When the elevator in William James Hall shuts, those on the inside are privy to a telling phrase, etched in the door’s metal frame by an angst-ridden student: “Harvard Sucks.” Beneath that, a retort: “No, it doesn’t.”
The former expression has become an anthem for Mawuena M. Agbonyitor ’04, a social anthropology concentrator in Mather House. Sitting on her bed to avoid the work building on her desk, she listlessly flips through TV channels. “Cold, gray and tired”—these are the words that describe her day-to-day Harvard malaise. “I honestly don’t know anyone who likes it here,” she says. “Everyone is waiting to get out.”
According to Anna Franekova ’05, the weight of this malaise crushes the liveliness of her peers. “I met up with a Harvard friend in Prague and it’s incredible how different she was in a different environment,” she says. “There are too many people who are happier on the outside.”
If this malaise is as general as Agbonyitor and Franekova suggest, why don’t more Harvard students jump ship? Chris Cowan, a former member of the Class of 2005 who transferred to Stanford, asserts that Harvard’s social mores override student dissatisfaction. “Even with all my complaints, Harvard was a hard place to walk away from,” he writes in an e-mail message. “The culture there is either you love it or you’ll suck it up because the name is worth it. Most people, even those that are unhappy, wouldn’t leave.”
Agbonyitor agrees. In spite of her grievances, she lives by a disheartening philosophy. “Get your degree and hope it’ll all get better.”
Popular culture suggests that Harvard is the place to be. U.S. News & World Report places Harvard at the top of its college rankings. Films like Legally Blonde purport that we can be smart, glamorous and happy all at the same time. Platitudes tell us we should be having the time of our lives. And yet the National Institute of Health reports that in 2002, 69 percent of Harvard students felt exhausted up to 10 times during the year, 65 percent felt overwhelmed by all they had to do and 48 percent felt things were hopeless.
The Harvard name keeps students here, but what drives this dissatisfaction? Does the University’s lack of concern breed unhappiness? Are Harvard students inherently difficult to please? Or is there simply a culture of discontent that compels students to complain whenever they can?
Richard E. Freeman ’03-’05, a transfer student from Carnegie Mellon, posits that dissatisfaction is simply the nature of the beast, not a result of administrative negligence. “There is a lot of melodrama here,” he says. “Students criticize Harvard as a university, but the problems they cite are typical anywhere. They don’t realize this because they lack a different perspective.”
If the administration isn’t to blame, then perhaps dissatisfaction is attributable to the bizarre overachievers that inhabit the university and promote the culture of complaining. Agbonyitor regularly listens to student complaints—even from students she doesn’t know. During exam period, she remembers talking to a friend in Loker Commons about an upcoming exam when an unknown student butted in. “She told me ‘I have two finals tomorrow and a paper due,’” Agbonyitor says. “She wanted her life to sound so much worse than mine.” At Harvard, complaining is so essential to the culture, it becomes a badge of honor that students use to one-up their neighbors.
Harvard, of course, is not purely a black hole of misery. Stephanie L. Wilka ’05, a psychology concentrator in Lowell House, oozes school spirit—so much that she joined the College cheerleading squad her freshman year. “I think situations are what you make of ‘em,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “Ya gotta know when to work, and ya gotta know when to enjoy yourself.”
In the name of public service, FM investigates a lesser-known university where students seem to have a firmer grasp on this concept. Historically, Yale University has the been #2 in higher education to Harvard’s #1, the Pepsi to our Coke, the Lexus to our Mercedes. Yet, despite being the undisputed #1 in the pop-culture rankings, Harvard may fall far short of Yale in one very important respect—the happiness of its students.
Yalies seem to have their priorities straight—as the motto says, “For God, For Country, and For Yale.” Indeed, Yalies proudly sport the Yale insignia on backpacks to boxers, and not just at the Game—Yalies bleed Eli blue—they submit with pleasure to the cult of the bulldog.
