Since many of us got into Harvard by being perfectionists, it’s not surprising that when we get here, we expect perfection in return. Instead, we are occasionally greeted by decisions that make us question whether or not Harvard even remembers that 6,598 of us are enrolled here.
Part of the problem is that the student body does a very bad job of speaking with a unified voice. As a result, our complaints often lack focus and fail to present positive solutions to these and other problems. Any change that does happen tends to take much longer than it should. In this vein, here are, not necessarily in order of importance, 10 changes Harvard can and should make in the next year that I believe undergraduates would support.
1. UC-student disconnect. Not once in my four years here have I been asked by the Undergraduate Council (UC) or by any other student organization to complete a comprehensive survey about my undergraduate experience. The College recently made me fill one out to get tickets for today’s ceremonies, but the results will never be released. No one has any idea whatsoever what undergraduates as a group think about the proposed changes to general education, or a system of staggered dining hall hours, or the appropriate allocation of funds under the UC’s control. Someone should find out.
2. Think like an undergrad. Many problems could be solved much faster by asking undergrads how to solve them. Among the things an undergrad might tell you: stop ordering the bagel varieties that no one ever eats during Brain Break; don’t shut down shuttle service during move-out weekend; run one or two shuttles to the athletic facilities on Saturday afternoons and evenings if you want people to go to the games; fund other activities more aggressively if you want people to drink less; don’t close dining halls during move-out weekend. The hiring of recent graduates as Campus Life Fellows has had a very positive effect on campus social life. The same can happen in other areas, including the curricular review.
3. Grading. Did you know that in the 2002-2003 school year, humanities students averaged a 13.05 on the old 15 point scale, while hard science students averaged a 12.33? That difference of 0.72 roughly translates to a difference of 0.2 on the four point scale we now use. That is an enormous number! Consider that the difference between last year’s magna cum laude and cum laude cutoffs, 3.657 and 3.414 respectively, was only 0.243. Unless someone seriously thinks that humanities students deserve higher grades on average, either a grading standard must be implemented or transcripts should be altered to include the average GPA in the courses a given student has taken.
4. Housing imbalance. Some residential Houses, like Dunster, pack students into every single room until there is no more space. Other Houses, like Mather, guarantee that even sophomores will have non-walkthrough singles and common rooms. The housing office should put fewer people in Dunster and more in Mather.
5. House overregulation. Some Houses, like Dunster, only allow parties until 1 a.m. Many others allow parties to go until 2 a.m. House masters and residential deans should not have the discretion to make House life worse in some places than in others.
6. First-Year Advising. The Peer Advising Fellow system recently put in place will make academic advising for freshmen much better next year. The next step is to redefine the roles of proctors and faculty members in the world of freshman advising. Proctors should sign study cards, plans of study, and so on for all students. Since much of the work they did in the past, such as helping students choose classes and concentrations, will be done (much better) in the future by upperclassmen, they will be able to advise entire entryways. Faculty members will be freed up to serve a mentorship role that excludes the nitty-gritty they hate dealing with now. This is the best way to get more faculty members to participate in the process.
7. Faculty-student interaction. One of the biggest complaints at Harvard is that students do not have enough opportunity to interact with faculty members. Recently, several of my friends and I decided to invite a number of professors to dinner in Dunster House. Many “big-name” professors, like Lewis, Mansfield, Pinker, Damrosch, Mankiw, Dominguez, and Kirshner, agreed to join us for dinner. This demonstrates that a lot of the blame for the problem falls on the students. Nevertheless, I believe Houses would do well to institute more faculty dinners. They do not need to be fancy like the ones we already have, but they need to be institutionalized, regular, and casual to be more effective.
8. Calendar. It’s time that we aligned our calendar with that of the rest of the college (and real) world. There is no reason Harvard students should have to rush to start internships or work the first business day after exams end, or leave home on Jan. 2 while all of our friends relax for another week, or take exams in classes that we haven’t attended in over a month, or sit at home in late August while our friends are all at school, and so forth. A J-term is not the solution. Getting rid of reading period is also not the solution. All we need to do is move everything back three weeks. Professors can still have the month-and-a-half long breaks they want; they’ll just start and end a little earlier. Students will be much happier.
9. Dining Services. Dining hall hours should be staggered across Houses to give students more time to get a meal. Rather than have every House open later, we should have some open at the current hours and have the rest shift their schedules back by at least an hour. Yes, some students will eat more meals in other Houses as a result, but the benefits of having more flexibility while not using up more manhours will greatly outweigh the costs. A test run would not be hard to execute.
10. Expos. Expository Writing 20 should not be a requirement. While Expos 10 serves a valuable purpose for students who enroll, Expos 20 has no uniform standard and does nothing but clog up a valuable spot for freshmen who, according to all the rhetoric surrounding delaying concentration choice, need as much freedom as possible to explore different concentrations. It’s time to stop pretending that Expos is a valuable “small class” experience for everyone. Those who want to may choose to take it as an elective.
I hope that in the next year, someone finally does the work necessary to find out what students think about these and other issues. We cannot reasonably expect any improvements if we as a body are not organized enough to demonstrate what we want.
Gregory B. Michnikov ’06, who was the Crimson business manager in 2005, is an economics concentrator in Dunster House.