Getting Back to the Core

Faculty gears up for first full-scale curricular reform in decades

To the almost 90 percent of applicants who were denied admission to the College last year, it seems almost absurd to suggest that Harvard has low standards.

Likewise, to the hundreds of companies that recruited graduates on campus this year, it seems equally absurd to suggest that Harvard’s curriculum is not top-notch.

But in a year dominated by media coverage of Harvard’s grade inflation problems and as it gears up for a massive curricular review, many are wondering if and where Harvard falls short of its peers.

Beyond that, some faculty question whether Harvard is living up to its role as a leader in higher education.

“Harvard should be doing much more radical and risky things given our resources,” says Professor of Psychology Marc D. Hauser. “Yes, these things might fail, but if they succeed, that would be awesome.”

“It is sometimes easier to rely on the brilliance of your student body and faculty to carry things along than to generate consensus for change,” says Associate Dean of Yale College Penelope Lauran.

That Harvard needs to change is not up for debate—the debate comes over where, when and by how much.

For now, the critics have zeroed in on reforming the much-vaunted Core Curriculum and questioning Harvard’s commitment to up-and-coming intellectual fields.

Hard ‘Core’ Reform

Roughly once a generation Harvard’s curriculum undergoes a massive overhaul. President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1868, instituted the elective system during the late nineteenth century; President A. Lawrence Lowell started the modern incarnation of distribution requirements soon after he entered office in the 1909.

By the time President Derek C. Bok and Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky took office, the Lowell curriculum had grown stale.

“Over that long a period people drifted away from undergraduate teaching, [and] the sense of common purpose behind the curriculum was forgotten,” Bok says.

The Core, intended to increase student-faculty interaction and teach students different approaches to knowledge, has stood as a national model for 30 years since its inception in 1974.

Now, even its founders question its continued presence in undergraduate education—and with a new dean of the Faculty taking over this summer, the University is looking at its first full-scale curriculum review since the Nixon administration.

“People lose sight of the original purpose,” Bok says. “The point is renewal—to go through an intellectual enterprise with the rest of the Faculty.”

Students have long faulted the Core for its bureacuracy and lack of flexability and choice.

“It is really just distribution requirements done poorly,” says Rohit Chopra ’04, a student representative on the Committee on Undergraduate Education.

However, in recent years, faculty members have been more vocal in their criticisms as well.

In countless meetings this year faculty members have questioned whether it is time for the Core to go—or, at least, to radically reconsider what it stands for.

“What counts as core education is a changing landscape,” Hauser says.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Susan G. Pedersen ’81-’82 says that Faculty commitment has always been the driving force behind the Core—and that when Faculty enthusiasm begins to waver, it ought to be re-examined.

“The Core is sustainable if it wins the support of the Faculty. This generation needs to be as equally commited,” she says.

But incoming Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby says this review is likely to be more extensive than past ones—which occur at regular five-year intervals.

Last time, in 1997, a committee reviewed the Core and added the Quantitative Reasoning Requirement in addition to suggesting that each area should contain at least 12 courses—only a handful now meet that recommendation.

Kirby says he is concerned by the large class size of many Core courses. He says he surprised to find that his class, Historical Studies A-74, “Contemporary China: The People’s Republic and Taiwan in the Modern World,” was—at nearly 170 students—one of the smallest Cores many students had taken.

Although a review of the Core is planned, and a major overhaul likely, faculty say it is too soon to discuss specific proposals for reform.

Nevertheless, despite its waning popularity at Harvard, the Core still stands as a model for higher education.

“I have colleagues in China who have looked to us as a model,” Kirby says.

In its now ongoing curricular review, Yale is considering the option of adding a program like the Core, although officials there say actually implementing Harvard’s system is unlikely.

Under the current Yale system students must take three courses in each of four broad academic areas in addition to completing the requirements of the major to graduate.

Studies Stymied

Tradition is naturally a hallmark of America’s oldest university and so it is no surprise that critics say Harvard’s curriculur offerings need expand to include new intellectual fields.

This past year alone has seen concerted efforts for queer studies, Latino studies and ethnic studies.

Lecturer on Literature Heather K. Love ’91 and Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Bradley S. Epps—along with faculty and student advocates—have pushed this semester for a standing committee on studies of gender and sexuality.

From the start their technique has been to convince the administration that Harvard is embarrassingly behind other schools—they say students here don’t even realize where Harvard is lacking.

“Students here have no way to compare their experience to what is going on at other schools—and Harvard doesn’t look good,” Love says.

Yale, for instance, has had a degree-granting program in Women and Gender Studies since 1998.

“Students on our campus are being heard in many ways in which students on other campuses are not,” says Marianne LeFrance, chair of Yale’s Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies.

