Forestalling the Exodus


In order to prepare for life in an interdependent world, there is no substitute for living in a foreign land... If we are serious about helping students to overcome parochialism, perhaps the time has come to review the experience of other institutions in encouraging study abroad in order to discover whether some suitable program can be devised for Harvard. --President Bok in his annual report, 1976--77.

THE TIME HAS COME. Bok called for an investigation of study abroad, and an extensive array of committees and administrators promptly set about the task. University Hall bureaucrats busily churned out memos, the Committee on Houses and Undergraduate Life (CHUL) copiously collected information on study abroad programs offered by 25 other colleges, the Eductaional Resources Group (ERG) debated and produced its ideal foreign study format, the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) analyzed ERG's plan and others for more than a year. Finally, last spring, CUE sent the Faculty Council its thoughtfully constructed, long-in-the drafting study abroad proposal--aimed at relaxing the rules on study abroad to make it possible for more students to gain credit for foreign studies. Their work finished, CUE students packed up and headed home for summer vacation.

But the Council stayed behind and on May 23 voted almost unanimously to reject the CUE plan. The sole dissenting vote came from the CUE Faculty member who presented the proposal. "The issue is dead," Glen W. Bowersock '57, associate dean of undergraduate education and a guest member of the Council, says firmly. Some never knew the issue was alive. Connie F. Magistrelli, director of the Office on Special Programs--which directs all students who apply for study abroad credit--says, "I never heard about it."

Before the CUE & Co. began debating the study abroad program, even fewer knew any Harvard option existed for going overseas for credit. "Until recently, many students and a certain number of faculty members were unaware of the program," Bowersock says. Robert J. Ginn Jr., director of the Office of Career Services and Off-Campus Learning, agrees and adds, "It's a lot easier now than it was ten years ago. Back then, it rarely happened at all." In the past five years, however, an average of 70 students have joined study abroad programs annually.

The Council considered no other reforms or alternative foreign studies programs, nor did it inform CUE student members that their lengthy committee debates were pointless. Steven C. Gold '81, a CUE student member says, "What annoys me is the way we found out about it--entirely hearsay. No one bothered to tell us." James Henderson '80, another CUE student member, says the Council vote took CUE by surprise. He says they were led to believe the Council would support their effort to make the existing study abroad plan more flexible. But Henderson says he realizes now the Council "has pulled the rug out from under us."


The Council made one minor concession to CUE. The committee asked the University to publicize the meager study abroad options which Harvard does offer. This year, for the first time, the Council had the University print a pamphlet on study abroad and enclose it in students' registration packets. Students requested a flexible study abroad program. They got a leaflet in return.

The CUE study abroad plan would have expanded foreign study without instituting a Harvard campus abroad. CUE members rejected an offer from Stanford University to join their overseas Studies Program, which runs 12 residential campuses in Europe. The committee contended the program isolated students, creating "American ghettos" at the centers.

Harvard rules now require students who want credit for study abroad to take at least half of the foreign coursework in their field of concentration. The concentration faculty must approve the courses first. Work done outside the concentration may count only as independent work, not as electives. With a maximum of four half-courses in independent work, taking courses outside their concentration at a foreign university eats into their allotment at home.

Under the CUE plan, students abroad would not have been required to devote half their time to their concentration. The plan also allowed students to receive credit in any course category--concentration, Core, independent work and elective--for classes taken abroad. Eliminating the minimum concentration course requirement for study abroad especially benefits science concentrators who have trouble finding foreign courses that sufficiently duplicate the Harvard offerings.

Few Science concentrators even bother to consider studying abroad under the present system. Magistrelli says only five or six students who have wandered into her office asking about study abroad are science concentrators. Nancy Pfeffer '81, chemistry and physics concentrator, wanted to take science courses at the University of London but gave up after William Skocpol, associate professor of Physics and member of CUE and the Council, told her it would be "very difficult" to convince the professors in her concentration that she should receive credit for her scientific studies abroad.

Magistrelli supports the University's policy requiring students to take half of study abroad courses in their concentrations. She argues that a student's study abroad program should reflect the balanced liberal education that Harvard requires. But CUE student members rightfully reply that because the University puts no such constrictions on students at Harvard it should not impose rigid rules on students studying abroad other than the usual requirements.

