Advice on Advising

Minimum standards across departments are the first step to fixing a broken system

Last December, the results of a regular survey by the Standing Committee on Advising and Counseling revealed that the quality of concentration advising at Harvard has seen little to no improvement since 1999. This lack of progress comes despite continued pressure from Faculty of Arts and Sciences administrators and several reforms prompted by a sharp decline in satisfaction with advising among Harvard seniors.

The slow change in quality shows that efforts at voluntary compliance are failing. Though smaller departments are generally thought to provide better advising than their larger, more impersonal counterparts, this year’s survey showed that the quality of advising is not simply a function of size. The four large departments which received high marks in 1999—literature, history and literature, chemistry and environmental science and public policy—were also the four large departments showing the greatest improvements. Departments like government and economics, which have historically struggled in this area, showed few signs of progress. In fact, as its advising scores fell, the government department refused College money to enhance the program, claiming that the problem is not a lack of funds. If so, perhaps Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 is right to say that an unwillingness to improve advising is ingrained in the culture of certain departments.

As the system now stands, each department is almost entirely autonomous in the way it provides concentration advising. It is clear that this decentralized system creates large disparities between departments, to students’ severe disadvantage. Minimum College-wide standards for advising are necessary. An increase in communication between departments could also be beneficial, so that what is working in the chemistry department, for example, could be employed to help students in government.

Certain efforts are being made in the economics department, which has finally climbed out of last place—a dubious honor now held by applied mathematics. The department has done more to publicize professors’ office hours and has, for the first time in its history, given the position of Director of Undergraduate Education (or “head tutor”) to a senior Faculty member.

However, much more remains to be done. The academic advising that students need is distinct from intellectual advising and counseling, which is provided by many different outlets across the campus. Students look to concentration advisors for meaningful participation in their academic careers, with advice on which classes to take and what academic interests can be pursued within the concentration. Students do not receive this kind of advising anywhere else at Harvard, and it requires more than one visit to a professor’s office hours.

The advising system in many departments is severely understaffed, and departments often rely for their undergraduate advising on graduate students with high turnover and little familiarity with undergraduate requirements. Where quality advising is available, students will seek it out. In some concentrations, the role of the advisors remains unclear beyond signing study cards, and the advising system is consequently underutilized.

To improve Harvard’s advising, we need to know exactly where departments are failing. More data would help in that regard. Since students often make significant decisions early in their academic careers, the committee could benefit from conducting its study on an annual basis and from including students in the survey pool before their senior year. Until College-wide standards are established to give all Harvard students the academic guidance they deserve, departments can only be goaded into improvements through the public exposure of their failures.