Amid Boston Overdose Crisis, a Pair of Harvard Students Are Bringing Narcan to the Red Line


At First Cambridge City Council Election Forum, Candidates Clash Over Building Emissions


Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists


‘Sunroof’ Singer Nicky Youre Lights Up Harvard Yard at Crimson Jam


‘The Architect of the Whole Plan’: Harvard Law Graduate Ken Chesebro’s Path to Jan. 6

The Wolff Report: Even Graduate Students Feel Neglected and Lonely


One of our students declared himself unable to think of Harvard as a community of scholars and students. "It is a hierarchy," he said, "and this is the source of our graduate student problems. I feel that we are on the low end of the totem pole."

(The following are excerpts from Part IV of the report of the Wolff Committee, a group of five professors appointed by Dean Ford to study the problems of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Part IV--about one-fifth of the 71 page report--is concerned with the morale of graduate students.)

SOMEWHAT to our surprise, we began to realize early in our deliberations that the gravest current problem in the Graduate School is the one summarized by the well-worn but convenient word "morale." A distressingly large number of graduate students find their experience at Harvard disappointing. They have little sense of belonging to a fellowship, and they keenly miss the enrichments and gratifications that consociation might offer. Their range of relationships with each other is, they believe, much too limited. But it also troubles them that their relationships to the faculty, their department, and the University are tenuous, ambiguous, and generally unsatisfactory. They had hoped that graduate student life would involve stimulating interchange, not only within the areas of their specialties but extending to other intellectual realms that interest them. They find little of the former and less of the latter.

They had hoped to be regarded by the faculty as members of a scholarly company to which the faculty members themselves belong. They find--or believe they find--that they are regarded as subordinates and outsiders to be processed, graded, labeled, and sent forth. They had hoped that they would have as a group a place and a share in the departmental and University communities. They feel that the graduate student body is a fifth wheel seldom remembered when plans are considered and priorities are established.

The themes of belittlement, isolation, and neglect ran contrapuntally through the chorus of complaint. Enering the Graduate School as an elite selected from long lists of applicants, the students seemed to feel that the actual reception meant that nobody really cared for them or their opinions. It is as if they had wandered into a society of competitive, specialized scholars who might perhaps train them to run the academic race but who refused to meet them on the ground of what is meaningful and relevant in their own lives.

NO DOUBT some of these grievances are unwarranted or half-imaginary; others are real but beyond the reach of either faculty or department control. The transition from college to graduate school implies a certain increase in self-reliance, which is after all a cardinal scholarly virtue. Independent work is likely to be lonely work, but scholars must learn to enjoy the independence and put up with some loneliness. The transition from the happy variety of undergraduate life to professional specialization is likely to seem drab and stultifying in the early stages.

Indeed some of the students we talked with objected to professionalism itself as a goal for graduate study though it was by no means clear what goal that thought would be preferable. For our part we see no acceptable alternative to it, nor are we disposed to seek one. It is popular nowadays to assail academic professionalism for its "sterility," "narowness," or "irrelevance." All would agree that a sterile, narrow, person without a proper sense of relevance is a defective human being, but a far worse one is a soi-disant scholar who does not know his business. We think that the primary concern of the Graduate School must be to create authentic professional scholars who do know their business.

As for some of the other complaints, one can understand and even sympathize, yet remain unable to meet them. Some measure of authority and hierarchy are inherent in the academic world -- or in any world for that matter. If individual faculty members are overly remote or authoritarian, we can piously urge them to to mend their ways, but there is no way of commanding them to do so. . . .

THE EVIDENCE seems to us impressive that the present generation of students is less willing than its predecessors to accept graduate education as we have become accustomed to conducting it. The change is easier to understand if one bears in mind that students of the present generation are in certain important respects different from those of earlier periods. They are older, not in years, but in maturity, experience of life, and conception of themselves.

They are of the generation whose parents, influenced by changing ideas about child rearing, made much of giving affection and declaring esteem while encouraging early independence. They are of the generation whose teachers, responding to changing ideas about education, strenuously taught them to ask questions and think for themselves while giving them increased freedom in running their own affairs. They were reared in a period when social adjustment had come to be considered a prime virtue, with consequent hastening of children into contact with other children and the early formation of a strong "youth culture." . . .

Often our graduate students arrive already married, looking not for the traditional room in a dormitory but for a home for their families. Having emerged in so many ways into fully developed adult status, they are understandably quick to feel demeaned by anything that puts them back into more juvenile roles.