The Council opposed eliminating concentration course requirements on managerial rather than philosophical grounds. The central problem, say Council members, is equating other universities' offerings with Harvard's. When credit is limited to concentration courses, the department involved may evaluate a course "with some degree of knowledge," Skocpol believes. But once students are allowed to ask for credit in any area, Skocpol says the Council fears the onslaught of "too much administrative burden, if too much detail is required."

To relieve their administrative anxieties, Bowersock volunteered to convert his office into a base for clearing institutions whose academic credibility is in question. He would in turn contact professors who would judge whether the foreign university's credentials meet Harvard standards. Bowersock does not believe his desk would be "piled with requests for obscure universities in Paraguay." Statistics bear this out; almost everyone still wants to spend a year at Oxford or the Sorbonne. In either case, "quality control," as the Council members are fond of calling it, is not at stake.

The Council also worried that once rules are liberalized, thousands of students will flock to the Office of Special Programs waving international airline tickets. Wallace T. MacCaffrey, professor of History and the CUE member who presented the study abroad proposal to the Council, points to Smith College's experience last year, "where 30 per cent of the student body went abroad." But Smith's registrar's office reports that 19 per cent of its students left. Of that percentage only 8 per cent left Smith on the Junior Year Abroad program. The others left for domestic college exchange programs or on the Washington seminar program. Ann Keppler, director of financial aid at Smith, says the large number of absences caused some temporary confusion, but the college compensated by bringing in a larger freshman class. This year, the percentage of students abroad has returned to normal. Keppler believes the sudden increase was part of a fad, not a long-term trend.

Nevertheless, Council members remain uneasy about the possibility of mass exodus. Mack I. Davis, director of advanced standing, last year submitted a memo on study abroad to Dean Fox listing the dangers of large-scale foreign study programs. Davis claimed he could "foresee difficulties in administering an already cumbersome housing lottery" as well as the rise of "issues of financial aid and lost tuition income for the college." The Council shared his nervousness and asked financial aid and admissions officers to produce figures. But because they had no way of predicting how many students will actually take advantage of the option, the officers could not provide hard statistics. The financial aid office, which last year doled out $40,000 for study abroad, is not overly concerned about the possible drain on Harvard's resources. The Financial Aid Office now gives money for study abroad according to students' needs, up to but not more than the cost of a year's education at Harvard. Most foreign colleges are far less expensive than Harvard, Martha C. Lyman, director of financial aid, points out. Lyman does not foresee economic catastrophe even if the number of study abroad students increases dramatically.

As for housing, the exodus would have to be phenomenal before the University would begin to suffer a problem. MacCaffrey says the numbers of students leaving "would have to increase manifolds before we had the problem of empty beds." As Martha F. Davis '79, a former student member of CHUL who led the committee discussions on study abroad, noted in a memo to CUE members in 1978, study abroad might, in fact, serve "as a source of relief from overcrowding" in the Houses.

THE COUNCIL, however, seems determined to keep the program small and firmly in its control. CUE member Henderson argues that the University considers the program an extra goodie to list in the college catalogue, "something else they can point to and say, 'Look what we have,'" without expending much energy. Henderson is probably right. But what is even more irksome is the assumption the Council makes that Harvard students will immediately flock to third-string foreign schools if given the chance; therefore, the study abroad experiences must be suspiciously monitored to maintain "quality control." Davis, for instance, recommended in his memo to Fox that Faculty require study abroad students "to bring all written work for the appropriate faculty members to review." His attitude is reminiscent of grammar school, where teacher kept an eye on the kiddies all the time.

The argument that students will undoubtedly take unacceptable courses stems from the Faculty's continuing lack of faith in students' academic integrity. It is also another reminder of the University's egocentric conviction that no outside education can stack up to the Harvard ideal. But if students yearned for substandard education they would not have come to Harvard in the first place. And if they exited en masse to study elsewhere once the rules were relaxed, perhaps the Faculty would conclude that Harvard's insuperable academic excellence is not quite so insuperable.

At any rate, the Council considers the issue a dead letter. MacCaffrey shrugs when asked if the useless drain on committee time exasperates him. When it comes to faculty committees, MacCaffrey says, "I am used to the high wastage of time." He accepts the Council's decision with democratic resignation: "We live in a world of majority decisions." Perhaps. It all depends on whose majority he is talking about. After all, the Student Assembly referendum last year revealed that about 3400 undergraduates polled wanted the University to establish a study abroad program that would offer academic credit and satisfy language requirements. Only 19 faculty members sit on the Council.