In 1994 Brown University founded an interdisciplinary sexuality and society major, which draws faculty from a number of different departments.

According to Gretchen M. Schultz, the chair of that program, Brown’s program is well-received by that university’s administration.

“The Brown administration is consistently reaching out in support of new programs and disciplines,” Schultz says.

Epps and Love have said repeatedly that this is not the case at Harvard.

“Yes, this is a new discipline, but there seems to be an institutional lag here,” Love says. “Other institutions have made this a priority and Harvard has not.”

Given the presence of such programs at other universities, Laure “Voop” de Vulpillieres ’02, who founded the New England Queer College organization, says the differences between Harvard and its peer institutions are troubling.

“The administration at other schools are involved in making sure that the voices of queer students are heard,” she says.

Harvard administrators emphasize, though, that the University is not necessarily behind—it just does things differently.

“I tend to be of the mindset that the place for interdisciplinary scholars is in their departments,” Pedersen says. “I’m a historian. My research covers lots of areas, but I belong in history.”

Yet while courses in gender and sexuality are offered through various departments, they are few and difficult to find.

Courses offered this past semester—including Love’s Literature 105, “Introduction to the Theory of Sexuality” and Epps’ Romance Studies 196, “Other Romances: Literature, Cinema, and Queerness”—were advertised only by word of mouth and e-mail lists.

Students say they are frustrated by how how their work is overlooked.

“We are looking for space and visibility for a lot of work that is already going on at Harvard, but that no one knows about,” says Daniel R. Tremitiere ’02-’03, co-chair of the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Supporters Alliance.

Another Dream Team?

Ten years ago, Harvard demonstrated what it can do when it throws itself into a new intellectual field. Under University President Neil L. Rudenstine, the Afro-American studies department grew from a single white professor to the “Dream Team,” a collection of the nation’s best black scholars. Even today, few schools have made a serious effort to develop programs in black studies.

Now, in their push for a Latino studies department, students and faculty are saying that Harvard is not only behind other programs at other universities but also behind where it should be given its growing faculty resources in this area.

While students at Yale and many other schools around the country can major in Latino studies, students at Harvard have been struggling to get recognition for the field. Currently, Latino studies does not even offer a certificate—the most basic level of academic recognition.

“Virtually every other Ivy League [school] has more than we do in the way of coordinating bodies,” says John H. Coatsworth, chair of the Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

Students this year presented Summers with a letter—signed by more than 100 students, faculty and administrators—that requested, among other things, founding a Latino studies department, increasing the number of Latino and Latin American faculty and administrators and incorporating Latino studies into the Core Curriculum.

But after what students called “discouraging” meetings with the president and the provost—during which both said that a department was unlikely—they were forced to turn back to people who motivated them in the first place: the Faculty.

Students studying subjects in the field have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about professors in the field—including the recently hired Rudenstine Professor of Latin American Studies David L. Carrasco, whom many have called “a prophetic voice for Latino students.”

Coatsworth said that given the core faculty of more than 20 professors committed in this area, Harvard has missed many opportunities.

“The dogmatic approach within FAS to ethnic studies has kept it submerged, incomplete and underfunded,” Coatsworth says.

But while the formal structures may not exist, Carrsaco says that Harvard’s commitment to Latino faculty remains at the top.

“At Princeton some faculty members were even resistant to using the term Latino studies,” Carrasco says.

Coatsworth says that the lack of Latino studies is even more surprising given the fact that the Rockefeller Center was just reviewed as “the largest and most successful center in the country.”

It currently has a Faculty committee on Latino studies—the only formal body that exists for the program.

“We are behind other universities and behind where Harvard should be,” Carrasco says.

Broadening Study Abroad

And until this spring, if Harvard was holding their students back, they were holding them here as well.

Students and faculty claimed that study abroad options were restrictive and onerous—resulting in the fact that only 9 percent of Harvard students received credit for foreign study, as opposed to 38 percent of Stanford students and 20 percent of Dartmouth students.

“Virtually every other school is ahead of us in terms of study abroad opportunities,” Coatsworth says.

To address this concern in November, Dean Pedersen formed the Standing Committee on the Study Out of Residence to review the College’s policy and bring suggestions on how to facilitate the process before the Faculty by this spring.

The process involved examining programs at other schools—which the committee concluded devote more resources to study abroad than Harvard. Many schools even run their own affiliated programs in cities overseas.

When the committee reported back to the Faculty, it recommended that, among other things, they consider easing Core, departmental and language requirements as well as overriding the so-called “special opportunity rule,” that only accredits programs that offer an opportunity that Harvard itself cannot. Under the new plan, Harvard would admit that foreign study intrinsically offers an opportunity that Cambridge cannot.

