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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

From Gund Hall to Timbuktu?

By Joanne L. Kenen

During the last few years, we have seen an upsurge in Americans' concern over their right to peer beyond the "classified" label that veils the actions of governments, agencies and institutions. At Harvard, though, at least one area has held fast against the onslaught of freedom of information legislation. Outside of the University's upper administrative echelons, few people know how the Overseers' visiting committees perceive the schools or departments they visit, nor does the Harvard community learn which of the committees' recommendations are put into effect.

In 1975 and 1976, however, minutes and reports of one group, the visiting committee to the Graduate School of Design (GSD), were released without authorization. Last year, the Overseers took the unprecedented step of canceling the annual meeting of the GSD committee. The Overseers cited a "breach of confidentiality" that undermined "the mutual confidence and trust that must run between the School and the Visiting Committee."

Although no GSD department emerged unscathed in these reports, the Department of City and Regional Planning (CRP) came under particularly sharp scrutiny. The committee's negative appraisals of the CRP raise questions not only about the department's new curriculum, and related schisms within the faculty, but also about the focus of the planning profession itself.

The visiting committee in its 1976 report concluded that the GSD suffers from a "drift away from professional competence." The report stated the CRP in particular places too much emphasis on policy analysis and social sciences, unwisely downplaying planning as a professional discipline. Earlier in this decade, the department terminated its doctoral program, focusing almost exclusively on a two-year masters degree program for professional training in planning. Although most members of the faculty defend the CRP's current curriculum, a few professors have voiced criticisms even sharper than those of the visitors, terming the program inadequate for a professional's background. This issue may loom even larger during the coming year as the CRP decides whether to apply for renewed recognition from the American Institute of Planners, which would in turn require the AIP to re-evaluate Harvard's program.

Although the AIP does not accredit schools formally, it does "recognize" professional degree granting programs. In order to receive recognition, the CRP must prove, among other things, that students in the program become acquainted with the physical, social, economic and ecological "process of human settlement," Robert Brown, staff director of the New England River Basins Commission and a member of the National Education Development Committee of AIP, says. Students must also acquire first-hand experience with "the planning process" and the techniques of professional urban and regional planners.

Harvard's current AIP recognition expires next year. John F. Kain, the CRP chairman, says it is "inconceivable" that the program will not qualify. Other faculty members and visiting committee members, with a different perspective on planning education, are less certain.

In 1971, the Harvard administration established a committee to outline a direction for future planning programs. In President Bok's 1973-74 annual report, he stressed that the GSD, like Harvard's other professional schools, train public leaders. Bok has made subsequent statements supporting the direction in which Maurice D. Kilbridge, who became dean of the GSD in 1970, has steered the school.

Critics of the program contend that the CRP places undue emphasis upon economic and quantitative analysis. Kilbridge and Kain refute these allegations. Since Kain became department chairman two years ago, the CRP has revised its core curriculum, which now requires seven courses for first-year planning students. Four of these courses--Economic Analysis for Planning, Quantitative Methods for Planners I and II, Public Finance and Budgeting--stress economic or statistical analysis. In addition, first-year students this summer received an introductory welcome letter from the department, suggesting several preparatory texts in statistics and microeconomics. The letter also stressed the importance of typing skills.

The CRP's critics, including a number of visiting committee members, accept economics as one aspect of planning but they claim that the current program gives short shrift to social, political and physical factors in the planning process. Faculty members who share Kain's viewpoint, many of whom entered the department within the last few years, note that the remaining core courses--Planning Process: Political and Institutional Analysis, Planning Law and Administration and Urban Growth and Spatial Structure--provide students with the necessary foundation in other relevant disciplines, including physical planning. H. James Brown Jr., professor of City Planning, sums up the opinion of many of his colleagues saying, "the notion that too much economics is included is based on little information of what is really in the program."

