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A Mandate for the Next President

By Richard S. Lee

It is fashionable to associate elected officials with mandates, a term that refers to tasks charged to that official by those who did the electing. Ironically, it’s a term that has also been applied to Harvard presidents (who are hardly elected in the democratic sense). Mandates, either dictated by the circumstances of the times or decreed by the all-powerful Corporation, have significantly shaped the tenures of past presidents of this University.

Ten years ago, with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences running an operating deficit, the Corporation wanted a fundraiser. And so, the capital campaign became the chief duty of President Neil L. Rudenstine. Derek C. Bok, Rudenstine’s predecessor, was charged at the outset with healing a wounded campus fragmented by the turbulent protest years of 1968-69. And with the selection of Nathan M. Pusey ’28 in 1953, Harvard consciously sought a president who would spend less time in the national spotlight, while defending the University from McCarthy-era attacks.

For President-elect Lawrence H. Summers, the mandate is clear: Reinvigorate undergraduate education. According to most reports, Harvard’s presidential search committee, in evaluating candidates for the post, placed undergraduate education as a top priority. And Summers has been outspoken about his commitment toward undergrads. For example, one prominent item on the new president’s agenda is an ambitious plan to hire more than 200 new faculty members. Moreover, with the University sitting atop a lavish $19 billion endowment, a shift in presidential duties from fundraising to education seems both logical and likely.

So far, this has all been well accepted. After all, a commitment to improving undergraduate education is usually popular with most alumni (who view the College as the darling child of the University), Faculty (who can regard the president more like a fellow educator than a distant administrator) and students (who are happy anytime someone throws a bone their way).

But mandates, while clear conveyers of goals, are hazy indicators of implementation. What is the best way to improve undergraduate education? The prevailing sentiment assumes the answer lies with structural reforms: Hire more Faculty, increase the number of freshman seminars, improve concentration advising, provide more research opportunities, loosen course requirements, revamp the Core, hire teaching fellows who can speak English, et cetera.

On the whole, these are good, if obvious, ways of improving the quality of undergraduate education. But what has gone largely unnoticed is the extent to which undergraduate education depends on the attitude that undergraduates take to their own education—namely, positive or negative.

A positive attitude toward education is the stuff that Admissions Office publications idealize. It is found in the student who sits in the front row of lecture hall, does all the assigned reading and attends office hours regularly. But more than being a hard-worker, this is a student who seeks knowledge because learning is a source of exhilaration and deep satisfaction. This attitude is the product of mind that is open and skeptical, analytical and creative, tireless and insatiable.

The negative attitude is the dark underbelly of academic life. It is sometimes a cynical attitude, taking the viewpoint that courses at Harvard constitute nothing more than a “system to beat,” leading to formulaic essays and other conscious efforts to give graders “what they want.”

Or, it could derive from the perception that a Harvard diploma is nothing more than a means toward some career-oriented end, leading students to treat academics as merely some obstacle toward graduation. At other times, this attitude is based on a priority set that places academic coursework below social, extracurricular or athletic obligations. And, more often than we’d like to admit, this attitude is fueled by sheer laziness.

Most of us, members of the Class of 2001, have studied at this fine institution for four years. We have enrolled in at least 32 courses for which we have received academic credit. Without over-generalizing the whole of our academic experiences, it’s a safe bet that few of us—if any—can honestly say that we’ve harbored a “positive” attitude toward every one of those 32 courses.

It’s probably more accurate to say that we’ve felt an intimate attachment with only a handful of courses. Moreover, it’s also likely that some of us haven’t felt such an attachment with any of our coursework at Harvard.

From the University’s perspective, undergraduate attitudes toward education might seem like something outside its control. But the University is in a strong position to affect these attitudes. Exalting student extracurricular involvement, as the Dean of the College does, inevitably creates competition between academic and extracurricular obligations. Courses that place too much emphasis on a single final examination invite students to spend all their time studying to, rather than for, the test. A House system with no academic significance, save for “tutors” that exist only in name, creates distance between our residential and academic lives.

The point is not to push for a specific academic reform, but to remind the University that structural reforms to undergraduate education are not ends in themselves. Hiring more Faculty may lead to smaller class sizes, but smaller class sizes won’t mean anything unless they can significantly affect undergraduate attitudes for the better. The freshman seminar program is valuable not because the classes are small, but because it is a rare opportunity for first-years to develop and discover academic interests, free from grade or exam worries.

If president-to-be Summers is genuine in his commitment to undergraduate education, he must do more than simply implement a few structural reforms. Instilling within all undergraduates a positive attitude toward learning will require no less than a critical reexamination of the relationship between academics and other parts of College life.

Richard S. Lee ’01, a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House, was editorial chair of The Crimson in 2000.

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