Untenable Censorship



For years, critics of the University have charged that the professors here, especially hot shots such as Bernard Bailyn and Stephen Jay Gould, are arrogant and pompous.

But critics beware. At long last, the University has finally gotten rid of its arrogant and pompous instructors. The condescending ones are gone, too.

It wasn't hard. Harvard didn't fire anyone, or even give a stern warning to any of the accused.

Instead, the University followed the simplest remedy it could.

It took its paint brush to the CUE Guide and made the landscape rosy.

Poof! Like magic, Bailyn is no longer "arrogant and condescending," as one-fourth of students in one of his courses described him. Now, he's "somewhat distant and rather firm in his opinions."

Gould and other professors, including psychologist Brendan Maher, have also improved their classroom demeanor. Or so Harvard would have us think.

The University has funded the annual undergraduate-run CUE Guide to give students some perspective on courses and to give professors some perspective on themselves. In past years, student editors have been left to compile and summarize thousands of undergraduate course evaluations without much supervision, and the arrangement seemed fine.

But this summer, a year after some professors first raised concerns that some write-ups were too subjective for a University-sponsored publication, things changed.

In checking over the write-ups just two weeks before the scheduled conclusion of production, a University Hall official this summer approached the editors of the CUE Guide with what administrators say was a list of "suggestions."

But, the editors say, the official did more than simply suggest. He intimidated. Dean K. Whitla, director of the office of instructional research and evaluation, is said to have told the students to "pack their bags" unless they made certain write-ups less critical and reportedly threatened cancellation of the book if they failed to comply.

The changes were not widespread; editors say they were asked to modify or delete criticisms in 17 of the several hundred reviews in the book.

But however limited, the effect of official pressure on the students was akin to direct censorship. It's a concept that one would think alien at an institution that so proudly and so often trumpets the ideals of academic freedom.

Undergraduates who violate standards of truth and academic honesty face swift prosecution. And just a few years ago, the University was rankled by revelations that a scientist had in a Harvard lab perpetrated the worst of academic crimes: the fudging of research results.

Is Harvard itself now guilty? Sadly yes. Students were asked their opinions in course evaluations last spring, and the CUE Guide staff, working with Harvard's blessing, eagerly gathered results.

But when the data was in, when it was clear that students could easily perceive one of the truths of this place--that far from angelic, some professors are even "arrogant" and "condescending"-- University ideals were forgotten. Reality was sacrificed for gloss. And to what end? Harvard didn't even ask professors whether they cared if their critiques were redone. Of four whose evaluations were known to have been altered, three who were reached said they wouldn't have asked for the changes, had they known of them.

The Harvard officials responsible for altering this year's CUE Guide should be embarrassed and ashamed. Besides Whitla, the cast of culprits includes A. Michael Spence, who as dean of the Faculty has final authority over its programs and products, and Stephen E. Ozment, associate dean for undergraduate education and the man with direct responsibility for the book.

No matter who among them ordered the editorial changes, all three officials--and perhaps others--were aware of the alterations, failed to prevent them, and therefore share responsibility for making the book a sham. This year's CUE Guide is less valuable because it is less credible and less credible because it is less accurate.

If future CUE Guides are truly to reflect student opinion, then the books must be run with minimal official interference. Anything more--in particular scare tactics which amount to censorship--defeats the Guide's purpose. But if administrators again want to hide Harvard from its own shadow, cancellation seems the only realistic alternative. It would certainly be the only honest one.

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