A month after administrators temporarily replaced the lecturer of one of Harvard’s largest classes due to student complaints, officials stress the incident does not signal a change in the way they will respond to subpar teaching.
Robert H. Neugeboren ’83 returned last week to teach Economics 1010a, “Microeconomic Theory,” after taking time off to address student criticism that his lectures are sometimes inaccurate and difficult to understand.
Chair of the Economics Department Oliver S. Hart says that the incident was unusual and that he did not anticipate having to intervene in a similar way in other courses. Hart made the decision to remove Neugeboren after receiving a letter last month from more than a dozen students detailing their frustrations with the course.
“We haven’t experienced this before, that there’s so much unhappiness that we have to bring in a new lecturer. It doesn’t usually get to this level,” Hart says.
He says the situation with Economics 1010a warranted a response because of the large number of students who raised concerns.
“If one person complains and no one else does, we’re probably not going to respond. There has to be some sort of critical mass,” he says. “That was the case here, but usually, fortunately, it isn’t.”
Higher-level administrators emphasize that such situations are handled on an individual basis by the departments.
Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict R. Gross ’71 says the first step concerned students should take is to approach the instructor.
“Certainly my office is happy to hear about things. I’d get in touch with the chair of the department and see what we can do,” Gross says.
He adds that he is unsure whether the official action taken last month sets a precedent for similar action in the future, since the case is the first one that has come to his attention since he assumed his position this fall.
Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz, who taught Economics 1010a from 1983 to 2001, also stresses the responsibility of the department in handling student complaints.
“I can’t think of ever getting involved and dictating that certain changes should be made in the middle of the semester. It’s a matter of departments maintaining their courses and working with their faculties,” he says.
Neugeboren returned on Nov. 25 to teach the course’s third unit on game theory, his area of specialty. Though he could not be reached for comment, he previously told The Crimson that he was unprepared to teach the material in a large-lecture format and would use his time off to create PowerPoint presentations for the remainder of the course.
Bruce Watson, an economics tutor in Lowell House and teaching fellow for Social Analysis 10, “Principles of Economics,” assumed responsibility for the course lectures during his absence.
Praising the quality of his instruction, several students question why Watson could not continue teaching the course, though he will offer review sessions before the final.
“I don’t think there was any substantive reason to remove Bruce Watson,” says Aaron J. Greenspan ’05, who wrote the letter to Hart complaining about Neugeboren’s lectures. “He got a remarkable ovation at the end of his teaching, which signaled to me that people appreciated the job he was doing.”
He adds that while Watson was “by far among the best” instructors he had had at Harvard and that students would benefit from him finishing the course, he does not plan on raising this with administrators.
One student in the course who spoke on condition of anonymity said he did write an e-mail to Hart requesting that Watson remain, but was told it was too late in the semester to make another change.
Hart said yesterday he had not heard of any negative reaction to Neugeboren’s return and does not plan any follow-up beyond the usual course evaluations.
“He is working hard. He had a chance to think a lot about his segment, which has just started,” Hart says. “I’m confident that we will complete the semester in a reasonable fashion.”
University President Lawrence H. Summers says he could not comment on this incident because he was not personally involved, that it does underscore general concerns he has about improving the quality of instruction across the College.
“I think the standard of teaching is good but it certainly could be better, and I think it’s important that there be very high standards set for teaching at Harvard College,” Summers says. “And certainly as we review the undergraduate curriculum, finding ways of ensuring the highest quality of teaching is something that will be very important.”