Lawrence Buell Eases Into New Deanship

English Scholar Makes Plans to Examine Quality, Requirements of Undergraduate Education at Harvard

During his tenure, Pilbeam strove to reduce the number of large courses, to increase the number of seminars and to increase faculty interaction with students.

Pilbeam believes he encouraged departments and committees to "start thinking a little bit more regularly and a little bit more systematically about undergraduate education."

Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz says Pilbeam also focused on curricular planning, issues of advising and the roles of tutors in houses.

With the many issue confronting the new dean, it may be difficult to know where to start. Buell himself isn't sure which issue she wants to pinpoint. He hopes, instead, to gain a full, "experiential" awareness of the administration, a knowledge base that "transcends what happens in this or that little area that happens to be the subject at the moment."

Tougher Grades


His predecessor, however, leaves the post with a list of issues that will need to be addressed--in many of the Harvard octopus' tentacles. "Grade inequity," is just one example, says Pilbeam.

"Science courses--particularly the larger, introductory ones, are tougher grades than equivalent courses in other divisions," he says.

Lower grades in the natural sciences, Pilbeam says, may discourage some students from concentrating in that area.

Exacerbating the problem, he says, is the greater background needed to continue in the sciences, and the intrinsically uninteresting nature of some introductory science courses.

The solution--at least to the grading problem--is not grade inflation in the sciences, but rather "to try to push down the average grades" in large humanities and social science courses, Pilbeam says.

Pilbeam also has high expectations for the Educational Policy Committee, a new task force chaired by Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles and charged with reviewing all aspects of undergraduate education outside the Core.

Next year, Knowles says, the committee will focus attention on nondepartmental concentrations such as Social Studies and History and Literature, exploring questions of staffing, faculty involvement and the quality of offerings.

"In an interesting way, the nondepartmental concentrations, we now realize, will embrace a lot of the questions that we will then later want to ask of the departmental concentrations," Knowles says.

In the long run, Pilbeam says he would also like to see one person serve as both dean of the College and associate dean for under-graduate education. "There's a funny kind of division between the academic and the nonacademic, and the academic loses out. I would like to see that change over the next decade," he says.

Whatever happens with the deanship, says English Department Chair Philip J. Fisher, the years under President Neil L. Rudenstine are likely to carry an increased emphasis on undergraduate education--partly because of Rudenstine's long-demonstrated interest in the area, and partly in reaction to former President Derek C. Bok's legacy of strengthening Harvard's graduate schools.

If that's true, then the low-key English scholar has an important role to fill--and Fisher says his reflectiveness and fairness will serve him well. "He has experience, he has energy, he has thoughtfulness that will be respected," Fisher says. "This is a real job, as opposed to a post. There's something to be done there."