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The Limited Harvard Experience


By Joseph F Kahn

LAST NOVEMBER, several hundred professors and aspiring professors gathered in a meeting room on the second floor of University Hall to participate in--or perhaps just to witness--the formal sanction of a new field of academic study.

The attendence reflected the importance of the occasion, in which one of the nation's most renowned faculties placed its stamp of approval on a new area of intellectual inquiry. When the dean of the faculty called on faculty members to shout their "ayes" and "nays," the room echoed resoundingly with "ayes." One lone and thoroughly discredited voice uttered a "nay." Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., a professor of government, spoke alone for an intimidated minority that still had doubts about the new undergraduate concentration, dubbed Women's Studies.

The virtual unanimity expressed by the room indicated exquisite organization by the faculty committees charged with designing and building support for the plan. More importantly, though, the vote reflected a fundamental problem in the Harvard community in its 350th year. Simply put, those who govern it view public dissent as damanging, free debate as dangerous.

Opponents of Women's Studies, speaking before and after the faculty meeting, feared the precedent of an 'affirmative action' field of study, designed to elevate what they believed to be a special-interest area to the status of established fields of study in the humanities and sciences. Questions about the quality of current scholarship and the title of "Women's" rather than "Gender" Studies also disturbed opponents.

But few professors dared to challenge prevailing opinion and air their reasonable views in the November meeting. A controversial measure slipped in and out of public view with community scrutiny and debate effectively minimized.

IN HIS annual address to incoming freshmen, President Derek C. Bok stresses the colloquial but underappreciated 'Harvard Experience.' We are here, he says to yawns, not only to excel in the classroom, but to learn from one another. Bok's idea of a broad education includes students engaging in public service activities and making friends from diverse backgrounds.

In fact, the President's own circumscribed definition of "experience" characterizes one of the University's deepest faults. Working with the homeless in Cambridge and lunching with professors certainly contribute to student development. But the University's position on educational issues, its relationship with Cambridge and its own staff, and its methods and criteria for tenuring or discharging professors also involve fundamental questions about the nature of this community that directly concern everyone in it.

The administration has attempted to divide Harvard into "business" and "university" camps. The business camp deals with the outside world: funding, tenure and major educational initiatives. The university camp concentrates on teaching and learning. When the two camps collide, the Administration has no modus operandi which it seeks to follow. For the administration has little interest in and provides no channels for consensus-building discussion on the issues it sees as being distinct from the daily interests of students, faculty and alumni.

By containing students within an undergraduate world and cleverly mitigating dissent on major issues, the administration manages to operate in relative obscurity. The governors of Harvard, not unlike leaders in Washington, feel they function best by controlling and curtailing the dissemination of information. This business-academic division runs counter to what should be the essence of a true intellectual community, one in which both the theoretical and practical aspects of ideas would undergo broad scrutiny.

RALPH NADER, the consumer advocate, launched a campaign against the University this fall to democratize and liberalize its administration. But democracy in any realistic form is at least two steps away. First, the administration must come to the realization that the community-at-large benefits from and demands a chance to debate publicly and formally matters relating to investment policy and undergraduate education. Then they must allow broader access to the information essential to a wide public discussion of the important issues before the University.

The past two years have seen organized campaigns by pro-divestment candidates to gain seats on the Board of Overseers. One would hope that this effort would help to institutionalize dissent on campus and lift the veil of secrecy that now covers its governing structure. The faculty needs to follow the lead of its more outspoken members and buck the tendency of Spence and his committees to control dissent and minimize public debate on educational issues. The community as a whole must not allow Bok to Balkanize and corporatize his various constituencies.

Such general changes would help the Harvard Administration to realize its goals of augmenting the `Harvard Experience' and producing the most educated graduates it can. But first must come the simple affirmation of the stake students have in the community of which they are an integral part and in which they have a vested interest.

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