Downsize the Tutors

Just a Thought

How many tutors is too many tutors?

That's the question College officials should be asking as they look for ways to ease overcrowding in Harvard's 12 upperclass Houses.

In order to meet the needs of increasingly savvy consumers of higher education (for whom suites with one less bedroom than the number of occupants are declasse), the College already has looked into expanding the size of its "overflow" housing in DeWolfe, pondered the feasibility of building a 13th House, and even hired a consultant to figure out if current space in the Houses is being used efficiently.

But before they decide that the broom closet down the hall from you might make for a new cozy single, administrators ought to focus their attention on the nearly 250 tutors who live among students as part of the resident tutor system.

They live in some of the best housing on campus--but do the jobs they do justify the resources devoted to them?

Sadly, I believe, the answer is no. Due in large part to the changing needs of the student body, and in small part to the limited role that many tutors actually play in House life, the residential tutorial system should be scaled back. Halving the program, or even just reducing it by a quarter, would provide the College with much-needed space while not harming the House system as it was designed.

As it was originally conceived, the tutorial system was part of a larger plan to make the Houses not only residential, but also academic communities. As part of then Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell's plan to construct residential colleges modeled after those at Oxford and Cambridge, resident tutors were to be matched up with a pair of students who lived in the House and were in his field of study. The tutor would work with those students over three years on all things academic, ultimately helping them prepare for oral exams and the such.

A lot has changed since then, most significantly randomization, which radically changed the way students interact with their House. As post-randomization students increasingly find "community" in groups that exist outside House borders, students are spending less time in the House and thereby spending less time with tutors. What's more, the realities of Harvard's curriculum ground our studies solidly outside the House.

Nowadays, resident tutors exist as but another confusing level in Harvard's academic advising labyrinth. Their formal role in the Houses largely depends on the purview of their House master. And while a handful of tutors do take very active roles in running House programs or advising students, the majority have few actual responsibilities. They are not supposed to be glorified proctors, and they behave as much. They may ask us to keep it down at night, but don't seem to care too much about the studies--or other things--going on in our rooms.

Indeed, I can barely think of one person I know well whose academics have been affected in a major way by a resident tutor in his or her House.

While I do not advocate eliminating the system entirely, downsizing the program and making it more selective makes good sense. Not only would it free up large rooms and suites in the Houses, but it would also encourage the remaining tutors to play a more active role in the social fabric of the Houses. House officials should also seek ways to better utilize non-resident tutors, who can accomplish many of the goals of the resident tutorial system without living in the House.

To improve the system would take an enormous overhaul of business as usual at FAS. Because resident tutors do have a tenuous connection to the academic advising system that is largely run out of individual departments, changing the role of the tutor would necessarily involve a huge cross-section of individuals. But if the College is serious about finding more room in the House and about improving the advising system, the resident tutor system is a great place to start.

Still, does downscaling the resident tutorial system strike a fatal blow to the famed House system and risk turning our Houses into, gasp, plain old dorms? Certainly not. While resident tutors do play role in broadening the pool of people with whom students can interact and learn, plenty of other options exist to make this happen. The Houses' ailing senior common room system has the most potential to infuse the Houses with scholars. Yet in its current state, it too has a long way to go.

To be sure, I have enjoyed my share of great mealtime conversations with interesting tutors who live in my House. But the residential tutorial system should, in my opinion, provide more than good meal-time chats. Unless the system can be reinvigorated in such a way as to better justify devoting so many precious resources to the cause, the College would be wise to look to tutors first in the quest for more room in the Houses.

Scott A. Resnick '01 is a economics concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.