Study Abroad Change Imminent

Faculty to vote on policy in May

Harvard’s influential Faculty Council this week examined early drafts of major policy changes that could drastically simplify study abroad and change the way the Administrative Board handles sexual assault cases.

With the Faculty of Arts and Sciences just a step away from completing a year’s worth of efforts to improve study abroad opportunities for undergraduates, the Council discussed a set of proposed changes that will be voted up or down at the next meeting of the full Faculty, scheduled for early May.

The recommended measures spring largely from a report issued by the Committee on Out-of-Residence Study earlier this spring, which criticized Harvard’s existing policies for stifling students’ study-abroad opportunities.

Among the changes would be an explicit statement of the Faculty’s belief that study abroad is inherently an important part of the undergraduate experience—whereas currently, students who want to study abroad must prove that their program would be a “special opportunity.”

The proposals also called for the Faculty to create a list of pre-approved programs from which students could choose. Currently, though students receive advising help, they have to find a program on their own and then file a petition with the study-abroad committee.

One of the most controversial recommendations would loosen language requirements for students who study out of residence. Under the proposal, students studying in non-English-speaking countries would still be expected to take either a course on their host country’s culture or a course taught completely in its language.

But in certain cases the new policy would exempt students who attend programs taught entirely in English—which most often applies in the case of specialized math and science programs. A student wanting to take math courses in Budapest, for example, would not have to take classes taught in Hungarian.

The Faculty Council, which signs off on the full Faculty’s agenda, also discussed yesterday a proposed change in the way the Administrative Board would resolve peer disputes, which include accusations of sexual assault.

Under the proposed change, which would take effect next academic year, the Ad Board “will not consider a case unless the allegations presented by the complaining party are supported by independent corroborating evidence.”

Proponents of the change said tightening the criteria would save students who pursue allegations with the Ad Board from feeling let down if the investigation went nowhere. Stricter criteria would also save the Ad Board time spent on drawn-out and fruitless investigations, they said.

But opponents of the measure, including Coalition Against Sexual Violence, have said it amounts to admitting that the Ad Board is powerless to deal with sexual assault cases that do not produce concrete evidence.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) Peter T. Ellison reported on the positive effects of the school’s recent efforts to increase financial aid for students in the natural sciences.

For nearly all departments, graduate students in the natural sciences will be exempt from teaching duties during their first year at Harvard—teaching is usually part of graduate students’ financial packages.

As the departments publicized their new aid packages, they saw dramatic increases in the numbers of students who accepted Harvard’s offers of admissions, he said. In the physics department, admissions yield rose to 65 percent last year from 50 percent the year before. And in the astronomy department, yields have climbed from one-third to two-thirds over the past few years.

With these higher figures, GSAS has moved closer to matching the College’s unparalleled yield, which routinely hovers just below the 80 percent range—significantly higher than any other college in the country.

Ellison says the change benefits both graduate students and undergraduates. It will allow the graduate students more freedom in their academic schedules during their first year, allowing them to spend more time exploring different laboratories before having to pick one lab for the rest of their studies. Some departments are also offering seminars to fill the time the students once spent teaching.

For undergraduates, the new policy means fewer inexperienced teaching fellows, Ellison said.

—Staff writer Kate L. Rakoczy can be reached at rakoczy@fas.harvard.edu.