Chem. Dept. Priorities Reflect Larger Harvard Problem


To the editors:

I graduated from the chemistry department this spring, and I was a classmate and friend of Jason Altom, the graduate student who committed suicide last month. Your Sept. 14 article confirmed what I have heard from other students in the department: that department chair Jim Anderson is making a real and sincere effort to improve the experience of graduate students. Harvard is fortunate to have someone like Anderson in this position at such a difficult time.

I would like to comment on a couple of points. First, as the students interviewed indicated, a proposal for improved student oversight (in the form of thesis committees formed well before the student's defense) was made to the chemistry faculty by the graduate student Quality of Life (QOL) Committee in November 1995.

This proposal was generated at the request of the previous department chair; however, the faculty were apparently unable to agree on whether or how such a system should be enacted. Students in the department were well aware that such a proposal had been made and had stalled with the faculty; in fact, Jason Altom (in the note to Prof. Anderson quoted in the article) referred specifically to the QOL proposal as a model for the type of action which should be taken.

To be honest, I and many of my fellow students were somewhat discouraged by the fact that the faculty were able to conceive of and start construction on a new building, to renovate existing labs, and to hire new faculty during the same time they were unable to act on this proposal to improve graduate student life, a proposal which incorporates aspects of standard operating procedure from other top chemistry departments around the country.


Second, while I agree with Prof. Anderson's statement that a department chair doesn't "serve as a judge or jury to reprimand or condemn," I think it is worth asking whether anyone at Harvard does, if not condemn, at least evaluate the performance of its faculty as advisers. Every adviser-student relationship is different, but are there some basic standards Harvard should try to uphold? Department Director Alan Long's description of the chemistry department as "fairly autonomous" is accurate, but autonomy brings with it a measure of accountability, and it should not take a tragic incident such as Jason's death to force the department and the University to examine whether or not that autonomy is being exercised responsibly.

One could argue that a student chooses his or her adviser and is therefore largely responsible for any difficulties encountered with that relationship.

It is my belief, though, that Harvard has some responsibility to monitor the choices available to highly driven students such as Jason, to make sure they don't find themselves in the situation he did. Greater student oversight from other faculty members is an important departmental step toward achieving this goal; recognizing faculty achievement in mentoring on a university-wide basis is also a laudable effort.

Still, I can't help but wonder what the university's reaction would be if an undergraduate committed suicide and cited his or her relationship with a faculty adviser or mentor as the triggering cause. My guess is that Harvard would care enough about its role as a teacher of undergraduates to investigate the perceived problem. How much does Harvard care about its role as mentor of graduate students, the researchers who actually carry out most of the scientific work which has led to Harvard's high standing in the international chemistry community?

As Prof. Anderson said in the article, "A broad emotional base leads to the finest research." Advisers with that type of viewpoint--including my own at Harvard--probably don't encounter many problems with their adviser-student relationships, but does Harvard believe that statement enough to encourage all its faculty to act according to it? KATIE QUEENEY   Murray Hill, N.J., Sept. 17, 1998   The writer received a Ph.D. in chemistry in June.

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