Save Undergraduate Education

Administration must take bold action to abolish the Core, improve advising at Harvard

Last October, University President Lawrence H. Summers stood at his installation before a crowd of thousands and promised sweeping reform of undergraduate education at Harvard. Eight months later, very little has changed. Thus far the administration has tinkered at the margins of undergraduate education, but has not yet made the necessary bold strikes that were anticipated at the beginning of the year. Next year, Summers must take strong action to back up his lofty rhetoric of reform to save undergraduate education at Harvard.

Most memorably in his speech, Summers pledged increased interaction between students and faculty, saying that “whether in the classroom or the common room, the library or the laboratory, we will assure more of what lies at the heart of the educational experience—direct contact between teacher and student.” Despite Summers’ assurances, the only improvement made in faculty-student interaction has been an increase in the number of freshman seminars offered. And while the expansion of this program is certainly laudable, the reforms began well before Summers’ term. Instead of the flood of newly-tenured faculty that many had hoped for, the past year has seen the departure of several of Harvard’s most famous professors.

Shrouded in the veil of impersonality, Harvard’s advising system remains woeful. Students in search of academic guidance are stymied by vast bureaucracies, often struggling to find a friendly face to whom they can turn for sound advice. Both House and departmental advising standards are patchy and inconsistent, leaving many students short-changed with substandard advisors. Improving the quality of advising should be one of the top priorities for the administration next year, and, in particular, for the new dean of undergraduate education.

Meanwhile, the Core Curriculum still lives, a grim intellectual wasteland that blights the career of all undergraduates with its tedious and facile offerings that neither energize nor educate. It must be scrapped when it comes up for review next year and replaced with a distribution requirement that does not limit student choice and stultify students’ intellect. Instead of making the sweeping reforms suggested by Summers’ inaugural speech, the only change has been to exempt students from one additional requirement. And while exempting students from another requirement is a welcome step, it fails to address the larger intellectual flaws inherent in the system.

The one area to which the administration has made substantial change is the study abroad program. Students will now be able to choose from a selection of pre-approved study abroad options in addition to designing their own, instead of being forced to prove that their program is a “special opportunity.” This change, along with several others designed to slash the bureaucracy preventing study abroad, will greatly benefit undergraduate education. Students should be encouraged to spend time in other countries—for personal enrichment as well as to ease Harvard’s housing crunch. The progress made in this area—slashing institutional bureaucracy and increasing student flexibility—should serve as a model for the other improvements which Harvard must urgently make to the rest of undergraduate education.

In his first year, Summers’ rhetoric suggested that he was committed to making substantial reforms to undergraduate education—but thus far, he has initiated only minor changes. There is understandably a great deal of bureaucratic inertia that must be overcome to make lasting improvements, but the administration must not shy away from the challenge at hand.