Leveling the Playing Field

It is imperative to limit secondary fields to the class of 2010 and beyond

Harvard’s majors are about to be invaded by minors.

Last Tuesday, the faculty voted to approve legislation allowing undergraduates to declare secondary fields, a.k.a. minors. The legislation will probably go into effect next year, and when it does, it will apply to all students. This means that members of the classes of 2007, 2008, and 2009 who have already taken the requisite number of courses will be able to declare secondary fields in time for them to appear on diplomas.

The innovation is entirely cosmetic. At Harvard, students have always been able to take as many classes as they want in whichever field they’d like. This legislation does not change that.

But regardless of what one thinks of secondary fields, beginning next year, they will be a reality. The unfortunate truth is that by changing the rules so late in the game, not everyone who wants to take advantage of the opportunity will be able to do so.

Students will be allowed to get minors based on completely arbitrary reasons, such as how many core classes they happened to take in freshman year. And since many things at Harvard—from admissions to recruiting—are a zero-sum game, an innovation this late is unfair, as it arbitrarily privileges some students over others. Secondary fields should not apply to any students currently at the College.

Some may minor because they possess a genuine interest in the field. But others—arguably the larger group—at Harvard are the competitive ones. They will see the addition of a secondary field on their transcripts as a plus for employers, who will be impressed that they have made the most of their Harvard experience. People will add secondary fields because everyone else is adding secondary fields.

To see what could happen to Harvard, one need only look at other Ivy League colleges, where students double and triple major, all in the name of cock-and-bull dedication—both amongst their peers and in the world at large. With the addition of new distinctions amongst students and their diplomas, this situation will appear at Harvard as well. Where previously, no student at Harvard could add a secondary field, now, students might even be compelled to explain why they did not add one.

While one might argue that secondary fields do not have significance—professional or otherwise, that is simply not the case (indeed, why have them if it were?). While some firms may discount them, others will take them into account. Secondary fields will be especially helpful for those pursuing careers in subject areas outside of their concentrations. For example, an English concentrator with economics as a secondary field might be seen as having an advantage over a Romance Language concentrator for an investment-banking job. While other factors do play a role, the demonstrated interest a secondary field indicates could definitely be an important advantage as well.

One could also argue that students who were interested enough to take those courses deserve to get a minor. But there is still injustice here. Say two students, x and y, both have an interest in European history. In her first two years, student x takes three courses in history, religion, and government while student y instead takes three history courses. Then, secondary fields are approved. Student x will find it more difficult than student y to get a secondary field in history. Had she known that the College was offering a minor, student x might have taken three history courses instead. Both students could be just as good, but the College will arbitrarily penalize student y while arbitrarily rewarding student x.

It is not fair for Harvard to change the rules so late in the game—many students will lose out. Instead of leaving many current students dwelling on the road they wish they could have taken, only members of the class of 2010+ should have the option of declaring a secondary field. That way, all students can operate under the same rules and assumptions—on a level playing field and without the arbitrary introduction of pure luck.

Reva P. Minkoff ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.