On May 7 the Faculty voted in favor of many of the proposals.

By creating a list of preapproved programs—but not creating their own—and by loosening language requirements, the Faculty expressed an unprecedented degree of support for study abroad.

But legislation alone will not change the pattern.

“It is critical that this strong support turn into significant conversation and even debate within departments of how studying abroad will most contribute to the overall intellectual experience of their concentrators,” says Chopra, the student representative on the undergraduate education committee.

Coatsworth says it will take a major commitment on the part of the University to catch up to the programs that exist at other schools.

“This was an important first step but we are still far behind,” he says.

Coatsworth pointed to the opening this July of the first-ever student advising center abroad. The Rockefeller Center’s new branch, based in Santiago, Chile, will be the only center of its kind run by Harvard and will assist students studying in Latin America.

He says he doesn’t expect it to serve many students at first—only five students studied in Latin American last year—but that as Harvard’s rules ease, the numbers might go up.

The Faculty report also emphasized that while Harvard is behind many schools, two of its closest competitors are even worse off.

Yale, where only 8 percent study abroad, is considering reforms as well and Princeton, where only 3 percent of students went abroad last year, recently passed a proposal that would allow its junior year independent project requirement to be completed abroad.

Falling Standards

This year—in addition to those who were arguing that the curriculum was falling behind—were those who questioned whether the methods by which Harvard evaluates its students.

Grading is a perennial topic for the University.

“The concern about demands placed on undergraduates is an issue that dates back to President Lowell,” explains Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, who teaches a course on Harvard history.

In fact, President A. Lawrence Lowell came into office in 1909 with a mandate to address grade inflation in the College, and almost every president since has addressed it in some form.

Most recently, Harvard faculty and adminstrators have internally expressed concerns about Harvard’s grading standards for at least a decade.

However, it was not until a report hit the Boston Globe in November that called Harvard’s grading practices “the laughing stock of the Ivy League” that the world began to question the integrity of a Harvard degree.

The report revealed that in 2001, 91 percent of Harvard students graduated with honors—as opposed to 44 percent at Princeton and 51 percent at Yale.

After months of stalemate, discussion and debate, the Faculty adopted new legislation last month, which will go into effect with the Class of 2005, requiring that honors be reserved for at most the top 60 percent of graduates.

“This new legislation puts us very much in line with our peer institutions,” Pedersen says.

While many proposals circulated this year on how to best combat grade inflation, the Faculty unanimously voted to cap honors and to switch to the more common 4.0 grading scale.

Harvard currently has a 15.0 grading scale with a gap between a B-plus and an A-minus that several professors have argued causes professors to award more A-range grades.

But through the intensive discussion that dominated the Faculty’s agenda for months, discussion was always influenced by the fact that Harvard attracts high-quality students.

The final proposal by the Office for Undergraduate Education issued to the Faculty this spring says: “The discussion of grading practices begins by recognizing that Harvard undergraduates are among the most qualified and capable students in the world.”

And Harvard students had suffered from what some feel is unfair attention.

“I have been concerned with the effect that the excessive press coverage has wounded student morale,” Pedersen says. “They shouldn’t have to pursue their courses under the scrutiny of the world.”

Moreover, some officials say the latest blow-up is hardly different from past times the issue was raised.

“Grade inflation and curricular reform are not issues that the long-term health of the University depends on, they are just significant annoyances that have to be dealt with,” explains former Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky.

“Grade inflation has never been a make or break proposition for the University,” Gomes says.

The Big Picture

Indeed, administrators say that a complete understanding of the concerns raised in recent years can only be made in the larger context of higher education and instituional history.

Despite all of the criticism and all of the debate, administrators point out that Harvard still attracts many of the best and the brightest.

“We have the ability to reach out to outstanding students not just in the states but all over the world,” says Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67.

With its exceptional student body and esteemed Faculty, though, comes great responsibility.

“We can’t help but worry about our place in higher education,” says Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education John O’Keefe. “We need to keep reinventing ourselves.”

Administrators at other top universities agree that the Ivy name brings with it the expectation that Harvard and its peers will provide a model for a liberal arts educations.

“It isn’t patronizing to others to suggest that what Harvard and Yale do does matter and that therefore we have important responsibilities,” says Yale’s Lauran.

Thus, whether Harvard is falling behind its peer institutions is a tougher question when weighed against whether Harvard should also be advancing on its own.

“I believe that we are probably not aware of the extent to which Harvard is in the process of modernizing itself,” Coatsworth says. “There are grounds to be very optimistic about the pace of change at Harvard University.”

—Staff writer Jessica E. Vascellaro can be reached at