UNDERGRADUATES DO NOT have much trouble getting lost in the Harvard Department of Economics. With over 100 students entering the major yearly, a person can easily drift through the department for three years without ever attracting any notice. The department isn't primarily oriented toward undergraduate education. Senior faculty members see themselves as professional economists rather than educators--almost every one of them listed in Who's Who (that is, most of the tenured faculty choose to call themselves economists and not teachers. Junior faculty have relatively light teaching loads so that they can do the research that may get them tenure somewhere (though probably not at Harvard).
Consulting plays a major role in many professors' lives, and it cannot help but distract them from their research. Consulting has grown to the point where a recent department chairman (Otto Eckstein) decided to go on half-pay to justify the amount of time he spent with his consulting firm. A committee of department members has studied the consulting problem, but they hardly qualify as disinterested. Undergraduates get lost in the shuffle, and a weak tutorial program (non-credit sophomore year) probably won't help them find themselves.
Economics is typical of the monster departments. History, Government and English are also gargantuan, and something over half of all upperclassmen can be found in one of these four fields. No matter how many esoteric courses can be found in the course catalogue, with students grouped in so few departments there is plenty of reason to doubt that they are sampling the liberal arts widely.
IN A GROUP of people as diverse and numerous as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences some decentralization and internal organization has been inevitable, and to center that process on collective interests and techniques is a time-honored procedure. Over the years Harvard's academic disciplines became objectified in Harvard's academic departments. These departments have gained power and prerogatives that make them collectively the most important interest groups in the University. Even the academic escape hatches--special degree committees and area studies programs--are administered by men whose first loyalties lie with the department in which they are tenured.
Much of what the departments do is not overtly political, not particularly newsworthy, and very important to the way that Harvard functions. Sam Bowles' departure may get some attention, but normally the Economics Department hires the men who perpetuate it without attracting any attention. But self-perpetuation is only one departmental perogative. Within some centrally defined limits they set their own budgets. They determine their own course-offerings. Each sets undergraduate concentration requirements in its field. Each has its own separate graduate student admissions policy. Each has a final say in the amount of aid its graduate students get, thanks to the Kraus plan's ultimate deference to departmental power. And most departments are cells in the old boys' networks of their particular disciplines. Harvard academics are in touch with other academics and informal professional linkups most often follow disciplinary boundaries.
The departments are run by their faculties, of course. In all of them a chairman exercises considerable power, and the faculty as a group votes on questions like curriculum reform. Grad students are encouraged to identify themselves with their departments, and to consider themselves professionals in training, though they have no real power. Apparently the identification is fairly complete since even when grad students decided to act outside of the Harvard bureaucracy, organize a Union and strike, they organized themselves through their departments.
IN THE DEPARTMENTS the senior faculty are the center of power. They formally decide on tenured appointments, and they are the actual, but informal, sources of most decisions. Since the senior faculty are generally acknowledged to be extraordinary scholars and the leaders of research in their respective fields, this situation has the overtones of a meritocracy.
Yet it is a meritocracy that fails on three accounts. The first is obvious enough, and has been recognized for a long time: the best scholars aren't necessarily the best teachers, yet teaching is part of their job. The second failing, one with important implications in light of the increasing professionalization in Massachusetts Hall, is that good academics don't necessarily make good administrators. Almost every department at Harvard has been poorly run at some time or another because of an eminent scholar who happened to be an incompetent chairman. The Romance Languages Department back in the fifties carried this tendency to its absurd conclusion when it stopped running altogether, and McGeorge Bundy stepped in to take over the department and quell its disputes.
A third and in some ways the most serious criticism of Harvard departments as meritocracies is that they are self-defining elites. The men who compose the English Department look for Richard Ellmann, the Sociology Department takes Christopher Jencks, and the Economics Department rejects Samuel Bowles, and in each case the department measures the potential member against its own standard. The controls outside ad hoc committees actually exert over tenured appointments are initially not very impressive, and become less so when their membership is considered. Ad hoc committees consist of non-Harvard leading scholars in the field, and Harvard's experts aren't likely to differ markedly with fraternal outsiders.
As a result Harvard's academic affairs are run by tight little orthodoxies suffering from a certain datedness. Men with shared definitions of their discipline naturally bring in compatible colleagues, and look for diversity in subdisciplinary interests rather than in general outlooks.
THESE PEOPLE ARE collectively the University's most powerful men, within their restricted sphere. But their sphere is research and education, and those are the business of Harvard, so their power, unrestrained by any countervailing force, is very impressive. With 200 members in the Harvard Republican Club, it seems safe to say that education rather than politics will be the arena of dispute for Harvard in the seventies; most people here hope that it will be.
That there is no countervailing force is a pity. When people who are neither administrators nor teachers run the academic affairs of a university, they naturally favor research, or, to some extent, training their successors. Education in the College tends to become a forgotten child, and stopgaps like freshman seminars must be employed to restore any sense of intimacy between students and faculty--tutorials relying primarily on graduate students.
The existence of a dean of Students, dean of Harvard College, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and dean of the Graduate School reflects the confusion of having a faculty teaching both undergraduates and graduates. The principle of departmental organization breaks down at the undergraduate level. Certainly literary criticism is a human endeavor worth cultivating, and sociology an important area of intellectual enterprise. But to claim that the undergraduate's need for training in such methodologies justifies subjecting him or her to departmental discipline doesn't hold up.
Confusing the idea of indoctrination in a discipline with training in a methodology is not terribly serious at the graduate level; there the two tend to converge. But for non-academically inclined undergraduates the cleavage is an important one. At Harvard undergraduates should be able to develop some understanding of historical method or economic analysis without becoming subject to the bored professionalism of a grad student writing an esoteric thesis. A liberal education isn't meant to produce specialists in the liberal arts.
QUITE POSSIBLY Harvard is drifting away from departmental organization as the principle determining the faculty's constitution. The justification for this kind of organization is that departments and academic disciplines have long been useful correspondents. But at the graduate level the growth of joint libraries, special interdisciplinary programs, research centers, area studies, and joint degree programs have partially undermined this usefulness. The subordination of departments to another center of power may carry some disadvantages. The departments can hardly be defined as bulwarks for academic freedom: their record for embracing the unorthodox and unpopular has been too poor for that. And with two professors sitting on the Harvard Corporation another center for that defense seems to exist.
One of the principle forces that could bring a change in Faculty organization is the professionalization and expansion of President Bok's office. If the departments begin to lose their autonomy, the Massachusetts Hall bureaucracy, and not the student body, will be the heirs to their power. The budget currently gives the Administration an enormous implicit leverage and their professionalism gives them a predilection to use it. If that leverage still isn't decisive it is growing in importance, and with the current squeeze on the budget the men by the till are becoming more powerful.
THE IMMEDIATE consequences of power moving from the Faculty to the Administration would certainly not resemble democracy, and student participation wouldn't be any more crucial than it is now. But the consequences might be beneficial to undergraduate education; Bok's annual report shows his interest in improving it. Whatever happens, change will be something done to students, and not with them. But with the need for a new definition of liberal education again bothering Harvard, some reform in an almost invisible area like departmental organization is inevitable. The present departmental structure has lost its mandate from heaven, if it ever had one.
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