Low Ranks for Large Fields

Ec and Gov garner rock-bottom scores in student satisfaction survey

Seniors in Harvard’s largest departments—economics and government—are less satisfied with their concentration experience than their classmates in less crowded fields.

Those two departments—as well as biology—received the lowest ratings from concentrators in a survey of 900 graduating seniors conducted by The Crimson.

[See department-by-department rankings here.]

The Crimson’s analysis of the survey data found that concentration size is a strong predictor of student satisfaction, with the smallest concentrations receiving rave reviews.

The online survey asked respondents to rate their own concentration on a 1-to-5 scale, with 1 signifying “very dissatisfied” and 5 for “very satisfied.” The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS)—with eight graduating seniors, six of whom answered The Crimson’s survey—topped the charts with a perfect 5.0.

In EPS, “every graduating senior can claim to be very well acquainted with several professors, often on a first-name basis,” according to the EPS department’s co-director of undergraduate studies, Ann Pearson. The department also sponsors field trips for concentrators before the beginning of the fall term. Last year, concentrators camped out in the Canadian Rockies and studied the region’s geology. This year, students will set sail on a five-day cruise along the coast of California.

Among mid-sized fields, the History and Science concentration, with 32 graduating seniors, led the pack with a mean score of 4.38. The honors-only program requires seniors to write theses—“a number of which find publication later in one form or another,” according to its chair, Anne Harrington ’82.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the government department, Harvard’s second-largest concentration, with 206 graduating seniors. Government garnered a rock-bottom rating of 3.04 in The Crimson’s survey. Only the biology concentration—which is in the process of being disbanded—scored lower, with an average rating of 3.02. (This fall, sophomores will not have the option of majoring in biology, but instead will choose among several sub-disciplines, including chemical and physical biology, molecular and cellular biology, neurobiology, and organismic and evolutionary biology.)

While Harvard College conducts its own exit survey of seniors each year, it does not release the results publicly. But professors who have seen the College’s data say The Crimson’s results closely conform to official statistics.

“What we see from the official exit survey is very similar to what you have here,” says the government department’s head tutor, Timothy J. Colton. “I think we can take it as established that government gets quite low scores relative to other departments.”

GOVERNMENT THE UNGOVERNABLE?

Government is grappling with its consistently poor performance on student satisfaction surveys. The department has hired a doctoral candidate to analyze survey data this summer.

The department has revamped its advising system over the past year. Starting this fall, at least one government doctoral candidate will live in each of the undergraduate Houses and will counsel concentrators there, according to Colton.

Government is also responding to concerns that its wide range of offerings has come at the expense of a coherent curriculum. “We have people doing philosophy, others doing game theory—they’re part of the same concentration,” says Colton. “Undergraduates…don’t see how it hangs together.”

The department is considering a plan to establish voluntary tracks organized around a single “problem or puzzle”—such as “violence and conflict,” “human rights,” or “political participation,” according to Colton. Students would take several courses addressing that theme from a variety of perspectives. The program could be in place by fall 2008.

Colton and his colleagues recognize that these reforms might not vault government to the top of student satisfaction surveys. For a large department, a low score on satisfaction surveys “probably goes with the territory,” Colton says.

Raquel O. Alvarenga ’07, a joint classics and government concentrator, says that government’s low ranking on satisfaction surveys is “primarily” a function of its sheer size. “I don’t think it’s really anything fundamental to the department,” she adds.

In classics classes, “you just got a lot more personal attention,” Alvarenga says. But in several-hundred-person government courses, “there’s very little interaction with the professor outside lecture unless you take the initiative.”

The government department still places first among political science programs in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. And in the Committee on Undergraduate Education’s annual ratings of professors and classes, “the ratings of individual government courses—although I don’t have scientific analysis at hand—tend to be quite high,” Colton says.

“The puzzle for us,” department chair Nancy L. Rosenblum ’69 writes in an e-mail, “is the disjuncture between our…quality teaching on the one hand, and the overall concentration experience on the other.”

THE DISMAL SCIENCE

Economics, with 254 concentrators, fared only slightly better than government on the survey, with a mean score of 3.19. According to the department’s chair, James H. Stock, economics scored similarly on the College’s official senior survey last spring—“near the bottom but ahead of gov and biology.”

The Harvard economics department maintains a strong social-scientific orientation and eschews pre-professional courses such as accounting. According to Stock, “many of our students would prefer a business major, but Harvard does not offer a business major so they settle for the second choice of economics.”

Oleg Bibergan ’07, an economics concentrator in Dunster House, says that the department should be more forceful in advertising the fact that “we are not a pre-professional department.”

“Let’s be honest—a lot of people concentrate in economics because they want to do something in finance,” says Bibergan, who will work at a private equity firm in Moscow next year. But he says that Harvard’s finance offerings are “very paltry.” Bibergan cross-registered in several courses at MIT to gain the pre-professional training that Harvard doesn’t provide.

The economics program also is plagued by crowded classes and a sky-high student-to-faculty ratio.

“When you have 650 people in your class, you’re bound to fall asleep,” says Bibergan.

This year, there were approximately 15 concentrators per faculty member in economics, according to Stock. In most departments, the concentrator-to-faculty member ratio is about 5-to-1.

“However, I don’t like using that as an excuse, and we are constantly trying to improve our program,” Stock says.

This fall, for the first time, every junior economics concentrator will have the opportunity to take a semester-long seminar with a professor and—at maximum—15 other students.

Stock says the program was “ramped up very considerably this year.” But for members of the Class of ’07, that change came too late.

<i>­—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu. </i>