Dean’s Curricular Review Kicks Off

In letter, Kirby says changes will not begin for at least a year

The first major review of the undergraduate curriculum in almost 30 years started quietly last week with a letter sent by Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby to all members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

The letter, however, made clear that students will see no concrete curricular change for at least a year.

Marking this year as one for “thought, discussion, reflection, not legislation,” Kirby invited professors, administrators and alumni to share their views on ways to improve a Harvard education. He said he has asked Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 to solicit student opinion as well.

“This is a good year to generate a consensus,” Gross said in an interview last month. “There will be a tremendous amount of openness and [we will] then balance responses into a coherent policy.”

Kirby’s letter said he hopes to have new review committees in place by the end of the semester. There are currently several Faculty committees charged with reviewing changes to the curriculum, such as the Committee on Undergraduate Education and the Education Policy Committee.

But Gross said the review will most likely not be run by any of these committees. Instead, he said he expects there to be several “independent task forces,” whose membership could include students, to ensure broader participation.

In the letter, Kirby said the review—which administrators began discussing early last year—is motivated both by Harvard’s “rich modern history of self-examination” and small changes to the curriculum in recent years.

“The number of recent changes alone suggests the need for a holistic curricular review, to understand better the interactions among various parts of our undergraduate education,” he wrote.

Last year’s faculty legislation reducing Core requirements from eight to seven and promoting study abroad are only two in the series of recent changes. In 1997, a review of the Core resulted in the current Quantitative Reasoning requirement.

Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz said these changes reveal the need for more flexibility in the curriculum.

“All of these recent changes have exposed that [students’ academic] schedule is quite tight,” he said.

According to Kirby’s letter, the goals of the review include giving students the freedom to pursue their own academic interest while ensuring that there be a “core” to the Harvard educational experience.

But Kirby said he plans to tackle other areas that need review as well.

To that end, he and Gross have organized a series of symposia on curricular issues for Faculty and students this fall.

The first, planned for Nov. 6, is titled “The Harvard Core Curriculum: History and Practice” and will feature Gurney Professor of English Literature James Engell, Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures Maria M. Tatar, Dillon Professor of International Affairs Jorge I. Dominguez and Associate Dean of FAS David Pilbeam.

Another panel, scheduled for Nov. 14, will discuss curricular models at other universities with Dean of Yale College Richard Brodhead, Dean of the College at Brown University Paul Armstrong and Miller Professor of Jewish History at Columbia Michael Stanislawski ’73.

In the past year, Brodhead has been spearheading Yale’s own academic review, involving extensive discussion and consultation among Yale’s own faculty—in addition to professors at Princeton and Stanford. According to the Yale Daily News, the review process will likely culminate in concrete change to their program by the end of the year.

While Yale is wrapping up its effort at curricular change, Kirby said now is the right time for Harvard’s own review to begin.

“To undertake a review at this time, is to do so from a position of strength,” Kirby wrote. “It is a testament to the success of initiatives of three decades ago that Harvard College remains a vibrant academic institution...emulated by institutions of higher learning around the world.”

—Staff writer Jessica E. Vascellaro can be reached at vascell@fas.harvard.edu.