Tough shoes to fill
Students profited from his energy, candor, and concern
After Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky dramatically revamped undergraduate education with the unveiling of the Core Curriculum, he decided that the quality of instruction was also due for a review; the man he chose to lead the effort was Professor of Government Sidney Verba '53.
And in this post Verba, an expert in government survey statistics, has effectively put Harvard's curriculum through a "systematic review," says Faculty Secretary John Marquand.
As assistant dean for undergraduate education for the past three years. Verba has instituted or tried to institute a number of reforms both in curricular areas--independent study, pass/fail options and honors requirements--and in broad educational areas such as the problem of sexual harassment and the quality of undergraduate instruction.
From his office in University Hall, where he is never far away from a computer terminal. Verba has come up with some solutions to those unending problems of undergraduate education and encouraged discussion and analysis of many others.
When Verba steps down from his post to become University Librarian and Pforzheimer University Professor this fall, he will leave behind a legacy not only of his systematic analysis and reform of undergraduate education but a reputation for honesty and openness in dealing with undergraduates.
Verba is philosophical about the legacy he leaves to undergraduate education. As a social scientist, he says he understands that the solutions are not going to be immediate or perfect. "Any reform decays and is oversold at the beginning," he says. "You need, as Mao said, constant vigilance to maintain the revolution. Like any institutions there are flurries of interest. This [interest in reforming undergraduate education] is one that's institutionalized in [this] office and will continue to be something that my successor will have to deal with."
Reforming and improving education has not been a high-profile job for Verba except when he took on the task of conducting the sexual harassment survey and drawing up procedures for a new policy. And though students were not necessarily pleased with the guidelines the Faculty Council ultimately adopted, they praise Verba for his handling of the delicate and controversial issue.
"His dealing with sexual harassment--that's pretty unbelievable," says Vanessa A. Davila '84, a member of the student-faculty Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE). "Unfortunately he's not the entire Faculty," she adds.
The plan of attack on education came in two waves. First Verba concentrated on the Faculty procedures of education--the rules and regulations that kept students from easily getting credit for study outside of the University, or that made independent study an amorphous get. And then the attack moved onto a less well-defined plane, "the quality of undergraduate education." The result of these efforts was Rosovsky's recent report on education as well as several recommendations.
The most tangible results of his time in University Hall are the changes made in the student handbook. "Dean Verba's period has been especially active and there has been a lot of energy emanating from him as a person. It has been a very creative period," Marquand says.
The rule changes in study outside Harvard are among those which Verba ranks as his most important legacy. Under the old rules, students had to take at least half of their outside courses for their concentration and departments had to approve the course of study. Under the new rules passed in 1981, students are allowed to take courses in whatever field they want, and a special faculty committee has been established to grant permission for study.
Since that legislation went into effect, the number of students studying outside of Harvard has leapt dramatically, according to Margot N. Gill, associate director in charge of study abroad at the Office of Career Services and Off-Campus Learning. This year there was a 54 percent leap in the number of students studying abroad for credit. And the students came from 31 different concentrations, Gill notes.
The loosening of the requirements "is one of the best things he's done," Davila says. "A lot of people are really happy now that they can get credit."
But if those requirements were liberalized, then Verba also tightened the requirements on independent study. As a result of his efforts, independent study was "given more solid academic content." Verba says. Students are now required to write up the results of their studies and have it evaluated by their advisor before credit can be granted.
While the outside study reform has increased the number of people taking advantage of it, the independent study rules have done the opposite Fewer people take advantage of the option. Marquand says.
"In my view as Senior Tutor [of Dudley House], independent study was abused by some students and other students did not get very much out of it because it was not very well supervised." Marquand says, adding. "In my opinion, people get a much better course than they got before."
But for those two successes there have been two failures: attempts to change the pass/fail and honors requirements. Verba pushed to allow students to take 15 of 36 courses pass/fail. The Faculty did not pass the reform, in part due to the feeling that students would abuse the option, but Verba, who conducted one of his many studies on that issue, still maintains the opposite view. "There are very few people that abused it," he says. But it failed also because it was still unclear how pass/fail courses could be figured into determining whether a student should receive honors, something Verba calls "one of the more complicated messes."
In addition, the Faculty failed to come to an agreement on adjusting the honors distribution requirements--a vestige of the General Education era--to the Core Curriculum. Honors requirements have not caught up with the Core yet, Verba says. The resolution of that issue, Marquand says, is the biggest procedural problem that Verba's successor will face.
But if Verba has succeeded in making some changes in academic rules in the Handbook for Students, he has been involved in a less conspicuous manner in what he calls "constantly tinkering" with the quality of education. His attempts in that area mostly went through CUE and resulted in recommendations that really cannot be enforced.
Verba has aimed at improving section quality as well as worked with the committee on enforcing faculty legislation requiring student-faculty committees in every department with a tutorial. "He has been very supportive on doing things from the administration end," says Marshal H. Chin '85, a committee member and chairman of the Undergraduate Council's academics committee. "From section quality and student-faculty department committees to freshman academic advising, he questions and he ponders the situation. I think that a lot of the things he does are quiet," Chin adds.
The problem. Davila says, is the decentralized nature of the University. Verba can pinpoint problems and make suggestions on how to improve teaching, but he really just cannot tell departments or professors how to run their courses. "If individual professors don't want to listen they don't have to," she says, adding. "We see a lot of improvement, but every year we seem to talk about the quality of sections. Yes, you do all the studies but you don't have much impact--I don't really feel that section leader quality has improved that much."
Recently, though, Verba has led a new push on section leaders and now provides funds through his office for lunch meetings between section leaders and professors. He encourages the use of the Danforth Center to improve classroom skills and has instituted an English as a second language program for foreign teaching assistants. The problem, he says, is a significant one and one that will continue to plague administrators and students.
Nevertheless, Verba's energy in dealing with the problem, his collection of data via his studies and his willingness to support the academics committee's work has gone a long way towards addressing the problem or at least bringing it to light. "It's my impression that he made our work a lot easier," says Steven A. Colarosst '84. Former treasurer of the council Eliot T. Kieval '84 notes. "I don't think professors would have paid much attention to our suggestions on how to improve section quality if it hadn't been sent out with a cover letter from Verba."
For all his energy, there remains one topic Verba did not confront special concentrations. According to Judith A. Kates, director of special programs, the number of special concentrators has not increased and there does not seem to be a change in the attitude of people who grant special concentrations. "It has always been felt that it is an important safety valve for rare students. But very few students fall into that category," she notes. However, some students have pushed for lightening the burden and allowing more Women's Studies concentrators. The drive has been going on for a long time, but it has been conducted with little help from within the administration. "With something like women's studies, you need someone to take leadership, and Verba did not," Davila notes, but is quick to add that "there is only so much he can do."
Rosovsky seems pleased with the appointment. "He has been a very active undergraduate dean and a very valuable advisor to me," he says though he adds that. "There is always plenty of work left."
Chin and Davila emphasize that for his replacement students are looking for a man as obviously committed to undergraduate education as Verba. "It's clear that he has a lot more than an administrative stake in it," says Colarossi.
"He's open. You can always go to talk to him, and he'll listen to you," Davila says.