Growing Pains in ESPP
For the past five years, Adelson and fellow ESPP Lecturer Dan L. Perlman have taught their junior seminar, ESPP 90ehf, "Conservation Biology and Biodiversity," to tie together the disparate strands of the interdisciplinary degree program--and make sure students are as familiar with a sycamore as with Seinfeld.
But as Harvard University finishes its five-year review of the concentration, the much-loved course has been cancelled for the 1999-2000 academic year.
The review finds the program in "good health," according to Dean ofthe Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, but students past and present are protesting the elimination of the seminar, saying the interdisciplinary concentration has all too few unifying elements and its elimination will only exacerbate the problem.
Eric G. N. Biber'95 now a joint-degree student at the Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, remembers Perlman wading into a pond with the students on Martha's Vineyard to capture pond insects.
For Charlotte J. Kaiser '96, now consulting for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington D.C., the course was a chance to meet a Cape Cod cranberry farmer, a Vermont forester and a Costa Rican environmental official.
The seminar, a full-year, intensive conservation biology course with an emphasis on fieldwork, is a rare opportunity to interweave the otherwise distinct ESPP concentration requirements, concentrators say.
Founded five years ago as part of the University's focus on interdisciplinary study, ESPP is one of the most wide-ranging concentration in the College. Concentrators must take 16 half courses in the natural and social sciences, including chemistry, mathematics, biology, economics and government.
Courses that pull it all together are few and far between, concentrators say.
"My main problem with ESPP is that there are a smattering of courses within different disciplines but there isn't enough to pull it together into a coherent program," Kaiser says. "Courses like Dan and Glenn's pull it together to make it a coherent discipline.
So when she heard the seminar had been cancelled, she began a letter-writing campaign to lobby University officials to maintain the program.
"[Perlman and Adelson] called me to tell me that the course had been cancelled, and I said, 'I'm going to do something about it.'"
Former and current students of the seminar joined the letter-writing campaign, saying they were disappointed with the decision to drop the course.
ESPP concentrator Michael J. Rest '00 says he disapproves of the University's decision to discontinue the seminar because he saw the class as a central part of the concentration. The biodiversity seminar, he says, was primarily responsible for his understanding of the complicated and many-faceted nature of the concentration.
"I think it's a ridiculous decision," Rest says. "I've been pretty disappointed with the ESPP classes and the introductory classes, and this tutorial has really focused the information. I'm just really disappointed that they're letting it go."
Without the course, he says, there is little tying the wide-ranging concentration into a coherent whole.
"ESPP is very difficult because it's multidisciplinary," Rest says. "I think that's why this class has been so special because it ties it all together. You have to look at economics, public policy and the environment and then put it all together."
Because Adelson and Perlman are non-tenure track faculty, their contracts will expire at the end of the academic year and will not be renewed, according to James J. McCarthy, Agassiz professor of biological oceanography and the chair and head tutor of ESPP.
"University policy about continuing people in non-tenured positions is that the college limit is three years," McCarthy said. Adelson and Perlman both received two-year extensions to their contracts, but were told last year that they would not be allowed to continue beyond a fifth year.
Knowles says both young academics and the University are best served when the Faculty is composed primarily of senior professors and tenure-track instructors.
"The Faculty has voted to limit the terms of these kinds of appointments for a number of reasons. The most important of which is to avoid the creation of a semi-permanent class of non-tenured faculty who have no opportunity for promotion or advancement," Knowles wrote in response to the concentrators' letters.
Although he is "confident," he wrote, that the concentration will fill in the gaps left by Adelson and Perlman's departure, he acknowledged some ill effects.
"These policies can, of course, can result in the unwanted expiry of an individual's appointment, and in the loss of a valued course from our curriculum."
But Adelson and Perlman say ESPP never formally informed them that this would be the last year for the class, although they say they understood the course had always been in a tenuous position due to their employment situation.
In addition, the lecturers say the University did not offer them any other positions within the college which might have allowed them to continue teaching their course.
"When we attempted to initiate a discussion about other non-tenure track appointments, we were told that those positions were not appropriate for us," Adelson says.
Rest, a member of the seminar, says he was puzzled by the decision not to keep Adelson and Perlman as teachers at the University.
