IN one instance at least, Harvard administrators are like supportive parents.
They both think a B-is good enough and shows that you've been trying.
University officials have a lock on the "smiling gamely and not worrying" award, judging by their reaction to the first set of results from last spring's major survey of undergraduate life at the College.
The questionnaire, returned by half of all upperclassmen, investigated a broad range of issues: library usage, student alcohol abuse, race and gender relations, academic quality at the College and satisfaction with the College.
At least one person thought it was a good idea. President Bok, who initiated the survey, said when it was released in April he hoped it would help "quantify" the quality of American higher education for the first time. Keen observers may have linked Bok's intentions to a report published last fall by the Carnegie Foundation--the same group which spurred the broadest post-Second World War reform of secondary education through its report "A Nation At Risk: Crisis in America's High Schools."
The multi-volume report, entitled "College," gives a similarly severe critique of the nation's universities. It issued a cry for higher education to reassess its direction and goals, to determine whether or not it met the needs of a nation entering the most competitive age of its history.
PERHAPS Harvard administrators feel content with a B-. On a scale of one to five, with one representing being "very satisfied" with their undergraduate experience, sophomores, juniors and seniors gave the Harvard experience a 2.1. Invert that to a regular four-point scale and you get a 2.9, a little under a B. In 1973, students ranked Harvard on this scale at 1.7, a C-. To some students, this means failure at Harvard.
But something disturbing has happened since this spring. Officials who once issued statements that "the survey will help build an agenda for the College for the next five years" now say they are pleased and unsurprised by the survey results. Bok's original hopes to hold campus-wide forums discussing the questionnaires' findings have quietly disappeared, leaving administrators to say they'll only hold discussions if students bring anything up.
WHAT provokes such quiet nods and folded hands? That more than half of Harvard women receive unwanted sexual attention? That nearly two-thirds of non-minority students feel some reluctance to date inter-racially? That 70 percent of minorities--90 percent of Blacks--feel they are treated differently because of their minority status at least some of the time?
Granted, most of these trends are not unique to the College. But consider that Harvard is also falling short in its strong suit--the three leading causes of students' single greatest disappointment as undergraduates are a particular course, academics in general and lack of faculty contact.
Read that again: students are most disappointed at Harvard by courses they've taken, academics and faculty. Sure. students come with high expectations. But more than half of survey respondents listed disappointing courses, 47 percent academics in general and 37 percent faculty contact.
Perhaps something is quietly passing us by as we are attending "the nation's oldest, richest and most prestigious college." Perhaps it is a good thing the student body here is "reputed to be one of the best in the country." The education, based on sound courses, attentive professors, well-organized departments and intelligent counselling, is the only thing missing.
Administrators respond in general to complaints by saying, "If you think you're not happy, just be glad you weren't here 15 years ago."
BUT it just seems too easy.
No one says, and few likely believe, that deans, professors and staff in charge of the College seek to sabotage students' undergraduate experiences. Indeed, Harvard adminsitrators obviously make great efforts to serve a staggering variety of student demands. (But, then again, isn't that what we're paying for?)
No, instead what seems to be at issue is a problem of inertia.
Because Harvard is the oldest college in the country; because many perceive Harvard to be the best university in the country; because its house system is considered a model residential system; because Harvard is Harvard, it is easy to dismiss significant problems here as idiosyncratic, temporary or in line with national trends.
And should administrators be so quick to dismiss the fact that less than 4 percent of the survey's respondents were Black students--a figure less than half of the College-wide representation of the least satisfied racial group in the survey? Do facts like these really suggest that "no ground has been lost" in race relations?
Doesn't the fact that the commonly-held perception--and now all-too confirmed view--that what is missing at Harvard is a coherent, consistent attention to undergraduate education suggest action should be considered, something beyond pleasant acknowledgement? It's time we placed student's concerns above tradition, a busy faculty's convenience or an active student body's impressive dedication to work in the face of disappointing odds.
Harvard obviously is an excellent university. All those who seem to be paying attention say it is one of a handful of the best. This is nothing to be swept aside, and a matter for self-congratulation.
But doesn't Harvard's B-, the Group III ranking it receives from undergrads, deserve an better response than, "It beats a C-?"