Don’t Delay the Curricular Review, but Do Delay Concentration Choice

With the recently announced resignations of University President Lawrence H. Summers and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby, it appears that the Harvard College Curricular Reivew might be in jeopardy. In the past few weeks, there have been calls for delay and even abandonment of the review’s recommendations, as if the curricular reports are the mandate of the central administration and derive no support outside of it.

As the student member of the Educational Policy Committee (EPC), the group responsible for the recent set of proposed changes to the structure of concentrations, I would be very disheartened to see the review compromised, not simply because of all the work that has gone into the current proposals, but also because I believe that our recommendations will significantly improve undergraduate education at Harvard. Despite the uncertainty about the future composition of Harvard’s administration, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences should not be distracted from curricular reforms; rather, it should make every effort to vote on the proposals of the EPC this spring, so that academic departments, which are already brainstorming ways to restructure their programs, will be able to make changes in time to benefit the entering Class of 2010. In order to do so, the debate about the proposed delay in the timing of concentration choice—the recommendation that will be most beneficial to all students—must continue.

The principal goal of moving the selection of concentrations to the middle of sophomore year is to allow students to make a more informed choice of concentration. In the absence of experience with many of Harvard’s fields of study, incoming students gravitate toward a default set of familiar courses and, in turn, concentrations. A freshman interested in both business and medical school may take Chemistry 5 and 7, Ec 10, and Math 1a and 1b her freshman year, barely leaving room for Core Curriculum and Expository Writing requirements, much less any real academic exploration. Without any experience outside of chemistry and economics, this student will have only two concentration options available to her, unless she risks declaring a concentration in a department with which she has not had any contact. She may not recognize until a few years later that Environmental Science and Public Policy, for example, would have been a better fit.

Of course, there is the concern that this delay will encourage students to idly waste three semesters traipsing through the course catalog at the expense of more advanced coursework later. Departments, however, will suggest courses for potential concentrators, so students with an interest in a particular field will be guided toward suitable introductory courses that can also serve as a foundation for more advanced study. For example, Social Studies 10 could be offered to any student in the College and recommended for potential concentrators. The benefits for non-concentrators who would love to take this course as an elective are obvious, but the change also would help prospective concentrators who could “shop” Social Studies for a semester without suffering the consequences of making up a tutorial if they had already chosen a different concentration. In the spirit of the general education committee’s recommendation that departments take an active role in the education of non-concentrators, departments will become a natural resource for pre-concentrators as well. Thus, is hardto imagine that a student interested in studying science will not seek advice on which science courses to take in her first year, as the Division of Engineering and Applied Science faculty fears.

A related worry is that delaying concentration choice will lead to less “rigorous” concentrations that fail to prepare students for graduate school. While the EPC urges all concentrations to limit the number of required courses to a level consistent with the goals of a broad liberal arts education, we have no interest in stipulating a course cap for individual students. In most departments, it makes sense for students who intend to pursue graduate studies to take more courses than students with other goals, and this is precisely the reason why a minimum number of concentration credits should not be calculated to suit the small number of students who intend to go on to academic careers. Furthermore, most other undergraduate institutions have a later date of concentration choice, so many students in Harvard’s own graduate programs have managed to achieve sufficient preparation on a more relaxed timetable.

Every student traces his or her own academic path through Harvard, and, within reason, concentrations should have some flexibility to meet their students’ diverse needs. With the proposed delay in the timing of concentration choice, departments must accommodate students who only discover their academic interests as sophomores. The hope is that these efforts at increasing flexibility will also make it easier for students who study abroad to satisfy their concentration requirements.

Some faculty members have asked to postpone the vote on the EPC recommendations until a general education program is also ready for a vote, but a later concentration choice deadline makes sense even in the current system, in which the Core requires students to take courses in the fields furthest from their interests while simultaneously trying to determine what those interests might be. Similarly, there have been concerns that a vote should not proceed without first improving the current advising system. Yes, the College must prepare for an extra semester of pre-concentration advising, but individual departments will assume much of this responsibility. Furthermore, it will be easier for the newly appointed associate dean of advising, Monique Rinere, to establish a new advising program after the Faculty has approved a new system for concentrations rather than in the current state of uncertainty.

One of the themes common to many curricular review reports has been “trust the students, trust the faculty,” and this is particularly relevant to the recommendations regarding timing of concentration choice. Summers, who in his recent resignation letter expressed a desire to make the Harvard experience commensurate with the quality of its students and faculty, seems to share this understanding. It is in both students’ and professors’ interests to maintain the rigor of Harvard’s degree programs, and I trust that the current efforts toward increased freedom and flexibility will contribute to that goal.

Emily E. Riehl ’06 is a mathematics concentrator in Adams House.