These conditions of upbringing have also accustomed them to expect to be the objects of strong personal interest on the part of their elders. More intensely than ever before, their generation has been influenced by ideals which included giving children attention, taking them seriously, treating them with respect, and making them feel that they are important as individuals. A high value has come to be placed on human--relations variously described as open, honest, uninhibited, and authentic (i.e., "real"), signifying a highly personal style of communication and a downgrading of everything that is formal and conventional. A common symptom of this value is the almost universal use of first names even when there are wide gaps of age and status.

Students today who have been influenced by these widespread tendencies expect to have a strong personal interest taken in them, want authentic communication, and in return are prepared to be themselves authentic and communicative. Apparently these expectations are often not met in their relations with professors. As one of the students put it, "What we need is one-to-one communication." In default of this, they quickly feel that they are unaccountably not accepted.

Today's students are also of the generation nurtured to a deep distrust of authority. . . . For many people brought up in this atmosphere any exercise of power, even that of a doctor over a patient or a teacher over a pupil, creates a feeling of discomfort. To those who are strongly sensitized to this issue the hierarchy structure of a university faculty is an object at once of suspicion and resentment. One of our students declared himself unable to think of Harvard as a community of scholars and students. "It is a hierarchy," he said, "and this is the source of our graduate student problems. I feel that we are on the low end of the totem pole." He saw as a regrettable symbol of this hierarchy the fact that all members of this committee were senior professors. For many, the mere fact of hierarchy was annoying. In addition, it was seen as interfering with the open relations and personal interest that were so much desired.

ALMOST unanimously the graduate students described their situation as "demeaning," and singled out examinations and grades as especially demeaning. . . . Giving grades, the students felt, allowed the teacher to avoid serious engagement with the student's ideas, excused him from making extended qualitative comments on the work done, and thus expressed his unwillingness to bother about the student as a person. As one student expressed it, "What we want is criticism, not grades. Talk to us."

We found also that many, even most, graduate students were astonishingly ignorant of what one might call the facts of academic life. Thus a highly successful graduate student in one department, already a Teaching Fellow and far along in the writing of his thesis, was astonished to learn that the professor under whose direction he was doing his work would as a matter of course prepare a long and careful evaluation of the completed dissertation for use of the officers of any institution that might in the future wish to employ the student as a faculty member; and that this statement would be far more meaningful to the potential recruiters than any record of A's and B's that the student might have compiled in his early years in the graduate school. His pleasure at this revelation was so great that he was even prepared to concede that in that early stage those hated letter-grades might have been a useful shorthand device to let him know where he stood, and so might have been a positive advantage to him. . . .

Many students complained that they had far too little opportunity to explore fields of interest related to their own specialty but not allowed for because of over-rigorous departmental requirements. As in all other such circumstances we stoutly maintained that the only remedy for this grievance lay in the individual department concerned. Sometimes such intellectual curiosity may be dilettantism, sometimes in part at least a good excuse for not doing something important but difficult. Yet it might be more valuable to try to satisfy it than to force a student to conform to regulations that may be rigid, outmoded, or unimaginative. Also, even dilettantism has its uses. We believe that departments often could provide means for students to follow more flexible programs, and that, when they cannot in conscience do so, they often could explain their refusals more personally and therefore more convincingly than they now do.

Virtually all graduate student spoke with distaste of the atmosphere of competition that pervades the Graduate School. Some students, we were repeatedly told, would not discuss substantive or methodological questions of interest with their friends for fear that their friends might steal their ideas. Members of the faculty can do a good deal to ease this situation by providing reassurances to individual students.

We believe that a great deal of substance underlies the graduate students' bill of complaints, and that much can be done to lessen their malaise.

BEFORE going on to examine the problems more specifically and to suggest ameliorative measures, it may be appropriate to ask whether it matters much that graduate student morale is low. We need not pause long over the first two answers that might be offered--the humanitarian answer and the educational answer. The humanitarian case speaks for itself to those who find it appealing: it seems better on the face of it that people, even graduate students, be happy rather than unhappy. As for the educational case, there are those who think that happy students learn more than unhappy ones. But there is probably room for argument about this, and we need not insist upon it.

