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Last Wednesday, the Faculty Council approved a plan, proposed by Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, to raise the minimum academic requirements for first-year students in their first semester. The proposal to eliminate the special freshman requirements will go towards a Faculty vote in an upcoming meeting. If approved, first-year standards will be made equivalent to those of the rest of the College, demanding that all students have “at most one failing grade, which may not be accompanied by another unsatisfactory grade.” Students who fail to meet this requirement will be asked to withdraw. The administration’s current policy is more lenient on first-year students; according to the 2002-2003 Handbook For Students: “For freshmen in their first term at Harvard, the minimum academic requirements are at most one failing grade, and at least one satisfactory letter grade.” In the past two-years, eight students have met the first-semester standards, but failed to meet the College’s higher standards—future students in this situation would be affected by the proposed policy change.
While Dean Lewis’ goal of raising the academic requirements for first-years is laudable, the faculty would do better to institute a policy that takes into account the individual needs of those first-years who do not meet upperclass standards.
Automatically requiring first-years with unsatisfactory first-semester records to withdraw would neither serve the University community nor individual students. Since fall semester grades are often unavailable before the spring semester begins, requiring these students to withdraw part of the way through their second term at Harvard would prove excessively disruptive to the students and their peers.
Dean Lewis’ policy neglects to consider that students’ first year at Harvard is often a befuddling time. Confronted with a dazzling array of academic, extracurricular and social choices, first-years may find themselves in classes for which they are unprepared. Moreover, it often takes first-year students a few months to mature and adjust to college life, a factor that might explain poor first semester performance but does not necessarily indicate that sub-standard performance will continue. In fact, in the past two years, two of the eight students who did not meet the College’s more rigorous standards in their first semester were able to improve their academic performance and stay at Harvard.
Improvements in first-year advising would help catch and prevent incipient problems, but inevitably, some students will find themselves in academic trouble in their first semesters. Automatically requiring that these students withdraw, however, will only increase their struggles—such a decision would inevitably coincide with other taxing events in the first-year calendar, such as the selection of blockmates.
A more equitable, less embarrassing solution would be to consider the case of each first-year with an unsatisfactory record individually. This would ensure that drastic and disruptive measures are only taken in the most extreme cases of academic malaise. Since the number of affected students is so small, individual consideration would not place an undue burden on the Administrative Board. Individually considering the circumstances of those first-years teetering on the edge of failure, and letting them make their case for why they should be allowed to stay, would provide an equitable solution that takes a holistic rather than mechanistic look at their situations.
Before mandating that a student withdraw, it is necessary to examine the underlying reasons for the student’s poor performance and the possibility that he or she may improve. Not doing so is a disservice to both troubled students, and the College as a whole.
Dissent: Fix Advising, Don't Punish Students
The staff supports heightening requirements for first-year students in their first semester without giving great pause to one of the main causes of poor performance—a lack of decent advising. Those students requiring a mid-semester withdrawal are the ones who stop attending classes, fail to complete their papers and problem sets, and do not study for exams. If the College offered better advising—requiring professors to file mid-term reports on all moderately and poor performing first-year students and having more frequent advising sessions that include particular focus on individual academic and emotional issues—less first-years would be struck with these academic problems. Sadly, the Faculty Council’s current solution implies that students are the roots of their own problems, without offering these students an effective helping hand.
—Jasmine J. Mahmoud ’04, Olamipe I. Okunseinde ’04 and Luke Smith ’05
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