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What Needs to Be Done

By Sarah J. Schaffer

This Harvard of ours offers many advantages: baked brie at masters' teas, weekly lectures on arcane subjects and the chance to put those seven letters on your resume or monogram for the rest of your life. But after four years here, I have realized just how many things Harvard could improve upon. For the sake of brevity, here is a list of what needs to be done to make Harvard a place where students feel welcome rather than shunted aside by an unfeeling and uncaring bureaucracy.

1. Hours. At least one library should be open 24 hours. The dining halls should stay open longer. The masters should implement universal key-card access to the houses. And the Evening Shuttle Van (a.k.a. "escort") Service should run all night.

2. Manners. The secretaries and assistants to big names at Harvard should not treat students as if we were cockroaches. Although many such workers are pleasant and will do anything for students, all too many of their colleagues find their greatest enjoyment in being nasty to the very students they are purportedly here to help.

3. Answering machines. At many Harvard departments and offices, either no answering machine exists (try calling English and philosophy professors), or the answering machine is perpetually turned on. A student calling his or her department with a routine question often has to wait days for a reply, feeling ignored in the process.

4. Telephones. Why does it cost more than $20 to flip a switch and turn on a phone line at the beginning of every year, in every dorm room? The Student Telephone Office bleeds thousands of dollars a year this way from students who cannot afford it.

5. Sections (a.k.a. "the hour of silence"). Ideally, professors would teach classes of 20 to 30 students, eliminating the need for sections. But since we all know that will never happen at this university that prides itself on research, consider the second option: Make section attendance mandatory but participation optional--thus avoiding students' talking nonsense for talking's sake. Refuse to re-hire teaching fellows with less than a 3.5 CUE Guide rating until they undergo treatment at the Bok Center. And mandate that all sections--Core too--contain 15 or fewer students. It is the only way to begin to legitimate Harvard's overrated educational system.

6. The Core (a.k.a. "thoughtless pastiche"). A tired horse, but since it appears the Core Review Committee did little more than have tea for the past year when it was supposed to be revamping the program, we need to beat it again. Allow concentration classes to substitute for Core classes across the board, because no one learns "methods and approaches to knowledge" in more than one or two of their Core requirements. And if the Faculty really gets carried away, be bold! Admit that Harvard is not providing its students with a broad liberal education, and enact a "Great Books" curriculum. That way, at least we'll read Dante, Emily Dickinson, and Isaac Newton before we graduate.

7. Advising (a.k.a. "throw one study break a year and call it even"). Every student at Harvard harbors nightmarish stories about academic advising: usually, that it did not exist. Students also know that you're lucky if you get a house tutor on your floor who knows your name, or a proctor who sees you more than twice your first year (and then only to sign study cards). It would be better as it stands for Harvard to admit that it offers no real advising than to keep up the pretense. Maybe we don't need it anyway--we're Harvard students, after all, and therefore know everything already. But college is supposed to be a time for growth and development, and as it stands, Harvard does not give us much support or room to experience either.

8. Kindness. Ideally, Harvard should be preparing us for an ethical life filled with compassion for our fellow humans. But what are we to think when Harvard scrimps on benefits to its neediest workers and drives away teachers who have made the most difference in our lives by denying them tenure?

9. Intellectual leadership. There is none. Probably the last time you saw President Neil L. Rudenstine, he was delivering the convocation to the first-years. Someone at this College needs to stand up and remind us why we're here, rather than spend every moment fund-raising. Faculty members need to attend monthly Faculty meetings to become involved in governance. Although Harvard is run by a Corporation, it is a place of learning at heart. That fact, however, often becomes lost in the morass of daily life.

There are so many more issues I could touch upon, but there is only so much space. A disclaimer: Over the years, I have met many wonderful people here and received a good education in many areas. But those accomplishments generally occurred not because of, but in spite of, the Harvard bureaucracy. A modicum of compassion can go a long way at a University and a College this large.

Think about it.

Extend the hours for shuttle services. Keep at least one library open all night. Put answering machines in the department offices. Keep section sizes small.

Do not treat students like cockroaches. Do not charge us dorm room start-up costs. Do not maintain a failed core. Do not pretend that there is advising here.

Sarah J. Schaffer's column appears on alternate Fridays.

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