Bok's Undergraduate Legacy


THE HARVARD of which Abbott Lawrence Lowell became president in 1909 was about as different from today's University as Lamont Library is from Widener. Academic concentrations did not exist; instead, an elective system gave students a wide reign in choosing courses. Tutorials, reading period, and general examinations were things of the future. So was the House system.

But Lowell, a professor of Government with a reputation for getting things done, had a vision, and he pushed for it doggedly. Within several years of his swearing-in, concentration and distribution requirements were here to stay. So were almost all the academic rules and institutions that today are fixtures. And, in 1929, Lowell attained what Nathan M. Pusey, one of his successors, has called "the crowning achievement in Lowell's long and fruitful effort to reform undergraduate education." With a large grant from Edward Harkness, disgruntled Yalie, Lowell established the House system. Within four years, Lowell, then 72 years old, had stepped down, content. In his revolutionary House system, he had built an enduring legacy.

For 11 years now, Derek Curtis Bok has presided over Harvard; unlike Lowell, he still has no readily apparent legacy, just a series of projects of temporary significance. The Core Curriculum is still young; even when it matures, it almost certainly will not mark the revolution in education that some had expected. The improvements in teaching that Bok has repeatedly called for remain impossible to gauge. And Bok's pet project, the Kennedy School of Government, has yet to become more than a professional school for budding bureaucrats.

Polite and patrician, Bok has developed a reputation as the ultimate manager and team player, a labor lawyer gifted at conciliating campus interests. Six times he has issued open letters explicating University issues; ten times he has delivered crisp Commencement addresses analyzing topics of concern. Yet rarely has he turned his attention from fund-raising and re-organization to undergraduate living on the daily activities of students, Bok's mark has been decidedly slight. But if recent statements provide any indication, Bok's campus priorities may be changing.

NO ONE REALLY KNOWS what prompted Bok to address the first time in more than a year. What is clear is that Bok called upon the masters to counteract recent lapses in student behavior in the Houses. Though he made no specific recommendations, Bok singled out incidents of racial tension, harassment of gay students, disrespect for property, and lack of consideration for neighbors as increasing problems. Bok's talk impressed the masters. The president, they said later, seemed unusually troubled by the perceived rash of "inconsiderate" behavior.

An article this summer in Esquire magazine, entitled, "The Trouble with Harvard," may have brought the perception of growing unruliness to Bok's attention, some masters indicated. Otherwise a hit-and-run piece, the article apparently drew blood when it charged that, "The only shared values [at Harvard] are sheer survival and self-gratification." The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, used the Esquire allegations as a taking-off point in his opening sermon of the year, as he criticized the absence of priorities instilled in today's undergraduates. Henry C. Moses, dean of freshmen, also referred to Esquire's charges in opening remarks to freshmen. Whether the magazine prompted Bok's public recognition of nasty campus incidents, though, is almost irrelevant. What matters is that he now appears to have committed himself to doing something about a situation that veteran professors say has reached crisis proportions in recent years.

Establishing his legacy by improving student character--"the quality of life," in Bok's words to the masters--will be the hardest project Bok has yet undertaken. The president faces far more obstacles than Lowell did in building the then-revolutionary Houses. The roadblock to Lowell's success, was persuading the rest of the University of the wisdom of his vision--and then getting lots of cash. Bok's challenge, should he choose to pursue it, will be to translate his perceptions of civility into concrete programs, and to devise steps that promote the public-mindedness he seeks. As Gomes says, "There ought to be some point between the moral policing that went on years ago and the social indifference that obtains in the Houses now."

FINDING THAT HAPPY MEDIUM will pose practical and philosophical dilemmas for Bok. On a practical level, one of the root causes of the deterioration in student behavior in recent years is undoubtedly overcrowding. Some of the same Houses that Lowell once intended to hold few more than 300 students now contain more than 400. As any social psychologist or senior tutor will affirm, quarters cramped to that degree inevitably breed tension and unpleasant incidents. Not surprisingly, the committee that called for a race relations foundation last winter cited congestion as a main cause of racial incidents on campus. There's little the University can do, though, in the way of short-run remedies. Until Harvard can replace the Indoor Athletic Building or buy out Lesley College and build a new House in either's place--don't hold your breath--only the tiniest reductions in crowding will be possible. The University simply can't slash the size of entering classes, and its tuition intake, to decongest the Houses.

On a more philosophical plane, the problem of vanishing civility poses even tougher questions. Harvard prides itself on giving students unparalleled independence; cracking down on misbehavior would contradict that approach. It also might exacerbate problems by creating a new confrontation, this one between the University and students.

What the proper role of the Houses should be--and whether they are fulfilling it--is another vexing question Bok must cope with if he continues to tackle the behavior issue. Few students today lend their primary allegiance to their House; most feel more a part of outside organizations, like athletic teams. The Houses in large part have thus become atomized. Cliques developing in a given House reinforce themselves through the housing lottery's peculiar form of natural selection, making House unity hard to attain.

If administrators are content for the Houses to remain individualistic places for students to retreat at night, it can stick with present policy. But to restore a sense of community that might "re-civilize" that Houses, the University must act. One idea occasionally put forth is to institute a random housing lottery. This step would break up the large cliques that inevitably congregate in individual Houses and that promote the most invidious brand of intolerance--that sanctioned by a majority. Either way, Bok and the masters face a hard choice in resolving the dichotomy between community and individuality. Recent strains in the Houses may in part be symptoms of this unresolved tension.

AS HIS ADDRESS to the Masters showed, Bok is groping, for some solution. At that same session, he unveiled a committee on student volunteerism; Bok charged that group with increasing the opportunities for students to participate in community service. Such activities may represent some small way of reinculcating the sense of decency that so many say is now lacking. Unless Bok's new committee takes a drastic step, however, like calling for mandatory community service, it probably will not make a big dent in the "civility problem." Still, the University has to begin somewhere. If unacceptable behavior is "neglected much longer," one veteran professor argues, "all the Core Curricula in the world will not salvage the place." After years of putting undergraduate affairs low on the list of priorities, President Bok now apparently sees he must act. How he responds to the challenge of reshaping House life may well determine what the Bok legacy will mean decades from now.