Change at College Comes at Slow Pace

Holden Chapel is 256 years old.

Over the last three centuries, the third oldest building in the Yard has hosted the provincial House of Representatives, a military barracks and at the turn of the century played home to the Medical School and almost all undergraduate lectures.

Most recently, the chapel has served as the primary rehearsal and performance space for the College's choral groups.


After so much wear and tear, former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, decades ago, envisioned a new and improved Holden Chapel. With some renovations, Holden could ease the space crunch facing so many student groups and make for a beautiful and intimate performance venue.

Twenty years after this idea first appeared on the College agenda, Holden renovations were finished this past summer.

It wasn't for Epps' lack of trying that renovations came about so slowly. Epps, a former assistant choral director himself, repeatedly made his case to other College officials and those in the upper administration of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

That's how many ideas get the necessary financial support to become a reality at the College--an administrator recognizes a need among students and takes up the cause.

After a long time of lobbying, their vision may become a reality. Other times, because of a difference in opinion between deans or a lack of allocated funds, an idea never gets past the discussion stage.

Tangled in the bureaucracy of FAS, change comes slowly to the College and its undergraduates--constituents not always at the top of University priorities. Ideas aimed at improving student life can get stalled in committees as University officials sort through the bigness that is Harvard--the agendas and interests of their graduate schools, institutes and academic centers.

"You make your case, write up a report and present it to the appropriate committee," Epps says. "Sometimes you have to wait, I worked on the Holden Chapel project for 19 years."

How a Bill Becomes a Law

In the University hierarchy, Harvard College is part of FAS, with FAS functioning as just another self-proclaimed "tub" among the University's nine graduate schools.

Dean of FAS Jeremy R. Knowles, has the ultimate say when it comes to deciding what major expenditures will happen at the College. Knowles officially depends on Harry R. Lewis '67, dean of the College, to keep him in touch with the interests of undergraduates.

Lewis in turn supervises three associate deans, David P. Illingworth '71, Georgene B. Herschbach, and Thomas A. Dingman '67. And along with Lewis, these three deans, as well as several assistant deans, are charged with listening to students and faculty tell them about the various needs of the College.

Most of these discussions take place in a committee-like setting. Illingworth is a member of the FAS classroom committee which Herschbach chairs; Dingman sits on the committee on House life.

Illingworth says he sees himself as representing College needs on the committee.

"My job is to make sure that the student voice is heard," he says. "If a whole building is being renovated, can some space for students be had?"

Seven standing committees in FAS are specifically earmarked as student life-oriented while a host of others deal with degree-granting procedures, interdisciplinary concentrations and the Core program.

But while committees like the Administrative Board and the Standing Committee on Financial Aid make important decisions for students, they do not allocate funds.

"If you have a model in mind like the flow of business through Congress that is explained in high school civics courses, you are wrong," Lewis says in an e-mail message. "Most of our processes are more informal and consultative."

The committees Lewis and Knowles use as advisory bodies are just that--they can only give advice.

A Collegial Process

While Lewis maintains that "Knowles represents the interests of the College at all times," as dean of the more comprehensive FAS, Knowles must prioritize College initiatives along with the needs of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) and the Extension School.

"Student needs have to compete with other needs in the context of a research University and the needs of the Faculty come first," Epps says.

But where Epps sees competition, Lewis sees cooperation.

"Defining needs and comparing them is a collegial, collaborative process designed to yield informed and rational decisions," Lewis says. "[It is] not some sort of power game that depends critically on what committees anyone is a member of."

For example, although Lewis is not a member of a year-old committee University President Neil L. Rudenstine convened last spring to discuss space issues throughout the University, he does not see this as a harmful oversight.

And while Illingworth took over much of Epps' responsibilities, he is not a member of the committee on College life--a committee whose meetings Epps faithfully attended.

Still, College administrators say they do not feel overlooked. When Knowles does undertake an undergraduate-oriented project--like last fall's increase in financial aid--one committee alone cannot be credited for bringing the issue to his attention.

"There were many interested parties who advised Dean Knowles on this . . . But it wasn't a collective or consensus decision or a decision taken by a committee," Lewis says.

"It was Dean Knowles who recognized, as a result of his continual contact with all of us who work with undergraduate affairs, that this was an important issue," he adds. "It was ultimately his decision what to do about it."

But while administrators tout their successful initiatives, other plans for the College have fallen by the wayside--most notably, a proposed student center.

Epps wrote a proposal for a building he called "College Hall" almost two years ago, but the issue is now virtually dead in the water. The idea never made it past Lewis' desk to reach Knowles.

But while his vision for a student center did not get support from the powers that be, Epps says many small successes did come out of the College Hall initiative.

He cites space renovations, the 1995 construction of Loker Commons and more funding for student groups as major successes of his years of campaigning for student needs.

"Some needs get met and some don't, Epps says. " I'm partially satisfied because we have Loker. I'm happy with the incremental changes."

Slow Change

But is FAS too slow in addressing undergraduate needs?

"There are lots of hardworking and visionary people here at Harvard, but there are not unlimited resources," Dingman says. "Things aren't likely to change overnight. In weighing things together, we're asking the institution, What are our priorities?"

Supporters of the system say thoughtful discussions and the FAS bureaucracy helps safeguard against rash and short-term solutions.

"You are almost bound by integrity to a thorough decision making process," Rudenstine says. "Change ought to be thoughtful."

And it must keep with precedent.

With no guaranteed position amidst FAS, the College--faculty and students alike--must rely on the strong advocacy of administrators to stay a priority amidst FAS and the University as a whole.

Illingworth says he thinks the history of Harvard and the reputation of the undergraduate experience "is so important to the appeal of Harvard."

"I think that you can have both, the expansion of the University with interest and emphasis on the College as the core of the University," he says. "I am ever vigilant, but I'm not worried that the College losing its central place."

Still others express concern that non-academic initiatives that would greatly improve the undergraduate experience are being ignored.

"I think personally, its time for the college to move towards the center of the screen," Dingman says.

He says FAS should be looking towards improving the MAC, giving more space to the cramped Office of Career Services (OCS) office and considering renovations to make more room in the undergraduate Houses.

As Harvard winds up its capital campaign, now is the perfect time, says Dingman, to bring College interests to the fore.

"People have recognized that these are things that affect student life, yet they were not things in the campaign that got significant attention," he says. "I hope that post-campaign, they compete successfully, that [these issues] move closer to the center of the screen. We can develop a case for them."

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