Yale University seems to operate under a more balanced equation.
How do we solve our problem, fair Harvard? Perhaps #1 can learn something from #2.
Happily Hating Harvard
It’s a little past 7:30 p.m. when Danielle B. Sanzone ’03-’04 enters the Church Street Starbucks. Her blonde hair creeps out from her winter hat and a bright orange and yellow messenger sack, no doubt filled with books, dangles below her hip. Surrounded by graduate students sipping lattes in dim light, she manages to blend in.
“I have so much bitterness toward Harvard and the past five years,” she says, clutching her caramel apple cider. “They haven’t been that good for me.”
Sanzone, a physics concentrator in Kirkland House, remembers this discontent forming early in her undergraduate career. When the friendly veneer of her fellow first-years wore off shortly after Freshman Week, the socially inept masses bewildered her.
“I’d been friendly my whole life,” she says, “but suddenly at Harvard people couldn’t deal with it.” Sanzone remembers awkward interactions with people who questioned her motivation for being nice. “They didn’t know how to respond to people making friendly advances when they didn’t want anything,” she says.
Back in Mather House, it’s 10 p.m. and Mawuena M. Agbonyitor ’04, still lying in bed, speculates on Sanzone’s dilemma. “Harvard people can’t form real friendships because everyone is so concerned with their own stuff that they don’t have time for you,” she says.
In an environment saturated with ambition, stress and—according to some—socially awkward students, the administration would be wise to more actively facilitate opportunities for release. Louder dancers, longer parties and a more laissez-faire policy toward fun—this is the stuff of a contented collegiate life. By loosening its grip, the College can help put an end to the culture of complaining.
Although the Harvard name will keep students around, the administration should more actively promote student happiness. As Kyle R. McCarthy ’06, an English and Women’s Studies concentrator, attests, the College passively overlooks students dissatisfied with their housing options. McCarthy chose to move off campus to the Dudley Co-op after her freshman year, discontent with the House system. “There is this assumption that the House model will be good for everyone,” she says, “but the way it’s carried out is really flawed.” Unlike Yale, which officially recognizes fraternity houses and student apartments in addition to dormitories, Harvard creates an insular bubble where students are sequestered from the outside world. “I would come home from section with all my beef and neuroticism,” McCarthy recalls, “and still be at school. There was no place where I was off.”
The complacency of the administration often carries over into teaching as well. Sanzone felt that her TFs viewed her as a machine churning out papers and problem sets, not a person. Last fall, she struggled with personal issues exacerbated by the school’s “spotty” response to her concerns. She feels the administration has a myopic focus on the needs of students in extreme situations. Or, as she puts it, “If you’re not about to jump off the top of Holyoke Center, then you’re not a priority.”
Sanzone felt her difficulty with a particular class was contributing to her depression. Her solution? She stopped going to class, stopped turning in work and skipped her midterm. Rather than expressing concern, her TFs merely asked her when she would turn in her assignments. Still, Sanzone doesn’t blame them. “It’s not their job,” she says of her TFs. “I was just very happy staying in bed.”
When Sanzone spoke with her senior tutor about dropping the course past the withdraw date, she was assured that a petition would go through. Following up with her senior tutor was difficult, she remembers, because the senior tutor never picked up her phone. “I would have to physically track her down,” she says. When the petition didn’t go through, Sanzone grew more frustrated, leading her to withdraw from school late that semester. “If I had gotten better advice, I would have made a more informed decision,” she says.
What is to be done? Aaron J. Greenspan ’05, creator of CriticalMass, an online alternative to the CUE guide that effectively channelled student discontent about a professor to the administration, suggests that specific student concerns will never be as effective as group concerns. “Because Harvard is a corporation,” he says in an e-mail, “it has access to lawyers, accountants, and risk minimization officers. If a cursory cost-benefit analysis yields the result that it will be worth the University’s effort to respond to a given concern, then the University will probably respond.”
So why is Yale responding when Harvard is not?