In the second year of the program, students focus on a specific policy area, such as transportation. They must also complete at least one workshop, usually working with a client, on a "real world" planning problem. Another member of the department, who wishes to remain anonymous, is skeptical. He says that the first-year core provides an unnecessarily heavy dose of economics and that the second year is overly specialized. Students are simply not getting a broad enough basis for careers in planning.

A current member of the department, Francois C.D. Vigier, professor of City Planning and Urban Design, says he is "not terribly optimistic" about the AIP's acceptance of the core as a basis for professional education. Vigier, a trained architect and planner, is one of the few faculty members who joined the department before the 1971 modifications began. He says before the CRP curriculum changes, economics was not stressed although students had the option of taking courses in that discipline, as well as other social sciences, in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He terms more than half the "real life" problem-solving workshops as "quite odd" or only peripherally related to planning. "What we are teaching now may be superb--but is it planning?"

Vigier believes that the current CRP program "speaks to urban phenomena but not to planners"--it addresses part, but not all, of what a planner needs to know. If the CRP is actually closer to an urban economics program than to a professional training school, it does not clearly belong in the Design School, he says. In fact, he says that "we might as well be in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences or in Timbuktu, for that matter."

Another source close to the department, who also declined to be identified, says the entire GSD is "lopsided." Bok and Kilbridge, who is a former professor of Business Administration, are leading the GSD "towards second rate economic planning, economic landscape architecture, economic architecture. If Bok wants a school in planning or architecture as a theory or philosophy, that's fine. But it shouldn't be called professional education. Students aren't well prepared to take on planning jobs." He added that "the GSD is suffering from economic indigestion."

The source and other critics have also claimed that the department's roughly fourfold expansion since the late '60s "creates a mechanical approach to teaching--if students are to develop their own ideas for planning, they have to be able to work closely with the faculty." Although the faculty-student ratio worsened, William A. Doebele, professor of Advanced Environmental Studies in the Field of Implementation, says it was a "temporary dilution--there's been an enormous catch-up in the last two years."

Kain says that the increase in the department size actually disproves charges of narrowness. The department used to have the equivalent of five full-time professors teaching. Now there are more than 20 professors. The larger faculty offers more courses and presents broader perspectives on planning than the small staff could, Kilbridge says.

The visiting committee showed less concern with the absolute size of the faculty and focused instead on the teacher's academic orientation. One planner, familiar with the Harvard CRP, says Kain recruited an excessive number of economists. In fact, out of the eight academic appointments he had made in the past two years, four of the department's newcomers are economists and a fifth has a joint law and economics degree.

Although Kain hopes to create a department in which half the professors are tenured, the ratio is now considerably lower. He is bringing in young Ph.D.'s, usually with academic, rather than professional degrees and they generally do not have extensive experience as planners. Kain believes that in the long run, scholars, not practitioners, will build a strong academic program. "We're bringing in professional educators and encouraging them to go out, take leaves, get involved in the field. It's more valuable for them to have professional experience after having already given some thought to professional education." As James Brown says, "We're not bringing in planners. We're growing our own."

One member of this fledgling "crop" believes that the young academics "do represent a movement, a change in emphasis. There's been a gradual evolution in the profession. There's an increased recognition that quantitative analytic tools and theory, statistics and economics are useful." Practitioners do not necessarily make the best teachers, he says, adding that Kain insists that young faculty members take leaves to get "a real government job--we should be well connected in the profession."

Critics of the program still maintain, however, that theoreticians cannot adequately train practitioners. This lack of trained planners within the department may create an obstacle if the CRP tries to renew its recognitions, Robert Brown said, cautioning that he is not thoroughly acquainted with Harvard's program. In addition, Kain says he may allow the AIP recognition to expire, both because of a philosophical divergence on educational issues and because the future of that organization is uncertain.

The AIP is considering a merger with the American Society of Planning Officials and although Robert Brown says the merger "wouldn't affect recognition in any negative way," Kain is uncertain about the move's implications. There is currently no professional national organization that certifies planners. The AIP, or a new organization, may try to take on this task, assuming that it can conform to federal regulation that govern certification programs.

