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Several professors fiercely denounced a proposal for preregistration at a Faculty meeting yesterday, throwing into doubt the plan’s chances of passing when it comes to a vote before the Faculty later this month.
Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby sat silently through the unusually heated debate as professors leveled wide-ranging complaints against the plan, which he has been pushing since last spring.
“It was, as diplomats say, a full and frank exchange of views,” Kirby wrote in an e-mail after the meeting.
The debate raged for almost an hour before University President Lawrence H. Summers intervened and stopped the discussion.
“To those who have taken a more apocalyptic view, that preregistration would mean the end of academic life as we know it, almost every other great university in this country does fine with preregistration,” said Summers.
Summers also addressed the advocates of preregistration, noting some criticisms of the plan were valid.
Also yesterday, a professor called for an emergency meeting to plan the University’s response to the impending war with Iraq, Ethnic Studies was approved as an official standing committee of the Faculty, and new academic requirements for first years were approved.
Additionally, the Faculty Council was designated the official body to handle all concerns regarding the U.S.A. Patriot Act.
Yesterday’s outpouring of opposition against preregistration was an unexpected turn in what had seemed to be a cut and dried issue. Most administrators had seemed in favor of the plan, and professors had seemed indifferent.
Even Monday night, Summers was fairly confident of the proposal’s chances of success.
“I would hope that if as I expect the proposal is adopted that students will make extensive use as they see fit of adds and drops,” Summers said at a Kirkland House study break.
But after yesterday’s meeting, Summers said he understood professors’ concerns.
“I think obviously in light of the sentiments expressed, there is going to need to be a lot of consideration in what we do in this whole area,” he said. “As I suggested to the Faculty, it’s very important that we appropriately balance the clear importance of flexible student choice with the need to have rational academic planning.”
In its current form, the plan would require students to select classes before the term begins. It has encountered widespread opposition among undergraduates, who organized a petition against it that garnered 1,200 signatures.
Kirby said the discussion was constructive in pointing out problems of the current system and suggesting alternatives.
Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 said he and Kirby expected intense criticism of the plan.
Indeed, criticism of the preregistration plan dominated the debate, as only one of 11 Faculty speakers came out in favor of the plan last night. Even Saltonstall Professor of History Charles S. Maier, who co-wrote a book with Kirby, spoke against the proposal.
The first speaker was Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics Howard Georgi ’68, who set the stage for the subsequent outpouring of dissent with a rousing denunciation of the plan.
“Shopping period is one of the great contributors to the strength of a Harvard undergraduate education,” said Maier Professor of Political Economy Benjamin M. Friedman, who spoke after Georgi. “The proposal as stated before us purports to preserve flexibility, but there will be a very clear reduction of shopping period to a vestigial remnant of what our students now enjoy.”
Friedman said he sympathized with the “administrative burdens of shopping period,” but asserted that preregistration would strip students of their ability to choose their courses.
Friedman then went on to compare the forum to the discussions of Iraq.
“Just like Iraq, this seems like a situation where nobody wants this to happen but we discuss it as if it were inevitable,” he said.
By far the most vociferous critic of the plan was Robinson Professor of Music Robert D. Levin ’68.
Levin said the proposal is “practically and aesthetically repugnant.”
“It does not serve the goals of education, it serves the goals of the administration,” he said.
Assistant Professor of Computer Science Michael D. Mitzenmacher spoke out on behalf of his department, listing four arguments against preregistration, including the damage it may do to shopping period and the perceived burdens it may place on Faculty members.
“We believe that accurate predictability can be achieved with currently available data,” Mitzenmacher said. “In fact, the current [preregistration] plan could reduce predictability.”
Jay M. Harris, Wolfson professor of Jewish studies, suggested an alternative plan.
He advised that students submit a tentative plan of study for the following semester, but still participate in a shopping period before submitting a formal study card.
“There is enough evidence to suggest that preregistration is an idea worth trying,” Harris said. “The question is how we can structure this so that students don’t lose their freedoms.”
Dillon Professor of International Affairs Jorge I. Dominguez ’68 was the lone voice in favor of the current preregistration at yesterday’s meeting.
Dominguez said that preregistration was “a long overdue step towards sanity” and was a necessary and important change.
“I would welcome any information I can get before a course starts so I can prepare,” Dominguez said. “A TF hired at the last minute cannot do a reasonable job.”
There was, however, some consensus at yesterday’s Faculty meeting. The Faculty was unanimous in its vote to make Ethnic Studies a standing committee.
Music Professor Kay K. Shelemay said that the ad hoc status no longer did justice to the program.
The Faculty also unanimously approved a proposal by Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 revise the “Failure to Meet Minimum Requirements” policy. Under the new policy adopted yesterday, first years will now be expected to meet the same standards as their upperclass counterparts.
—Staff writer Rebecca D. O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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