The Trusted Few

After a Faculty vote, a small committee must make plans for undergraduate education a reality

Trust us.

After four years, voluminous reports, and clamorous debate, Harvard’s third dean of the Faculty in 11 months asked his colleagues for a little faith in finishing Harvard’s first new program on general education in a generation.

“We have to trust ourselves,” David R. Pilbeam told his colleagues at a Faculty meeting last month. “I’m temporarily one of them, but I’m really one of you.”

The “you”—Harvard’s 723 members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—is a group not given to consensus or, frankly, much trust.

His colleagues, Pilbeam said in a recent interview, don’t easily allow their interests to be dictated by others. “Power is not a word I would ever use around the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.”

But now a small group, led by Cabot House master and Jewish studies scholar Jay M. Harris, will be given the trust and the power to move general education from the debating chamber of University Hall into Harvard’s classrooms.

If the past is prologue, the transition will be far from easy.

‘BAM! BAM! BAM!’

When Derek C. Bok came back to Cambridge last spring, he found the four-year long curricular review “on life support,” he said recently.

How had the review—a priority for the College since Lawrence H. Summers came charging through its gates in 2001—gotten so off track?

In January 2006, Faculty members—including English professor Louis Menand and philosophy professor Alison Simmons—released a report in favor of distribution requirements, praising the system used at many other colleges for its “simplicity and trust.”

By the fall, the faith in distribution requirements had disappeared, replaced by a proposal that would require students to take courses from approved lists in eight categories.

According to professors, the recommendation of distribution requirements came about not through affinity for its arguments but by resignation. The committee was impeded by administrative meddling, and it was too large to agree on anything more specific.

“I think the committee was just too big,” Menand said.

With two deans sitting at the table along with a boisterous president, administrative politics appeared to seep into the group’s discussions.

Everett I. Mendelsohn, who will retire this spring after six decades at Harvard, said last week that Summers’ presence on the committee became a problem.

“The failure to come up with a new Gen Ed program in part represented Summers’ own early belief that the system was malfunctioning and had to be replaced,” Mendelsohn said. “He came to all the early meetings. My colleagues tell me he used up an awful lot of the airtime and was asked not to stay with the committee. There was a lot of tension.”

Tension aside, Menand recalled enjoying Summers’ involvement.

“Larry was good to work with. It was like playing ping-pong with a bowling ball. Bam! Bam! Bam! That’s what it is like. It’s fun. It’s very engaging,” Menand said.

By March 2006, the ping-pong president was a lame duck, and a tennis player—the 76-year-old Bok—came through Cambridge to restore the staggering review. Quietly, he met with professors and selected the new members for a summer committee, charging them to refine the program’s purpose.

According to Simmons, the new committee members asked that administrators keep their distance during the summer discussions.

Trying to avoid what Menand calls the “U-Hall mindset,” the six professors—who were eventually joined by two students—released their preliminary report to the Faculty in October.

In November, the Faculty gathered to discuss the group’s proposal.

Menand remembered a “tempestuous meeting.”

“But at the end of the meeting,” he said, “we knew we were winning. We knew they were buying this thing...We were so excited because we thought this is something that we can actually make happen.”

Come May, that triumphalism had transformed into trepidation as professors proposed dozens of small but time-consuming amendments to the legislation.

With the end of the year approaching, a sense of urgency pervaded the Faculty’s leadership. In the second to last Faculty meeting, Bok’s hand tightened in frustration around the presidential gavel. Theda Skocpol, outgoing dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, whispered, “Patience! Patience!” into his ear. The brow of Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 seemed permanently furrowed.

In public, Pilbeam warned his colleagues of the dangers of getting bogged down in the program’s minutiae. In private, he and Bok met with leading professors to force a consensus, Bok said in a recent interview.

“We are running very close to running this whole thing into the sand,” Pilbeam told professors on May 8.

Two months earlier—before stepping down as his battle against prostate cancer worsened—former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles had warned against such urgency.

