-making harder. Students don't know where to turn first or who to believe--the Bureau of Study Councel or their department adviser, their senior or head tutor, UHS Mental Health Services or Room 13, the Freshman Task Force, or Students Helping Students. One of Harvard's problems, Epps says, is that "no one seems to be an authoritative source of information," a problem "inherent in the problems of bureaucracy." He adds that one of his goals is "to be an authoritative source of information, to tell students how Harvard works."

But students want to know more than how Harvard works. Though some students do fall into the two extreme groups Fox cites--at one pole requesting only factual information, at the other demanding that the University make decisions for them--most fall into the middle group, wanting that elusive Faculty contact simply because they believe their education will improve by spending time with professors.

Fox recognizes, "Sometimes I think students don't ask for more information. They are just asking for a chance to talk." Faculty contact is a more personal request than asking simply for more advice. Students seem to want faculty to thrash out "life questions, issues both academic and personal, that they believe are important," Kiyo Morimoto, director of the Bureau of Study Counsel, believes. "One of the ironies of the T.V. age is that because there is direct access to information, the assumption is that everybody has that information. So they wonder why they can't make sense of it on their own then." He says students need to talk about their college lives to make sense of them.