Of all the venerable Harvard institutions, the Administrative Board of Harvard College likely holds the distinction of engendering the most anxiety among students. The Board, composed of resident deans, faculty, and administrators, applies faculty rules in regard to undergraduate education and conduct. Critics of the Board argue that its procedures are obscure, that it is inadequately supportive and representative of students, and that encounters with it can be downright terrifying. After 18 months of reviewing the Board, we have proposed modifications that will make the Board’s actions more transparent, increase student support, and improve the educational work of the Board. We commend Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds, who—amid an unprecedented budget crisis—has come down firmly on the side of instituting changes, many of which are outlined below and will take effect next year.
Many students facing Board sanctions feel inadequately supported. To help students and to allow the resident deans to offer support, the Secretary of the Board, or a designee— rather than the student’s resident dean— will notify a student that a case has been initiated. This allows the resident dean to act more strictly as an advisor. If a student would like an alternative advisor, they may choose another Board member. Also—as is the case now—a student may pick a personal advisor from within the FAS. Under the newly adopted procedures, this advisor will receive information and briefings on the Board process, be permitted to pause Board proceedings during a personal appearance if a student needs a break, and be permitted to voice relevant information if a student omits pertinent details.
With a board composed of 33 members, personal appearances—allowed when students may be required to withdraw—are difficult for everyone involved, and some students find it hard to coherently state their case. Next year, instead of appearing before the full Board, students will meet with a subcommittee of approximately six Board members. In this less intimidating setting, information can be more easily exchanged, lessons can be learned, and students can interact directly with board members. Additionally, in a smaller and more private location than the Forum room of Lamont Library—currently the venue for these appearances—students won’t have to explain to curious friends in the Lamont Café, exposed to the rest of the student body, that they are formally dressed and upset because they are to attend an Ad Board hearing.
Hammonds will increase faculty representation on the Board. The rules governing student conduct are faculty rules—formulated and legislated by the faculty—and therefore faculty must take a greater role in their application.
The review committee has suggested that in deciding a case, and when voting, a Board member must be “sufficiently persuaded” that a student has violated a rule of the faculty. This is intended to increase transparency and make clear that cases are decided based on a previously agreed standard. At the same time, to help document a case, and to help assure fairness, students involved in disciplinary cases will be asked to submit to the Board a list of relevant information.
Hammonds has reemphasized the importance of handling minor matters within the Houses, and next year, they will be urged to issue warnings in response to minor offenses that occur within them. Evidently, the Board is sometimes used as a threat when local sanctions might be more effective. For example, if a student propped her door, it could be handled within the House and would not require the Board. Hammonds has also committed to making the sequence of events for cases more clear, whether through flow charts or through revised and simplified guides. Across the College, there is a commitment to assuring that students and faculty understand the process and the rationale for the Board.
Next fall, we expect legislation to be presented to the faculty for discussion and votes. Among the revisions will be changes to the rules on academic misconduct, including collaboration, and expanded sanctions in such cases. All of these changes aim to enhance the academic and educational aspects of life in the classroom and to capture the “teaching moments.” Further legislation will be required to implement the committee’s suggestion to change processes regarding votes for the dismissal of a student and how appeals are heard. These new recommendations place the responsibility with the Faculty Council and its Docket Committee. The full faculty currently hears dismissal cases, but for reasons of privacy, it is not feasible to distribute supporting documents to all voting members—700–800 people. The committee has recommended that cases of dismissal should be delegated to the Faculty Council, rather than the full faculty.
There are other issues that need further consideration before changes are implemented. These concern the ways in which students might become involved in the disciplinary process and ways in which the roles and service of the resident deans might be strengthened.
Ultimately, as a committee, as students, and as faculty, we appreciate the role of the Board in our academic and social community. It is here—perhaps as nowhere else—that our common goals are brought together. The recommendations will diminish the mystery surrounding the Board, and the fear and sometimes terror students feel. With such changes afoot, we might look forward to the full engagement of students, faculty, resident deans, and administrators in the challenging work of the Administrative Board.
Donald H. Pfister is the Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany, Dean of the Harvard Summer School and the Former Master of Kirkland House. He is the chair of the Administrative Board Review Committee. Matthew L. Sundquist ’09 is a philosophy concentrator in Mather House. He is the former president of the Undergraduate Council and served as the student representative on the Administrative Board Review Committee.