Voices of Courage

The professors who opposed preregistration spoke with persuasive reason

There is a glimmer of hope, after all. At Tuesday’s Faculty meeting, 11 professors rose to speak on Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby’s proposal to introduce preregistration to Harvard College. And 10 railed against the idea. Some pointed out the logistical problems that preregistration would cause, including burying professors under a mountain of add/drop forms; some queried whether the proposal would even bring improved class-size predictions that Kirby had claimed, and some pointed out that the scheme’s introduction would be deleterious for undergraduate education, harming students and faculty alike. All hit the target.

When Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics Howard Georgi ’68 rose to speak, first he was just one man, standing in a large hall in front of an administration united behind preregistration and seemingly unwilling to budge. But he spoke against the proposal with passion and with clarity—and with the voice of 6,500 undergraduates. He and his nine colleagues—including Saltonstall Professor of History Charles S. Maier ’60, who is co-authoring A World Transformed: A Global History of the Twentieth Century with Kirby—may just have turned the tide against the administration’s ill-conceived plan. And they should feel proud for having had the courage to do so. The student body is surely proud of them for standing up for their principles. And, just maybe, students and enlightened Faculty can band together to save shopping period and condemn preregistration to the swift death it deserves when the issue is finally put to a full vote of the Faculty.

No one should be fooled into believing that speeches at Faculty meetings do not make a difference. University President Lawrence H. Summers had blithely asserted on Monday night at a Kirkland House study break that the integrity of shopping period would be unaffected by the introduction of preregistration. But, following the speeches—including that of Maier Professor of Political Economy Benjamin M. Friedman ’66 who charged that “the proposal before us purports to preserve flexibility, but there will be a very clear reduction of shopping period to a vestigial remnant of what our students now enjoy”—Summers spoke of the need to “balance the clear importance of flexible student choice with the need to have rational academic planning.” It seems the speeches persuaded even Summers to shift his position.

Tuesday’s Faculty meeting, however uplifiting, was not the end of the preregistration debate. A long battle stretches ahead to save shopping period and preserve student choice. But at least there will be a battle, a notion that seemed unlikely until Tuesday afternoon. Now students must contact individual faculty members and let them know undergraduates’ views on Kirby’s proposal. And now every member of the Faculty must examine both the administration’s flawed plans for preregistration and Tuesday afternoon’s rousing speeches to determine their own stance on the issue. And then they must speak out with the same intellectual honesty as their colleagues, buoyed by overwhelming undergraduate support.

In his remarks on Tuesday, Friedman was sympathetic to the administration’s desire to get rid of the logistical problems of shopping period, but he resolutely defended the need to maintain student flexibility. “Just like Iraq, this seems like a situation where nobody wants this to happen, but we discuss it as if it were inevitable,” he said. But by speaking out, he and his nine colleagues helped to make the passage of this proposal anything but certain. Now the academic community as a whole must rally behind these 10 courageous professors.