You Think Exams Are a Problem?

The Administration Prepares for Another Testing Season

Nobody--not you, not the pre-med who just looked up from his stall in Cabot and realized he won't have a shot at the brain surgery department he's wanted to join since he was nine unless he does better on his Organic final than 90 percent of the class, not the Social Studies jock who won't graduate summa unless she gets a flat A on the exam in the Astronomy course she still hasn't bought the books for because she spent the entire term writing about underdeveloped nations perceptions of Max Weber, not the Porcellian Club member whose father will cut off his allowance if he doesn't maintain a C average but who hasn't had time to study because he's been shopping around for a new broker, not the Near Eastern Lang and Civ major who will have to set a course record on her Talmudic Aramaic final if she wants to stay in the running for a prestigious fellow ship at the University of Alexandria--nobody at Harvard worries more about final exams than the staff of a small office on the eighth floor of Holyoke Center.

You thought you could screw up a final? Listen to Diana Whitty, the official in the registrar's office who supervises the administration of exams. "The most terrible things can happen," she says. "Once a Buildings and Grounds crew turned off all the water in Memorial Hall and started tearing apart the mens room--they forgot an exam was going on that day."

Another time, Whitty recalls, the official who was supposed to unlock Mem Hall in the morning never showed up. Following registrar's office procedure, all the professors and proctors who were administering exams that morning had arrived at Mem Hall to pick up their tests and blue books. "We didn't have the key," says Whitty, "the man with the key wasn't turning up, and the security guard didn't have the key." She shrugs.

Margaret F. Law, the Faculty's registrar, was in her office that morning and rushed over to Mem Hall when she heard of the crisis. "I was literally going to break down the door," she recalls. "Then I saw a physics student climbing up one of the walls I knew it was a physics student--I used to teach physics. He got into one of the tower rooms, climbed down, and opened up the door from the inside." The police department gave Law a calf later in the week to ask the name of the student who broke into the building. "I told them I didn't know his name," Law says with a smile "I honestly didn't know his name."

Exams started half an hour late that morning, but normally the routine of preparing and delivering tests runs without a hitch Professors can opt to print up their tests and bring them to the exam room themselves, but about half the Faculty--especially instructors in large courses--chooses to let the registrar's office do the work, setting in motion an elaborate process that is cloaked in secrecy.


An instructor must deliver a copy of his test to Holyoke Center a week before the exam date. Neatness counts: The copy must be clearly typed, in black, on 8 1/2 X 11" white, non-shiny, opaque paper. To guard against corruptible messengers and careless postal clerks. Faculty regulations require professors to deliver exams in person or by registered mail.

Because the registrar's office does not like to hold onto the documents any longer than it must a detail from the University Printing Office picks up the exams each day and takes them across the river to the office's Allston headquarters and printing plant. This transfer is the stage most susceptible to theft and leaks in the entire process and requires a certain amount of security. But like any good soldier on the defensive, administrators involved with distributing exams are completely closemouthed on the subject.

"We do take security measures," says Carl W. Getz Jr. the printing office's director. "If I said whay they were, they wouldn't be security measures I don't think I could even describe it in general terms.

The printing office makes copies of all the exams and again with unspeakable security measures transports each test to Mem Hall about a half hour before the exam is scheduled to begin There--if the building is open--proctors and in structures pick up their tests and a pile of blue books, take them to the room of the exam, and the rest is all too familiar.

Officials at the printing plant and the registrar's office say they cannot remember a time when the security broke down. But one administrator remembers a science exam in the early 1970s that fell into the wrong hands, forcing the instructors to write an entirely new test 15 minutes before the exam and read the new version to students in the course over the Mem Hall public address system.

A more publicized leak of exam questions took place in January 1973, although it was not the result of a lapse in printing office security. In a little-advertised Adams House review session for his course in post World War 11 novels. English Professor Robert Kiely discussed the specific format of his exam and revealed two questions Kiely--then associate dean of the Faculty for undergraduate education--maintained that the information would not have given a significant advantage to students who had not done the course work and would have made no difference to students who had. But two students who had not attended the session requested a formal investigation into Kiely's disclosures.

But for the most part, the pitfalls of administering Harvard's exams are on a smaller scale plumbing mishaps, scheduling woes and an occasional missing key. According to Whitty, the problems her office has to handle during exam period strangely croup up on Saturdays and or days when Exam Group XI finals are given She is hard pressed to account for this dual phenomenon Group XI is traditionaly the smallest set of exams and may full administrators into a false sense of security, she theorizes. As for weekend exams, Whitty will only say. "If it's Saturday, you always know something terrible is going to happen."

In the grand scheme of day-to-day activity at Harvard, a tentative superstition on the part of a few Holyoke Center administrators ought to carry little weight. But who knows? The handful of students in Applied Sciences 100, Biology 126, Economics 2010b, Foreign Cultures 19, Geology 162, Physics 12b, and Social Sciences 169 may have one more thing to worry about as reading period fear turns into exam period fact, they will take their Group XI final exams on the morning of May 29, which is a Saturday.