No one knows about the realities of Harvard’s curriculum better that its students, so the administration’s decision to grant student representation on the four newly-announced curricular review committees is its wisest decision to date in the evolving process. Student input gives reason to hope that a decade from now, undergraduates may be spared the horrors of the Core as we know it, of advisers we never see and of giant lecture halls filled to capacity. Innovations we propose, to meet our everyday needs, should be the basis for a revitalized curriculum. Undergraduate priorities should be placed side by side with Harvard’s research goals.
Whether such dreams will materialize, however, depends on the breadth and force of the student voice in the curricular review process. In a promising e-mail sent to students on Tuesday, Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 solicited applications for eight of the 48 seats on the committees that will craft a new curriculum. The four 12-person committees will also include eight faculty members, one graduate student and one administrator each. Gross has reserved the final choice of students representatives for himself, with the council’s Student Affairs Committee responsible for paring down the initial pool.
If Gross retains the choice of representatives, he will place a great distance between students and their curricular review representatives. Committee meetings in the curricular review should be very open, as Gross himself has suggested, and students should be invited to provide their input at all meetings—including those students who are not representatives. But the power of appointment by Gross leaves the committees vulnerable to the whims of administration politics, especially if renewal decisions are based on the agreement of student representatives with administration goals.
Instead of appointing student representatives to these committees, Gross should sieze this rare opportunity to mobilize the students and capitalize on the new ideas it can create. Direct elections of student representatives would invigorate discussion among students while bringing increased accountability and visibility to the entire process. Compared to an appointment process, elections would produce equally qualified representatives while also signaling to the entire student body that its involvement is both desired and necessary.
Representatives would be required to connect with students and popularize their names and goals in order to win elections. Campaigns would of course bring with them some perennial trivialities, but the vibrant discussion of curricular reform is the larger goal. Simplistic posters and competing color schemes decorating the Yard are small sacrifices for the long-term discussion that elected representation would catalyze. The curricular review committees should be the subject of student attention throughout the year, not just when decisions are handed down.
The University should recognize that students are its greatest asset in revitalizing the education they know best. Elected representatives would give momentum to the very dinner table conversations and informal chats that contain the most challenging ideas for revitalizing the undergraduate educational experience.
While we applaud the Staff for its strong commitment to student representation on the curriculum review committees that are currently being formed, we are dismayed at its well-intentioned but misguided proposal of popular election. As we have unfortunately learned from the Undergraduate Council presidential elections, these appeals to the student body at large do not foster any meaningful debate the issues. Instead, elections would force candidates to run on a “platform” before carefully examining the issues in committee. But even more fundamentally, these committees are deliberative bodies, and not places where representatives are sent to “accomplish” a predetermined “agenda.” Such thinking will limit the students’ ability to keep the same open minds we have repeatedly urged faculty and administrators to display. Elections would further make it difficult to ensure that a diversity of views are represented in these working groups.
Moreover, it would be a logistical nightmare to try to set up a new election system, new campaigning rules and secure new funding for these elections. Also the considerable effort representatives would have to put into “re-election” campaigning would distract from their actual work on the committees.
Of course any selected student must have a strong commitment to reaching out to students, to holding meetings in the Houses and to being accessible and responsive. But it is much more efficient and appropriate for that selection to be made by a well-informed panel of council members who can devote hours to examining each candidate’s claims to these qualities, rather than a student body that would decide only based on sound-bites.
—Travis R. Kavulla ’06, Stephen M. Marks ’06, Zachary Z Norman ’04 and Ronaldo Rauseo-Ricupero ’04