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Turmoil at The GSD


By Charles E. Shepard

In a competitive education market, a lucrative commodity like a grade A reputation is nothing to sneeze at. So officials at Harvard--the J.P. Morgan of "big name" brokers--were doling out "no comments" and jeremiads about secrecy this week when asked for response to the sharply critical, would-be-confidential 1976 report of the Ovberseers' visiting committee on the shaky Graduate School of Design.

That document bluntly challenges the direction of education at the GSD, reporting "a drift away from professional competence," a failure to benefit from inter-departmental or inter-Faculty cooperation, and a need for "major policy changes" if the school is to recapture its once pre-eminent position.

In a conclusion painfully contrary to the University's reputation for excellence, the committee remarked, "We believe that the school is out of touch with the best people, and the best work that is being done in the four [design] disciplines."

The visiting committee aimed its most powerful shots at the City and Regional Planning Department, which includes about one-third of the 600 students at the GSD.

The report charged that the department overemphasizes policy analysis and social sciences and unwisely downplays planning as a professional discipline. A medical school structured in an analogous way, it added, "would put little emphasis on diagnosis and clinical practice [and] would not offer a very sound medical education."

This is not the first time the committee's criticisms of the school have found their way into print. The minutes of the panel's May 1975 meetings reported "a lack of ability to fulfill rhetorical objectives [at the school], caused by a lack of administrative and academic leadership and evidence by mediocrity of academic output and apparent student and faculty boredom."

Oddly enough, the 13-page report to the Overseers that was presented to the University Governing Board last fall offers many of the criticisms contained in the minutes, with one conspicuous exception--absence of an extended discussion of controversial GSD Dean Maurice D. Kilbridge, who was harshly assessed in the minutes as unable to provide "continued intellectual leadership," is missing this time around.

One former member of the visiting committee last week explained the omission as the result of President Bok's endorsement of Kilbridge during the panel's annual visit to Harvard last year.

In many ways, the curricular disputes at the GSD--over the role of policy analysis in planning education, for example--are a reflection of educational debates currently going on in the design world.

But the GSD's conflicts are exacerbated not only by a history of financial instability and personal conflicts, but also by the unusual background of Kilbridge and the school's planning department chairman, John F. Kain.

Both men are immigrants to the Design School: Kilbridge was a Business School professor before crossing the river to take over the GSD in 1969, and Kain was--and still is--an Economics professor who moved over to Gund Hall in 1975.

For this reason, it seems unlikely that Bok's support of Kilbridge or the proposals of the visiting committee will free the GSD from the divisions that have its rating in the same category as New York City bonds.

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