“I should be nervous if the timetable becomes too ambitious. We do not want this to result in, as it were, mandated failure,” the second-time dean said. (“No no, that’s a bad phrase,” Knowles added, but the sentiment was clear.)

Indeed, some professors worried that the fast pace at which the Faculty had moved—abandoning the recommendations of January 2006 for an entirely new program the following year—had resulted in a muddled plan, blind to its relationship to the rest of the College curriculum.

“We shouldn’t be sweeping these confusions under the rug just to be sure we vote something this spring,” Harry R. Lewis ’68, former dean of the College, told professors in the May 15 Faculty meeting.

The report’s two main authors said in a joint interview they recognize the review’s awkward transformation.

“Nobody was kind of looking over the thing and saying, you know, this is how the pieces might fit,” Menand said. A little bit of the problem with Gen Ed was that it came last, but it was the dog that wagged the tail.”

“The tail that wagged the dog,” Simmons countered.

“No, we’re the dog! They’re the tail,” Menand said. “Secondary field people and the language citation people and the study abroad people are the tail, but they got in there first. Then it looks like, what’s this Gen Ed thing? But actually Gen Ed was supposed to be centerpiece of the curriculum.”

With a vote of 168 to 14—with 11 abstentions—professors welcomed the new general education program with a mix of enthusiasm and exhaustion. Menand’s early sense of victory had proved prescient, but the cultural historian admitted he is now anxious about the future of the program.

ANOTHER CEMETERY?

During his first presidency, Bok likened implementing the Core to “moving a cemetery.”

While the end to this process could prove easier than unearthing bodies, ghosts still haunt the legislation.

“I’m a little apprehensive about implementation—whether we are going to have enough courses, whether it gets watered down,” Menand admitted.

The new program, he said, “is still in the middle of coming into being.”

Behind all the back-slapping (Bok called the legislation “a more comprehensive effort to improve the quality in undergraduate education than anything that has happened in the history of the University”), the program’s success still depends on how a small committee interprets and advances the sometimes ambiguous legislation.

Harris, who will chair the Standing Committee on General Education along with a handful of still unnamed members, understands the danger.

“As many faculty members have said, so much depends on administration and implementation,” Harris said on Sunday.

“I think there are tremendous opportunities.” But, Harris said, “there are any number of ways this could go astray. Our job is to make sure it doesn’t.”

Much of the job of Harris’s committee will be addressing the specific implementation issues that professors say bedeviled the Core.

According to Menand and Simmons, the Core program suffers from two main problems: its inflexibility and its inability to provide a clear explanation for why some courses fulfil general education requirements and others do not.

While the new program seeks to overcome these problems, the legislation does not outline how the general education committee should address these two pragmatic concerns.

For example, the new legislation aims to give Faculty members more influence over Gen Ed’s administrative operations, but it remains to be determined how this professorial role will manifest itself.

Similarly, it is not clear how professors outside of Harris’s committee will be involved in the implementation of the new curriculum and in approving courses for Gen Ed credit; the legislation says that professors—particularly department chairs—should be consulted, but it does not define the manner or frequency of such consultations.

‘A TOUGH JOB’

Lewis, who said he is a “big believer in Faculty power,” expressed concern that too much control of this new program would lie in too few hands.

“I think the committee is going to have a very tough job,” Lewis said. “I’m a little worried that its mandate is run so broadly that it’s going to be authorized to do things into which the Faculty might have preferred to have some more direct input.”

But English Department Chair James T. Engell ’73 said that the consolidation of power in committees is inevitable and necessary.

“If you can’t trust the deliberative process of a faculty committee, what would you end up with?”

And trust the Faculty must, particularly because this is not the end. As Pilbeam has reminded his colleagues, “We are just in the middle of shaping a new curricular landscape.”

—Staff writer Johannah S. Cornblatt can be reached jcornbl@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached jacobs@fas.harvard.edu.