"Glenn has gotten the Levinson and Phi Beta Kappa awards, the two teaching awards here," Rest said. "Dan has the Phi Beta Kappa. The University emphasizes multidisciplinary classes, small classes, and undergraduate teaching, and that's what this class is all about. It embodies those qualities so perfectly. Getting rid of these teachers is hypocritical."
Kaiser says she thought the committee should have helped Adelson and Perlman find other positions within the University.
"I feel pretty disappointed by how we were treated by the committee after we sent our letters," Kaiser says. "The only response we got was from Dean Knowles--we didn't get any response from the committee. If Knowles had had any pressure from the committee, he might have had reason to reconsider. He got nothing."
"We remain committed to teaching about this area and it will be continued in some other way," McCarthy says. "It's being decided now how it'll be taught, and it will be finalized by the time the course guide is put together."
Even with this assurance, some ESPP concentrators say they remain skeptical that the concentration would adequately replace the course. Elizabeth L. Kanter '99, an ESPP concentrator who took the seminar last year, said it would be difficult to create an equivalent class.
"I think it would be really hard to replace this class because it wasn't just about the academics," Kanter says. "The professors of this class try to take what you believe in and then make you look at it and think about why you believe in it, what you want to do about it and how you want to go about dealing with it. This is something I haven't experienced here at Harvard often."
"Maybe a class could replace this one but it'll have to prove itself," Kanter added. "Harvard's lucky because it has a short institutional memory since students leave. But really, I don't think this class could be replaced."
The University is now reviewing the five-year-old program, and the joys and the frustrations of bridging disciplines are coming to the forefront.
Christened in 1993 as an undergraduate concentration which would cut across out-dated departmental boundaries, ESPP operates under the Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) Department and has no permanent faculty of its own--and will not any time soon, Knowles said in an e-mail.
At the same time, the cross-departmental approach makes ESPP too pre-professional for some.
ESPP studies issues of ecology and the environment and the ways in which the law and economy interacts with them. The subjects ESPP covers have become hot topics in recent years, and after only six years, graduates of the program have already made their voices heard in America's environmental policy--but they have also raised their voices at the University, criticizing its handling of the program.
Many say the multidisciplinary aspect of the concentration is both the bane and the blessing of ESPP.
"I have mixed feelings towards the concentration," Kanter says. "I feel fortunate to have tried a lot of things because it's interdisciplinary."
But, she says, the wide-ranging concentration requirements mean that students are spread thing and have little chance to delve deeply into any one subject.
Rest says one improvement he would like to see in the future is the creation of more classes which are designed specifically for the ESPP discipline to unite its many parts.
"They definitely need more classes like my junior tutorial," Rest says. "It doesn't have to be a tutorial, but it should be a small class where you can put everything together and synthesize things."
Kanter also says concentration advising has been hurt by the fact that the concentration draws its faculty from other departments.
"One thing I felt was discouraging was that the ESPP concentration didn't help enough with thesis preparation," Kanter said. "There's nothing unified for the department in terms of advising, particularly for the thesis. They could learn from the Social Studies Department who puts together a seminar on how to prepare for a thesis. I don't entirely blame the ESPP committee though because they are borrowing faculty from other departments."
McCarthy acknowledged the problems that arise for interdisciplinary degree programs with no faculty of their own--like History and Literature, Religion, and Afro-American Studies--but says drawing together faculty from many different departments also benefits students.
"Unlike a department, our Board of Tutors is scattered all about the campus and beyond," McCarthy says. "Students have to spend more time and cover more miles to consult with their advisers. On the other hand, there is no other concentration where an undergraduate student is assured access to such a broad cross section of faculty in many schools beyond the FAS."
Future changes, McCarthy says, include a partially revamped curriculum that will response to the review and student concerns.
"We are restructuring the introductory series in earth sciences and in government/policy, and the sophomore tutorial," McCarthy says.
Although the debate over the biodiversity seminar remains to be resolved, McCarthy said the ESPP concentration as a whole has been a success.
"When we began this concentration six years ago, we anticipated two dozen concentrators, and now there are over 100," McCarthy says. "The concentration came into being because students wanted it. [It's] pretty successful, I would say."
Although curriculum questions remain, ESPP has shown in its five years that it is here to stay. For the near future, McCarthy says, the concentration has one thing at the top of its wish list: a permanent home.