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Bread and Circuses

Improving student satisfaction will take more than a new sales pitch

By Hannah E. S. wright

For non-juniors, Junior Parents Weekend is a pretty sweet deal. We don’t have to purge our rooms of beer cans, wake up at 10 am for a “late” family breakfast, or scavenge through event listings to find some show that will simultaneously entertain both parents, our 16-year-old brother, and our 85-year-old great aunt. And we still get to enjoy the much-anticipated Junior Parents Brunch.

For HUDS, Junior Parents Brunch is the year’s pièce de résistance: the entrees are straight from the oven, the pasta is cooked al dente, and not only is there pre-mixed Caesar salad, but it’s actually fresh. For one day, the oft-underwhelming House dining hall is transformed into an epicurial paradise—I have seriously considered fasting the week before in preparation.

I suppose the point of the whole extravaganza is to show the pocketbooks how splendidly Harvard is caring for their children. And since the food is so good, I don’t really mind the not-so-subtle attempt to pull wool over the eyes of gullible junior parents. But this marks the extent of my tolerance for spin, and the College should realize it marks the extent of its practicality as well.

Earlier this year, the Boston Globe reported that Harvard was seeking a new director of internal communications, “internal” being the key word. Harvard has a fantastic external brand—as every student who’s forged a path through the crowds of foreign tourists around John Harvard knows.

The Globe suggested the position was intended to improve Harvard’s traditionally underwhelming student satisfaction scores. The latest report from the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) put Harvard satisfaction levels at 3.95, compared to an average of 4.16 across the other 30 COFHE schools, a list that includes the Ivy League, MIT, Stanford, and various small liberal arts colleges.

Unsurprisingly, the College denies any such intentions, but there are nonetheless signs that the Dean’s Office is becoming more concerned with what Associate Dean John Gates refers to as “messaging.” College administrators want to drive home the idea that students are more than just undergraduates at Harvard University, but in fact members of Harvard College, a distinct and supportive community.

Ah, Harvard College. Perhaps meant to evoke the image of a quaint, tight-knit liberal arts collegium in the pastoral beauty of rural New England? If Harvard’s COFHE scores are about nothing so much as nomenclature, this should clearly do the trick.

But let’s be honest. Harvard may be a College, but what defines the experience of its undergraduates is the fact it’s a College within a University, Harvard University to be exact. We’re not hiring professors on the basis of their teaching prowess, but on the strength of their academic accomplishments. The space crunch in Cambridge may be limiting our ability to build a student center pre-Allston, but that’s in part due to the fact the Library Administration has been promised 90 Mt. Auburn, FAS has set up camp in the Barker Center, and the Radcliffe Institute holds the rights to Radcliffe Yard.

The College should undoubtedly strive to improve undergraduate life, and the administration deserves credit for recent steps to develop common social spaces and encourage student-faculty interaction. What makes these initiatives laudable, however, is their commitment to tangible benefits. The same cannot be said of PR campaigns.

Beyond turf wars and tenure decisions, our surroundings are integral to the opportunities Harvard College can provide. My course on education policy at the Kennedy School included classmates who had actually been inside classrooms, education departments, and state legislatures. There are undergrads here who do labwork at HMS, attend panel discussions at HLS, and study architecture at GSD.

To claim that we are somehow isolated from the rest of the University is an empty attempt at appeasement that, frankly, insults our collective ability to understand the factors that affect our Harvard experience. Instead of running from the College’s connection to the rest of campus, the Dean’s Office should be exploring new ways for undergraduates to take advantage of the wealth of resources the University has to offer.

Even in 50 years, when the Houses are clustered around the student center of present-day dreams and stories of the walk from Mather to Pfoho have reached epic proportions (uphill...both ways), undergraduates will still be sharing money, space, books, and time with their graduate peers. The sooner this becomes a good thing, the better.

At best, a new “messaging” campaign will make a few more students acknowledge that the administration is making some sort of effort, but at the worst, it will further erode student satisfaction by bolstering expectations that can’t feasibly be met.

Flowers, tablecloths, and cheese platters may persuade one-time visitors that student grumbling is misplaced, but long-term attempts to mask legitimate grievances are bound to fail. A new image alone won’t convince undergrads that what they see on a daily basis has changed. If the dean’s office really wants to make students happier, they should strive towards an end stage they don’t have to sell.

Hannah E. S. Wright ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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