Shaping the Policies

"Students can...yell and scream, but...this is where changes really happen."

Each month in University Hall, about 100 professors convene amidst the somber and dignified busts of their predecessors. Only a few undergraduates are allowed inside these meetings of the full Faculty--but what is discussed there often directly impacts undergraduates' lives.

"Students can lobby and lobby, they can yell and scream and pass U.C. legislation, but when it all comes down to it, this is where changes really happen," says Sarah K. Hurwitz '99, who last year served as a student representative on the Committee for Undergraduate Education (CUE).

In Faculty meetings--and the smaller, bi-monthly gatherings of the 18-member Faculty Council--the Faculty helps the administration hammer out policies such as Core reform and changes in foreign language requirements.

"These committees really have the power to make and implement policy," Hurwitz says.

Yet other student representatives say undergraduates can sometimes affect the process--though most of them don't know how to make their voices heard, and the amount of clout they really have is debatable.

Downsizing Section

One recent academic change which promises to have an enormous impact on student life was not made by the full Faculty, but by Knowles alone.

In this rare instance, Knowles had discretionary power over the Faculty's portion of the funds raised through the Capital Campaign.

Last week, he announced that he will use the money to lower average section size from 20 to 18.

The change--which will result in a 10 percent increase in the number of sections--may be just the first in a series of cuts to section size, Knowles says.

Both students and faculty say they are pleased by the decision.

"I think the most rewarding classes that I've taught have been those that have been small scale, because then you get to really get to know the students," says Cynthia M. Friend, professor of chemistry and a member of the Faculty Council.

Students agree, and argue that large sections can make a student in a lecture course feel anonymous.

"I've had sections which greatly enhanced the course, and I've had sections which parroted the lectures in a smaller space," says Undergraduate Council President Beth A. Stewart '00. "The difference between those has often been the size."

But some undergraduates--who already bemoan the quality of teaching fellows (TFs)--say they are concerned that increasing the number of sections may result in badly-trained instructors.

Faculty members, however, say departments were warned not to sacrifice quality to quantity. All TFs must complete training in the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

Knowles also says that increasing financial aid for graduate students--an issue the Faculty Council will continue to address this year--has potential to improve the quality of teaching fellows.

"The Faculty Council will discuss how and at what pace we will make changes in graduate student aid," he says. "It affects undergraduates in so far as you'd much rather have brilliant and happy TFs than the other kind."

Building for Students

According to Knowles, recent renovations to Boylston Hall and the Barker Center were designed to cater specifically to undergraduate academic needs.

And new, multi-million dollar building projects promise to occupy much of the Faculty's time in the coming year.

Because of the refurbishment of the Barker Center, professors and TFs in a single department now have offices in close proximity to each other--creating a closer-knit academic society and the opportunity for one-stop advising.

"It would be nice if when you went to see your TF, you might also run into your professor," Knowles says. "That's the kind of community that has been shaped by the Barker Center."

Undergraduates say the change can already be felt.

"I'm in the Afro-American department, and all of my teachers are in the Barker Center," says Rodney M. Glasgow '01. "It gives us a locus of concentration. It makes it really easy to get in touch with people when they're all right there."

A similar sort of academic community might be created in the sciences as well. Plans for two new buildings--the Maxwell-Dworkin building for computer science and the Naito chemistry building are underway.

A Perennial Concern: Advising

Hurwitz says one area the Faculty may soon address is undergraduate advising.

"A lot of people feel in the dark both with their concentration and their personal advising," she says.

Such a review would be welcome to many students, who complain that proctors in the first-year dorms are often uninformed and concentration advisors enter the picture too late.

"It might have been nice to have advice earlier on," says Grace K. Lyo '98-'99. "At this point I know who I can go to for advice, now that I know what I'm looking for and what I'm field I'm in. But before, when I was still undecided, it might have been nice."

Modernizing the Library

According to Knowles, one issue the Faculty is certain to tackle this year will be upgrades to the library system.

Any changes to the 3.2 million-book library will be felt by undergraduates as they research for papers and theses.

At its first meeting of the year last week, the Faculty Council discussed changing the current library catalog--Hollis--to a web-based system.

The new system, which could be in place as early as next summer, would replace both the book retrieval and search functions of Hollis, as well as the internal management system of the library.

Those working on the change say the multi-million dollar overhaul will result in a more modern and accessible library.

"The first thing you'll notice is it'll be a much friendlier interface," says Dale P. Flecker, associate director for planning and systems in the Harvard University Library. "It allows you to go directly from the catalog to network-based resources."

Library staff and the administration are currently in negotiations with the St. Louis-based Data Research Associates (DRA) to develop such a system.

Joe Bonwich, vice president of DRA, applauds Harvard's efforts to move away from its telnet-based system--a system which he characterizes as practically antique.

"Primarily the issue in a library is one of access, and our new system is designed to provide as many points of access into the library as possible," he says.

Flecker says the new system will be similar to computer resources with which students are more accustomed to interacting.

"When I use Hollis, I try to click on things that can't be clicked on," Flecker says. "It's going to be an interface which is much more comfortable."

Though some Faculty members are concerned that any major changes to the library system will cause a huge disruption in students' ability to use it, Bonwich says the overhaul could be completed with virtually no interference in students' lives.

"The goal is for you not to even know that it happened other than that you see the new interface," he says.

Bonwich says DRA saw through a similar technology change for the University of Illinois library system "overnight."

But the same might not be true of physical renovations of Widener Library, slated to begin this year. The refurbishment--which will be funded at least in part by last year's $17 million donation by Katherine B. Loker--will bring air conditioning and improved fire protection to the 80 year-old building.

While there are no plans for the library to close, Knowles says no decision has been made yet as to how to implement the disruptive changes.

One tentative plan would call for moving approximately 150,000 books--two and a half shelving miles--every few weeks to allow for an area by area renovation.

WHAT'S NEXT

Issues the Faculty plans to address this year:

* Changing HOLLIS to a web-based system

* Renovating Widener Library

* Further decreasing average section size

* Building new computer science and chemistry buildings

Source: The Harvard Crimson

In Students' Hands?

Though the Faculty has the ultimate say in policy matters, all undergraduates have the power to instigate change, says Benjamin A. Rahn '99, a student representative on the CUE.

"This role is not strictly limited to elected student delegates," he says. "I have found that many faculty and administrators are quite receptive to all students who come forward with constructive solutions to problems and who are willing to consider the surrounding issues carefully and seriously."

Last year, students who were not delegates to CUE approached the committee with a well-researched proposal and were invited to CUE meetings for a serious discussion of the possible courses of action, Rahn says.

"I would describe the situation as much like office hours for a course," he adds.

"Students who are willing to put the time into investigating an issue may find themselves well rewarded.