In early September 1985, student editors of the CUE Guide—the Committee of Undergraduate Education’s yearly student review of professors and teaching fellows—voiced concerns about administrative censorship in that year’s guide. In a preface to the guide, the editors contended that a Harvard official had pressured them to make revisions to criticisms of several instructors, such as the deletion of words such as “arrogant” and “condescending.”
Barbara S. Okun ’86, Editor-in-Chief of the CUE Guide at the time, stated that Dean K. Whitla, director of the Office of Instructional Research and Evaluation, had looked over the write-ups in mid-July of that year and objected to the “harsh tone” of several reviews. He allegedly stated that the staff of the CUE guide would have to “pack their bags” unless changes—which he referred to as “suggestions”—were made. Okun added that Whitla threatened to cancel the publication of the book if his demands were not met.
Okun said in a 1985 interview with the Crimson that 17 of 250 write-ups in the guide were altered in some way, including descriptions of professors such as Stephen J. Gould, Brendan A. Maher, Lewis H. Lockwood, and Bernard Bailyn.
For example, in a review of Bailyn’s Core course Historical Studies B-31: “The Revolutionary Transformation of America,” the original statement “one-fourth of respondents ... find him arrogant or condescending” was changed to “find him somewhat distant and firm in his opinions.”
These types of alterations “fail to convey the intensity of the criticism” and “sometimes misrepresent the nature” of the anonymous evaluations, the editors said. They argued that these types of changes were “undermining” the CUE Guide’s “integrity and objectivity.”
Okun still recalls the strong feelings associated with what she and the CUE editing staff felt was censorship.
“We had worked hard to try and accurately reflect what students had to say about their lecturers, reading through hundreds and hundreds of student questionnaires, and we did not want our work to be compromised by what was clear arm-twisting,” Okun wrote in an email to The Crimson last week.
Steven E. Ozment, former associate dean for undergraduate education and the CUE’s faculty advisor, said of the alleged censorship in an interview in 1985, “If it walks like a duck and acts like a duck, I guess it’s a duck.”
As a result of criticism by the student editors, then-Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence said that he and other officials were mistaken in asking student editors to alter the negative criticisms of professors. “It was our fault,” he said in an interview in 1985.
Following the incident, the Faculty Council was scheduled to convene to discuss what policies should be implemented to prevent such problems in the future.
THE PLOT THICKENS
As the controversy over the alleged censorship became widely known on campus, issues of imprecise policy concerning editorial review by administrators and student editors were brought to light. The question of editorial control was complicated by the fact that the University provided the $65,000 of funding for the project, while the students worked to process, organize, and produce the content.
There was some precedent for administrative intervention: in 1976, the Faculty Council had discussed the Guide four times, and made several important rulings that affected the format of the Guide, including the stipulations that students could not include grade distributions of the course in their reviews, and that one of the questions from the course survey be removed (“How well organized is the instructor’s speaking style?”).
But Okun said the de facto policy at the time of the controversy appeared to favor placing editorial freedom in hands of student editors.
“I always thought that [the CUE Guide] was editorially independent. That’s the assumption that we’ve worked on over the past couple of years,” Okun said in a 1985 interview. “I think it should be editorially free.”