According to Kain, CRP students believe that AIP recognition of Harvard will be important when they job hunt but Kain believes it "is of very little consequence at all." Vigier says, however, that some states use AIP membership as a surrogate for state certification agencies. If Harvard is not recognized, or does not apply for renewal, it will be "most unpleasant for our students." A degree from a recognized school is "useful in gaining a foothold in the profession and membership is a requirement in certain professional organizations," he said. Robert Brown says that "there is no question that [recognition] has status with practicing planners." Of the approximately 80 professional programs receiving recognition, "no schools have backed out" although the AIP has on occasion withdrawn recognition. In most cases an urban economics program would not seek, nor would it receive, recognition, Brown says, "but it remains very important" to professional planning programs.

A number of the members of last year's visiting committee concur. C. McKim Norton, for examples, who has served on the committee on and off since the mid '50s, noted that many of the criticisms leveled at CRP are in areas that might bar the department from receiving recognition.

Kilbridge, Kain and their colleagues cite many figures in support of their philosophies. Graduates, they say, are having little trouble finding good jobs as planners. Student surveys show a high rate of satisfaction with the school, although second-year students are less pleased than first-year students. The number of applicants to the school has increased, although the rates at other planning schools are dropping or leveling off. The program's attrition rate is also very low. James Brown says only one to three students fail to complete the course out of an entering class of approximately 110.

Department members also try to minimize the impact of the visiting committee criticism, saying that only one member of the committee is responsible for the bulk of the CRP section of the report. All the members of the visiting committee contacted this fall deny this, however. One individual drafted the document but he wrote it after extensive discussion with other visitors. Daniel P. Paul '46, a member of the Board of Overseers and the chairman of the GSD committee, says "the '76 report was circulated to all members. It was presented and accepted. No one got excited until it was leaked" the following March.

Paul touches on an issue that disturbs many of the committee members. According to the Overseers' official statement of purpose, the visiting committees should "bring new ideas and fresh viewpoints to the University, to prevent provincialism, inbreeding and self-satisfaction and to serve as a liaison with the disciplines as represented outside of Harvard." Members feel Harvard ignored their attempts to serve this lead. Most committee members agreed that they were censored last year. Describing their reaction to the cancellation of the 1977 meeting, visitors used such phrases as "outraged," "shellshocked," or "more than a little annoyed." Norton resigned his position, saying that the committee presented its viewpoint, but as the school has a distinctly different approach, continued meetings are purposeless. Norton feels there is no clear way of identifying which side is "right" and which is "wrong." The best tactic now, he says, is to appoint a wholly new committee, "get a new broom and let it sweep for a while." Visitors reported Hidetada Sasaki and Frederick Rose also resigned in protest of the Overseers' action but despite repeated attempts to contact them, they were unavailable to confirm those reports. Jonathan Barnett, another member of the committee, says he is dissatisfied with Harvard's system; the fact that Overseers' staff members attend visiting committee meetings inhibits discussion, he said. Barnett says that the Overseers' action last year "was an insult to all members of the committee, members who--despite the bizarre behavior of the Harvard authorities--want to help the school." Philip Johnson, the committee's vice chairman, says he is disappointed with Harvard's lack of action on the committee's recommendations. He cites one case two years ago when the committee endorsed a candidate for an administrative post at the school and "then Yale came and took him right out from under our noses."

The three newcomers to the visiting committee this year are planners; Kain recommended two of them to the Overseers. Presumably this will create a different basis for future evaluation of the CRP. In addition, the Gilbert committee, which is currently studying the structure and procedures of Harvard's visiting committee system, will probably take into account the experience of the GSD and its critical committee. Some CRP members believe that a one-or two-day annual visit to a school is inherently superficial. But, as several members of the committee have said, the level of discord that runs throughout the school and its faculty is far too blatant to be overlooked.

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