By adding a single word to the University’s statutes, the Board of Overseers yesterday removed a key obstacle from Harvard’s future in distance learning.
The change allows certain exceptions to the long-standing requirement that students must spend a full year on campus in order to receive a degree.
The vote by the University’s oldest governing board ends a moratorium begun last year on new degree-granting programs with a distance learning component that violated the rule. University President Lawrence H. Summers established the moratorium after discovering the violation.
In March, Summers created a committee of professors from nearly all of Harvard’s schools to examine the issue. The statutory change was necessary to accommodate a new set of guidelines recommended by the committee this summer.
The 30 overseers voted unanimously to add the word “ordinarily” before the clause that requires a year of residency, giving the University wiggle room to support a wider variety of distance learning programs.
University Provost Steven E. Hyman pointed to current programs geared towards mid-career professionals who already have an advanced degree, such as the health care management program at the School of Public Health, as ideal examples of the University’s distance learning potential.
The committee recommended that proposals for all such programs be reviewed by an ad hoc committee under the provost. Final approval rests with the president and the Corporation.
The committee’s summary report mentioned the possibility of an online Harvard education.
“Should online programs be addressed in the future, a similar review and approval process would apply,” the report said, but added that no fully online degrees are now being considered.
The residency requirement will remain in effect for undergraduate and doctoral degrees, the report said.
Most University administrators and committee members described the changes as conservative.
“I think that what we’ve done is opened the way to experimentation,” said Todd D. Rakoff ’67, dean of the J.D. program at Harvard Law School, who also served on the committee. “I would expect the experimentation to be rather cautious, because nobody wants to have a degree program that isn’t first-rate.”
Committee members said that the most likely innovations will come in the form of hybrid degree programs, which have both distance-learning and on-campus components.
“There are some good ideas for hybrid programs that several of the faculties have that make a lot of sense,” said David C. Lamberth, the Divinity School’s associate dean for academic affairs.
Committee members said the change sets the stage for new innovations in distance learning.
After meeting with representatives from several existing programs and studying residency rules at other universities, committee members hashed out the new residency guidelines and sent their recommendations to the provost and the president last summer.
“We have a much more firm grip on what we don’t want to lose or let go of, so that actually makes it easier to move ahead building things that are different,” Lamberth said.
From the outset of the meetings, committee members described time spent learning in the University’s classrooms and walking on Cambridge’s sidewalks as integral aspects of the Harvard experience.
“There was a very broad, deep and widely supported reaffirmation of the value of residency,” said Daniel D. Moriarty, the university’s chief information officer.
And some of the most vocal advocates of residency, he said, were students who spoke before the committee.
“Everybody had an interest in seeing the University do something that would not diminish their credentials,” he said.
Committee members and administrators said that what began as a discussion of a technicality grew into an examination of the meaning of a Harvard degree.
“It’s the sort of topic that at first sounds rather dry, but actually, when people got into it, it goes to the heart of what goes into a Harvard education,” Hyman said.
—Staff writer Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at email@example.com.