Making Harvard Better

The Long View

At Harvard, reading period tends to be a time focused on the past and the very near future. Despite your lofty plans to get out and enjoy the sunshine, to really see where your courses fit in your lifetime plans, the perspective narrows to a three-hour period one morning, the rectangular space of a TF’s mailbox the next. Reading period is a time to take stock, but often only in these backward terms. You learn how little you read for your Core class; you learn how much you enjoyed that chemistry lab, in retrospect; you learn how much peanut brittle one human being can consume on a Thursday afternoon before they burst. (I didn’t say everything you learned was valuable.)

Yet reading period also can, and should, be a time to look forward. Preparations for next fall are underway all around you. Classes are being planned, new student leaders recruited and reforms implemented. And Harvard surely needs it. Not only does the school sit in an awkward position on a number of issues—from a living wage to tenuring junior Faculty—but change is also a necessary part of University life, the constant improvement that ensures success. In that spirit, I recommend three changes which are desperately needed to make Harvard better.

Student Governance. Let’s be honest. At least half of the time the Undergraduate Council is mentioned in student conversation, it is to mock its latest efforts or to criticize the leadership. The council has been irresponsible in the past, but it may have turned a corner: the leaner, meaner council will get $15 more from each of you next year, and student groups will sit up and take notice when grant time comes around.

Students should ensure the council is a legitimate, representative body. That means students have to vote. All change cannot be pursued via building invasion; the council is democratically elected, meets regularly with administrators, and gets things done. The council stands as the most effective student group in influencing administration action. (This editorial page may run a close second.) Students, if you aren’t being heard at the council or in print, your concerns are going unheeded. Your vote and influence is needed to make the council an even stronger and more representative voice for the students.

The Humanities. Though Harvard needs more faculty in all areas, thoughtful observers should keep an eye on the History, English, Social Studies, Literature, Philosophy, Religion and related departments and committees, to make sure they get their due. It seems to me that in the sciences, the need for more professors is a question of class size, while in the humanities—the traditional heart of this and every liberal arts college—gaps have appeared in the course catalog because there are not the professors to teach the courses. The chairs of the Women’s Studies and Social Studies committees—both women—announced their departure this year, claiming they did not feel support for their academic endeavors here. The University lacks professors for American colonial literature, the history of mathematics, German political thought, and French language and civilization. With the ensemble of an economist as University president, a computer scientist as dean of the College and a chemist as dean of the Faculty, the cynic may find grounds for long-term worries. Either way, this is a pressing problem facing the administration and all the necessary steps, from supporting departmental tenure decisions to making the money available for a new batch of professorships, must be met as those in the sciences have been.

The Houses. The pre-randomization era is gone, and with it House spirit. I have been convinced this need not be true. But until Masters, students and House affiliates work to change this state of affairs, Houses will remain large, anonymous dorms, no matter how small the blocking group size gets.

Annual dances and dramatic productions are nice, for what it’s worth, but a fuller House life, based on a more noble purpose than imbibing alcohol, is still wanting. The public-service elements of the House life need greater emphasis, and the role of Houses as intellectual communities can be strengthened. What do all those resident tutors study? Can they offer presentations on their research? Only then can the Houses be a home for sorts of Harvard activities, from the social hour to the study hall. Then students will be able to meet each other in a variety of different settings, perhaps none that involve blaring music and strobe lights.

Moreover, House spirit is uneven, and some simple additions can change that. Lowell and Quincy House dining halls are just as overrun by Quadlings for lunch as Adams ever was, but no one sees us starting a war. Why? Perhaps it is because Adams and Pforzheimer Houses have open e-mail lists, which served as the staging ground in the all-out fight for dining hall rights. Virtual community builds real community; more Houses should take up the cue, either with e-mail or Web-based House forums.

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