The View From the Top

Dean Rosovsky on the Core Curriculum

May 2. The insistent clicking of camera shutters blends in with the polite chattering of typewriters in the background as Henry Rosovsky holds court in the News Office in Holyoke Center. An hour ago, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences approved a new Core Curriculum for undergraduates, marking the end of four years of hard work, bargaining and cajoling for the dean. Now Rosovsky is King of the Hill, exulting in the moment of triumph, the questioning by the major newspaper reporters, the clicking of the shutters. President Bok enters and rewards Rosovsky with a bottle of his favorite cognac; the smile broadens around the ever-present pipe. In a few minutes the press conference is over, and the dean, dangling a keychain with an applecore charm, heads off for home, talking about taking "a bath in champagne." It is the high point in a long and trying year for Henry Rosovsky.

May 26. The first flush of triumph has faded now, and with it the bald exuberance. But so have the hassles--the continually voiced student opposition to implementation of the Core, and, perhaps more vexing, the incessant speculation over his reported refusal of the Yale Corporation's offer of that school's presidency. What remains is a sense of accomplishment, perhaps, and certainly a determination to finish the task he set up for himself when he began pushing for implementation of the Core--work of a different kind, less political and more educational, "less spectacular, but far more important" work. "In a way it's quieter work, and may be more satisfying," he says. Before embarking on the long road toward implementation of the Core, Rosovsky offered some observations on the prolonged debate that led to the first major reform of Harvard's undergraduate curriculum in a generation.

Rosovsky continues to stress that the Faculty vote that authorized implementation of the Core was only the first step. "What we're going into is what I call a controlled experiment," he says, citing the year of "lead time" built into the proposal, time that will allow for research of new course offerings. The Core committees created by the Faculty legislation will have to deal with two problems, he says: first, to examine the current General Education program, to discover what if any courses may be transferred into the Core; second, to create new courses, "particularly in areas where we don't have much." Rosovsky defines such areas as the "Social and Philosophical Analysis" portion of the Core, as well as the natural sciences and foreign languages components. Even in the social sciences, Rosovsky sees a need for a great deal of controlled experimentation; of all the courses the Faculty now offers in the social sciences, only one--Economics 10, "Principles of Economics"--"fits squarely into the prescription," he says.

But the impending years of academic engineering cannot blur the memory that the Core plan was for several months the focus of heated student opposition, even as the Faculty prepared for its final vote. For Rosovsky--who admits that opposition was inevitable in the Faculty, among professional educators of differing academic philosophies--this was the part of the past year that he finds most distasteful. He dismisses most expressions of student opposition to the Core, and instead believes the "student media" generated most of the opposition itself with "a systematic campaign against the Core."

Rosovsky bases his contention on what he perceived as a general mood of apathy on the part of students in relation to the Core. "Students knew they weren't going to be affected," he says, and therefore very few of them bothered to study the issue carefully. Those who did--student representatives on the Education Resources Group (ERG) and the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE), for example--generally supported the plan. "The students who have gone into this very carefully can see the virtues of this," he says, and praises CUE and ERG members for working so closely with the Faculty Council and the summer groups when the Core plan was being formulated. That close cooperation resulted in the Faculty's decision to adopt virtually all of the amendments CUE suggested--including the so-called "by-pass" and "floater" amendments--and demonstrated, Rosovsky believes, that the channels of communication between students and faculty are still very much open.


Of course, he readily admits that the students who work most closely with the administration are not "typical." The typical students, he says, are the ones who did not take time to read the proposal carefully, the ones who approached him in dining halls with uninformed questions about the Core. Even the most palpable example of student opposition--the anti-Core petition signed by over 2500 undergraduates--"doesn't mean very much," because "it is in the Harvard tradition to sign petitions."

Rosovsky concedes, however, that those students who only looked at the Core superficially would understandably come away less than satisfied. College, he says, is a part of a maturing process, a time when students learn to make choices for themselves. "They want to maximize that ability" to make choices, he concedes; even though, in his mind, "the restraints imposed by the Core are quite minimal," he says he understands why the program would appear at first blush to be a considerable restriction on students' range of decision-making. In fact, he adds that if he were an undergraduate today, and had not bothered to study the Core program in depth, he might well find the proposal "a hassle."

Nevertheless, he found the student protests disturbing, because they represented to him a conscious decision by members of the student media to mislead students on the basic issues of the Core. There he finds an irony--because, as he sees it, it is the same students who have for years protested the supposed lack of Faculty concern for undergraduate affairs, who led the fight against the Core. "This was an attempt to redirect the attention of the Faculty to the concerns of undergraduates," he says. "I would have thought it would have gotten the support of the student media." He dismisses the possibility that opposition to the Core might have sprung up without support from the student media, or that many students not connected with CUE or ERG might have studied the proposal on their own.

