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GSD Visiting Committee


EARLY THIS MONTH, a confidential and sharply critical report of the visiting committee to the Graduate School of Design (GSD) was widely publicized. A week later, the Board of Overseers cancelled the visiting committee's next meeting. The Overseers said that further meetings of the GSD group would be unproductive because the leak, the visiting committee's second this year, "undermined the mutual confidence and trust that must run between the School and the Visiting Committee." By postponing the upcoming April meeting, the Overseers essentially abolished the present committee as the members' terms expire before meetings resume next year. One cannot help wondering, as one Harvard Corporation member suggested, how large a role embarrassment and irritation played in the board's decision to suspend the meetings.

Visiting committees are designed to offer evaluation, constructive criticism and pragmatic suggestions for improving departments and schools in the University. The members are selected by the Overseers and one Overseer chairs each committee. Presumably the Overseers have some confidence in the expertise of the advisers they select. If the GSD committee believes, as the report stated, that the school is suffering a "drift away from professional competence" and is "out of touch with the best people and the best work" in the field of design, the Overseers should sit up and take notice instead of taking refuge behind authoritarian orders.

For several years, there has existed an ideological rift between members of the visiting committee, who believe the GSD should place more curricular emphasis on professional skills in certain departments, and President Bok and the GSD administrators, who want to integrate the study of social problems such as community politics, land financing and government regulation. It is difficult for someone outside the field of architecture to judge the strengths of each argument. But instead of seeking to evaluate the validity of the divergence, the Overseers are apparently choosing to ignore it, perhaps hoping for a more complimentary--and confidential--report next year.

Former members of the GSD visiting committee have expressed dissatisfaction with the structure of the visiting committee system. No matter how much expertise committee members have, it is doubtful that a one or two day visit annually allows the outside advisers to draw a comprehensive picture of the school's program and priorities. Given the structural problems in the visiting committee system, the Overseers should re-examine the whole system instead of censoring a fragment of it. Even an excellent program at the GSD or elsewhere at Harvard can surely benefit from the advice of experts in the field. An arbitrary and publicity sensitive governing board cannot hope to accomplish much in the spirit of improvement. The Overseers' recent action has set an unfortunate precedent that should not become a pattern.

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