In the Depths of the Ocean
A friend of mine told me his favorite metaphor for thinking about the University's administration. Here at Harvard, he said, the administration is like the ocean. Despite attempts to comb its depths, whole segments of it are hidden in the dark; despite the thousands of people who swim in its waters every day, it remains fundamentally unchanged. Sometimes it slaps you in the face with a wave, other times it carries you softly in its current, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict its particular behavior, certainly not for the novice explorer of less than four years.
It is a sad metaphor, a metaphor of resignation. And frighteningly astute. It often feels to an undergraduate on this campus that the administration is at best an ocean and at worst, something even less sentient. In the course of my time here, the University has made, with seeming consistency, decisions in blatant opposition to student opinion. Cases in point: randomization, where the majority of the student body spoke out against it; Phillips Brooks House Association, when hundreds of students rallied for greater student autonomy; the Core, which few professors and even fewer students believe is intellectually meaningful; even our anachronistic schedule, with finals after vacation, which is decried every year as excessively stressful and unpleasant. The administration seems to exist entirely independently of the undergraduate students who supposedly are the lifeblood and purpose of the College's existence.
It seemed to me that perhaps the tainted relationship between students and administration at Harvard thrives because of unequal information: We have little access to what occurs in University Hall, and the administration has no idea of the everyday life of its students. Lamelle D. Rawlins '99, former Undergraduate Council president and vice president, articulated this problem perfectly. Our interaction with the administration, she says, is one of "mutual suspicion and mistrust punctuated by occasional instances of mutual cooperation, communication and understanding."
Emboldened by those instances of cooperation, I reasoned that if lack of information is the problem, the solution was to present to the student body the ideals of its administration and to the administration, the visions of its student leaders.
The student leaders I spoke to consistently envision a relationship of, in Rawlins' words, "mutual respect, teamwork and communication." Dionne A. Fraser '99, the president of the Black Students Association, wrote about the need for more communication. Even Beth A. Stewart '99, current president of the council, wrote about an ideal relationship as one "such that students view the administration as their primary advocate, their biggest defender, and the administration views students as the most valuable source of input they have in evaluating their own performance." I heard echoed in their words my own image of what the relationship should be: an open and respectful interchange of ideas guided by a mutual striving to better life at Harvard College.
I discovered, however, that I was speaking a different tongue than the one in which University administrators converse. I called President Rudenstine, hoping to learn how the pillar of the administration perceives his own relationship with students. (I called the President because Neil does not have an e-mail address listed, rendering him one step more difficult to reach than anyone else at this University.) His assistant listened to me politely--then he directed me to the press office. Luckily, Alex, the press secretary, told me that Neil is not only "a very available presence on campus" and that he "takes a keen, immediate and personal interest" in students' lives, but that he is "happiest when he's speaking to students." The irony here is evident. The hyperboles of the press office only highlight the perverse relationship between students and administration and make a mockery of Rudenstine's role on campus. So much for the pillar of the administration.
Although Dean Harry R. Lewis '68 responded to my e-mail immediately, he was unable to speak with me and chose not to answer my questions over e-mail. Strike two. Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, however, took the time actually to share his views. Although his attention merits acknowledgment, his words make clear that the problem is not one of unequal information, but of fundamentally opposed views of the relationship between students and administration.
Epps did understand that the views of the students are critical to the effective functioning of the administration, as the students are "living really with the institutions and we are only in the offices." However, he described one duty of the administration as trying "to show the students how Harvard operates and help students make Harvard work for them. That means matching their perspectives and talents with the institution."
Although at first blush this seems a noble vision, it is in fact a deeply paternalistic view--benevolent paternalism, perhaps, but paternalism all the same. Epps, speaking as a representative of the administration, knows Harvard and understands how it operates. Students can only hope to match their talents to the existing structure of this institution. The goal as he envisions it is not to enable students to shape either their experiences or the College itself, but to enable us to use the existing possibilities as best we can.
I had hoped to find that the problem was purely one of communication, not of fundamentally different perspectives. Instead, I discovered that for all of our swimming, Harvard, like the ocean, does not seem to change in response to its students.
Fortunately, though, the ocean metaphor is just a metaphor--and it is a fundamentally flawed one. The ocean has no will of its own and has no capacity to interact with those who live in its waters. The administrators of Harvard have independent wills and the human ability to listen, to reflect and to change
Talia Milgrom-Elcott '98 is a social studies concentrator in Mather House. This is her final column.