Bursting the First-Year Bubble

By Scott A. Resnick

For the past year and a half I misled prospective students and their parents about what it’s like to be a first-year at Harvard.

As one of the student greeters in the admissions office’s information sessions charged with giving the student perspective on College life, the picture I often painted of the first-year experience was a rosy one, filled with the supportive proctors who live in first-year entryways and help with things like picking classes and concentrations.

And while many students’ initial experiences here are quite positive, the reality of being a first-year at Harvard is a dirty little secret that ought to be brought to light.

The College does not treat first-year students like full-fledged members of the Harvard community. If it did, then it would not subject them to the unfair and arcane policies of the Freshman Dean’s Office (FDO).

These policies all aim to protect Harvard first-years. No one on this campus wants to see a student get hurt or even die from an activity, such as drinking, that could have been otherwise prevented.

However, the way that the FDO carries out these policies creates a first-year experience that is overly unpleasant for students and doesn’t seem to reflect the ideals of respect and scholarly inquiry that are at the center of our University.

Ask virtually any student on campus to recount a tale where either that student, or one of his or her friends, was treated unfairly by the FDO and you will come up with a treasure-trove of surprising experiences. Although fortunately I have never had to interact with the FDO for a discipline-related problem, many people I know have, and the stories are not pretty.

One friend of mine was called in to speak with the student’s assigned assistant freshman dean after simply asking some questions about the College’s alcohol policy at an introductory proctor meeting. In that interaction with the administrator, the student was even threatened with being Adboarded—which means facing the judicial body composed of administrators that can put students on probation or require them to withdraw—just for asking a question.

In another case, a friend of mine was called into his assistant freshman dean’s office and chewed out after one of his parents had sent an e-mail to the FDO. The student was chastised by a Harvard administrator for bringing a parent into College affairs.

Perhaps more sad, though, than the stories where students are simply treated poorly by FDO administrators, are those in which students are intimidated or coerced into making statements to the FDO. Threatened with the all-encompassing charge of conduct unbecoming to a Harvard student, some undergraduates are simply pumped for information even if they were not directly implicated in a certain event.

So, what can or should the College do? For top College and FAS administrators, it’s probably beneficial to have some really tough disciplinarians as underlings. As I said earlier, no one at Harvard wants to see students get injured. But there is a difference between being a disciplinarian and being unfair and unpleasant.

Students do deserve to receive punishment when they have broken school rules, but the shouting, the coercion and the intimidation, all of which have been known to take place when first-years err, must stop.

This is not the type of message we should be sending to any Harvard undergraduates, and particularly those newest to campus. Somehow, in my book, Veritas has nothing to do with coercion, scare tactics and rudeness.

At a time when we should be most proud of our alma mater, my view of Harvard is substantially tarnished by the way first-years are treated at the College. This treatment is no secret to anyone who has interacted with the FDO, but people outside Cambridge deserve to know how the whole truth, not just the rosy picture put forth by the administration. Everyone on Harvard’s campus knows this goes on, and more people outside of Cambridge should as well.

Scott A. Resnick ’01, an economics concentrator in Cabot House, was an executive editor of The Crimson in 2000.