There is, however, a third, self-interested, and less debatable, reason for taking the morale problem seriously. The graduate students of today will be the professors and the department chairmen of tomorrow on whom we and our successors will depend to supply us with our "input" of talented students and to consume our "output" of certified scholars. Because of this they are an absolutely vital potential resource, and we cannot afford to neglect them.

It is in Harvard's interest that they develop during their years here a feeling of attachment to the Harvard community that will be carried on into the future. This is at least as important as the development of such a feeling among undergraduates. But the feeling will not be generated if graduate students think of themselves as the University's step-children, if they remember their years in Cambridge without warmth.

If morale is lower than it might be, and if this is a regrettable condition, two further questions are suggested: what are the factors within our control that account for this state of affairs? and what ought to be done about them?

The most fundamental such factor is the one that has already been referred to: neglect. There are some 3,000 graduate students as against 4,800 undergraduates; yet it seems fair to say that we devote a far smaller proportion of our thought or facilities to the Graduate School than we do to the College. All members of the Committee are thoroughly committed to the Harvard tradition that the College is the heart of the University, and ought to be. But we do believe that the Graduate School merits, both in numbers and importance, more attention than it has ever received.

For our 4,800 Harvard undergraduates we will soon have ten residential Houses, not to mention the Freshman dormitories in and near the Yard. The Houses are not merely buildings for eating and sleeping, they function as centers of social and intellectual activity, as communities in which a student holds membership. For the 3,000 graduate students of today there is nothing whatever to perform these functions unless we count that owl's share of Harkness that is wrested away from the panthers of the Law School. Nor do the apartments for married graduate students in Peabody Terrace, agreeable hough they are, fill the gap.

Another factor that helps to explain the level of morale is, we are convinced, the size of the graduate student body. We have a strong impression that dissatisfaction is least in the smaller departments. This is not merely a question of student-faculty ratio. A department of five professors and twenty graduate students is better off from this point of view than a department of thirty professors and one-hundred students, though the ratio is the same. The reason is that a group of twenty can more easily develop a sense of participation and fraternity among its members than can a group of one-hundred and twenty. . . .

There are certain affirmative measures we believe that Harvard should take that would bear directly on the factor of neglect:

*We believe that the Graduate School badly needs facilities which will enable and encourage its students to congregate. To be specific, Harvard should provide a Graduate Center. Though the Houses do perform this function for undergraduates and for the Teaching Fellows lucky enough to be attached to them, the rest of the graduate student population remains not only outside the pale but keenly aware of the contrast between the amenities provided for others and the social isolation that they recognize as their own lot. . . .

It is our unanimous conviction that such a Center is an extremely pressing need which ought to be granted a high priority in any University plans for construction or adaptation. . . . The establishment of such a Center would help dispel the step-child feeling that so many graduate students now have. The University cannot persuade them that they are cherished members of the family merely by telling them so. It must provide visible and functional evidence of its concern.

None of the students we spoke to thought that the Center should be residential. They thought of it as serving meals, providing space for social events of all sorts and sizes, and facilities for informal--and formal--groups to meet for discussion, to show films, perhaps to put on plays. It seemed of the highest importance to them that it be in or very close to the Yard. They thought that its success would depend largely upon its convenience. . . .

If it is for some reason impossible to create such a Center in the near future, the University might as a temporary alternative establish several scattered smaller gathering-places. How many, would depend on space, resources, and other considerations. But they ought to be substantial enterprises, not token arrangements for coffee or coke machines. Nor should they be strictly departmental or even restricted to graduate students in particular academic areas. The aim should be for a mixture of students from various disciplines, drawn to the gathering-place partly because it is geographically near their usual stamping grounds but chiefly because of its congeniality.

* We urge that all departments without exception undertake as soon as possible to review their present grading practices and curricular requirements in consultation with individual graduate students and groups of graduate students. Certain departments are already so engaged. Even if a department finds that nothing in its present practices needs to be changed, such a review--we know--would have the enormous benefit of explaining and even demonstrating to the graduate students why the present practices are useful, even valuable to them. We think, however, that it may be possible in many cases to minimize routine requirements, to cut down letter-grading, to accompany all necessary letter-grading by careful explanations of the judgments reached, and to reach a greater degree of flexibility in arranging for individually tailored doctoral programs.

*The departments can and should inaugurate various measures to make graduate students realize that they are citizens rather than subjects of the departmental community. There ought to be machinery for regular consultation with graduate students on all matters that affect them, and the consultation should not be confined to grievances that the students present on their own initiative. Their

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.