Harvard isn’t just going through a financial crisis. Harvard is also going through an identity crisis.
There are two versions of Harvard that the current Harvard is trying to reconcile. One Harvard is the Old Harvard. The Old Harvard was good. It was the Harvard of the Core Curriculum, exams after winter break, incredible prestige, great wealth, and easy spending. Sure, it had its problems, but the Old Harvard was in no rush to fix them.
The other Harvard is the New Harvard. The New Harvard hopes to achieve unified schedules that make cross-registration between the College and graduateschools easy, to host J-term on campus, and to initiate a more relevant General Education program. The New Harvard aims to enrich the overall experience of the diverse group of undergraduates it recruits through a remarkable financial aid program.
But right now, Harvard is in limbo. Harvard has no identity, and its undergraduates are suffering as a result. What the Harvard administration should learn from these growing pains is that progressing slowly—as they did in the Old Harvard—does have long-term negative effects. The slow shift from the Core Curriculum to the General Education program, the renovations of the Houses and Allston, and the failed implementation of J-term are all evidence of this fact. To improve the undergraduate experience in the future, Harvard must accelerate these sorts of initiatives.
For example, rather than expediting the process by which undergrads can enroll in Gen Ed classes, Harvard has stifled it. Since not all Core courses count for Gen Ed, many current sophomores took Core classes last year that may not count toward Gen Ed requirements. Harvard should have automatically approved Core classes for Gen Ed. Doing so would have increased the number of students fulfilling the new requirements, which we are moving to precisely because Harvard believes they are better. All Gen Ed classes count for Core credit, and it should work the other way, as well. Additionally, Harvard students need stronger Gen Ed advising to help them see what makes Gen Ed unique better than the Core, and to aid them in their choice between these two curricula.
Of course, financial constraints have also affected the Harvard undergraduate academic experience. Section sizes have not risen above the official limits Harvard has laid out for itself, but they have still increased. Section quality steadily decreases with each additional student, so students suffer from increased section sizes regardless of whether they are below Harvard’s section-size cap.
The financial crisis has contributed not only to a diminished academic experience, but also to the failed J-term launch. If the administration had quickly established J-term once it had decided it wanted one, Harvard could have set aside funds for this initiative beforehand, and perhaps Harvard wouldn’t have had to forgo J-term programming this year. Additionally, rather than helping undergraduates maximize their January spent off campus, Harvard resources—such as the Office of Career Services—failed to provide meaningful information about potential J-term internships with alumni until it was too late. OCS and the Harvard Alumni Association sent an email about “Leveraging the Alumni Network” in mid-December. This email should have been sent in September, not a few weeks before J-term started, when students had already made their plans to go home.
To improve the current academic experience in this tough financial climate, Harvard should act on low-cost plans and tap into currently underutilized resources. For instance, the unified schedule was supposed to make cross-registration between the various graduate schools easier. Harvard should encourage this sort of activity with improved academic advising on cross-registration and expanded opportunities for it. Additionally, faculty hiring is frozen, and many professors are taking early retirement or have left for Washington. Thus, professors should be expected to teach more classes to soften the blow from lost courses, like the Economics Department’s junior seminars, until faculty levels return to normal. Professors are the best resources that undergraduates have, and as long as we still have enough faculty-taught courses to meet demand, undergraduates will leave Harvard with an incredible education.
Will I ever be on campus for J-term? When will terminated course offerings be restored? The current Harvard administration has failed to answer these questions. Although I applaud Harvard’s efforts to maintain its stellar financial aid throughout these difficult times, I have to wonder: Will we ever get to New Harvard?
Elizabeth C. Bloom ’12 is a social studies concentrator in Currier House