In another sense, media coverage of the Core debate served a very different purpose. The attention that his proposals received in the national press, all the stories in Time and Newsweek and The New York Times, underlined the depth of national interest in the changing role of undergraduate education. "We were dealing with issues that were very much on people's minds around the country," he explains. At first, however, the breadth of attention the plan received surprised him--when he first realized that the Harvard reforms had struck some sort of educational nerve. After that, as the waves of publicity grew, as the stories in the national papers stretched longer and edged their way onto the front page, they merely confirmed his belief in the importance of the task at hand.

Still, Rosovsky maintains that the publicity--which included comparisons of the Core with similar curriculum plans at Tufts and the University of Chicago--did not affect the Faculty as it considered the plan. "We really did this for ourselves and for our students," he says. "We didn't look at other places. We tried to find our own solution." The belief throughout the whole process, he says, was that Harvard is unique, and therefore should neither copy other schools' programs, nor be copied. "We seriously doubted whether many schools have resources to staff and implement a plan like this," he says. Similarly, what sitinguishes the Core from other undergraduate curricula, which might possess similar structural categories, is the detailed set of guidelines that spell out the type and variety of courses in each of the Core areas.

The guidelines are, as he maintains, the key to the Core program. For when the Faculty voted last month, it voted less on the five specific Core areas outlined in the Core report, and more on the educational philosophy set forth in the accompanying course descriptions and standards for assessment. And now, with the debate on that philosophy ended, the key phase of Core development will come as he settles down to the task of translating those detailed guidelines into about 80 or 100 Core courses. The first step in that process will come sometime this summer, when he appoints members of the committees that will set up the new Core courses, and decide the extent of the by-pass and floater provisions authorized by the Faculty. After that, the main problem will be one of making sure the Core does not "degenerate in the same fashion as the General Education program."

Rosovsky answers some Core critics, who contend that the program will give rise to a number of large, superficial lecture courses, by pointing out that the Core guidelines should prevent an uncontrolled proliferation of "weak" courses. "It's really clear what we want the courses to accomplish," he says, adding that the questions of size and superficiality are separate issues. "You can design larger courses to be as good as smaller courses," he notes, pointing to Ec 10 as the model of a course that, despite its size, still maintains a detailed approach to a complex subject. "I don't think introduction has to be superficial," he concludes. What will, in the long run, determine the success or failure of the Core will be the ability and willingness of the Core committees to enforce the guidelines on course selection, and to find professors willing to teach the new Core courses.

At the same time, Rosovsky has set his sights on other goals within the Faculty, aside from the problems of implementing the Core. He notes that the University is preparing to embark on a new major fund drive--one that will, he says, be "primarily for the benefit of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences"--which he expects will occupy a good deal of his time. On the educational level, however, he plans to address what he believes are the serious problems facing the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), problems that he hopes will be dealt with in a series of Faculty discussions similar to the Faculty effort that gave rise to the Core.

Rosovsky does not, however, believe that any effort he takes to face the problems of graduate education at Harvard will necessarily be of as great a scope as the undergraduate curriculum reform. "The issues are different. The problems of graduate education are not curricular," he notes. Instead, the Faculty faces "more difficult questions, very intellectual in nature," which relate to the problem of defining the role of graduate education in a society that is growing rapidly more professional in its outlook. "It's a question of demographics--how to reconcile the requirements of academic life with the outside world's expectations of the people we turn out." Those problems, however, are not concrete questions like those involved in the curriculum reform--questions that Rosovsky does not expect he will be able to solve simply with a new version of his "yellow pages" report on undergraduate education, or by appointing task forces to report back to him. Rather, he hopes to prompt a new round of Faculty meetings that will debate the philosophy of graduate education, with an eye toward applying that philosophy to changing attitudes and trends. And he hopes to come up with some answers--for "the graduate school is absolutely vital to the quality of the Faculty." If the Faculty is to maintain its academic vitality, he implies, it must do so by continually renewing itself through advanced study, by improving itself at the graduate level.

Those three goals--implementation of the Core, renewed scrutiny of graduate education, and a continuing attention to the imperatives of fundraising--add up to a busy future for Rosovsky. Yet it is also a future that has long been a point of speculation. Since last December, when he apparently rejected an offer to become president of Yale University, Rosovsky has puzzled observers interested in his plans for life after University Hall. Some sources speculated that Rosovsky turned down the reported Yale offer because he was unwilling to abandon his direction of Harvard's own reforms; others concluded that he was holding out for an offer from a less financially troubled school, perhaps even Harvard, if President Bok lives up to his previous pledge to spend less than ten years as president. Yet Rosovsky has never publicly commented on the Yale offer, either to confirm or deny it, and he is similarly tight-lipped about any speculation on his future plans. He speaks almost wistfully of the freedom and independence of academic life--"the life of a professor is wonderful, and I really appreciate it"--and yet he makes no indication that he is ready to return to that life just yet. Nor does he let slip any sign that he is willing to leave Harvard for greener--or at least less crimson--pastures. He sums up his future in the simple enigmatic phrase: "I don't intend to remain as Dean of the Faculty forever."

That is, of course, an obvious fact. But whenever Henry Rosovsky leaves, the reforms and debates he has initated will remain.