Unfinished Business

We’re graduating. It’s completely different than graduating from high school, for me at least, because this time around we’re finally in charge of our lives. In theory, we never have to take another test or write another paper, unless we choose to go back to school. We also get to choose the kind of jobs we want, and make clear our priorities, from social change to pension plan or somewhere in between. However, we’ve each made an impact on this school; Harvard is not the same place we came to four years ago. Yet, a great deal remains to be done.

First, the advising system at this University needs to be overhauled. Completely. Beginning with the first-years, the concept of having one person playing your academic and personal advisor as well as your disciplinarian makes any trusting relationship with your proctor impossible. A lot of problems that could have been prevented by good advice early on become crises. In addition, when proctors don’t have the experience of having been undergraduates, it is almost impossible for them to provide good course counseling. There should be more proctors who recently attended the College. If possible, institute something along the lines of a residential advising program (found in almost every other school in the country) that would allow seniors to live in the Yard and help advise first-years on personal issues and give some general course and concentration information. Finally, institute more formalized networks for peer course and concentration advising so that first-years can make truly informed decisions. It is great to have faculty as mentors, but as course advisors they generally do not have as current information as upperclass concentrators, so these peers would be a great resource.

In this same line of thought, the role of senior tutor needs to be reconsidered. It is impossible for students to trust someone who is so many things to so many people. For example, someone having serious personal problems would feel uneasy going to the senior tutor, because the senior tutor can quickly turn into a member of the Administrative Board voting on the matter, while also serving as their “advocate.” Adding the layer of academic advising makes things even more dicey. Similarly, many concentration advisors play the dual role of course and career counselor (requiring honesty from the student) as well as advising the concentration on honors for that student (encouraging the student to withhold concerns). All of these problems stem from individuals playing too many roles in our lives, leaving us unclear how to proceed and in whom to confide when necessary.

Third, we need a student center. Students need a physical space that they can make their own and use for “productive” and non-productive endeavors. Basically, we don’t just need group office space, we also need a place to come together and just see each other. While I understand the need for more student theater space, as well as the push for a new museum, a student center is a key concern for undergraduates and is shared by all of us. Harvard students need a place to come together as students, not as members of this club or that group, a space that is not primarily a dorm or a classroom building. One of the main steps in making the College a priority would be to designate a building (or convert a building like the Pudding Theater) exclusively as a student center.

Fourth, we need to focus on building House community and student wellness. What made us all come to Harvard was the other students we would meet and get to know. The reality of this school is that many people work themselves so hard that they are miserable and lonely. It is important for the University to keep reaching out to students and foster discussions of these concerns, and ask students what they need to make them happy. This is not an unreasonable concern—students will always be competitive and stressed, to some extent, but the University (and especially the Houses) can make a difference by acknowledging that students are sometimes tired, frustrated and even depressed, and working with students to find ways to build House-level support systems and provide ongoing wellness events.

Fifth, the diversity (read, “lack thereof”) of our faculty is embarrassing. Gender diversity is a perfect example: as a science concentrator I have had only a single tenured female professor in all four years, and she taught a Core class. While the balance of professors in the humanities seem to be moving towards reasonable numbers, the numbers of tenured women in the sciences at Harvard is ridiculous. It is hard to make arguments about a lacking “pipeline” of women students in the sciences, given that graduate students are usually at least half women. Women tend to leave sciences before taking on post-doctoral studies, a phenomenon that the University should take the lead in preventing. The ethnic diversity of the faculty (and House administration, as many have noted this year) is also lacking. Not only do we need more professors who want to teach undergraduates in order to reduce class sizes, but we also need a diverse set of role models in all of our fields so that we each see clear paths to follow and the potential for success.

Finally, it is important for the University to realize that its students want to participate in the process of change in this University. We know what our concerns are, and we would love to be able to discuss them with the administration. It shouldn’t take a sit-in, or only happen in the Senior Survey as we process out of this institution. For this University to thrive, and to truly meet the needs of students, it is crucial that the administration reach out and include students in more committees and in large decisions. It is hardly prestigious for our school to be one of the only in the country that refused to let students participate in the selection of our next president.

While each of us has had a great impact on this institution, these problems remain to be addressed. It is up to the students of the future to take on these challenges and make their own contribution to Harvard, and I hope that our next president will continue reaching out to students and let them help him.

Sarah E. Henrickson ’01, a biochemical sciences concentrator in Mather House, was photography chair of The Crimson in 2000.