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Harvard has its weaknesses. They have been well-documented, and counter to perception, an unusually responsive administration has been addressing these weaknesses. Last spring, when a leaked internal memo showed survey results pinning student dissatisfaction on the usual culprits—distant professors, a lagging social life, and a dearth of “community”—a full fleet of initiatives were already underway. The Harvard College Curricular Review, Loker Pub, Lamont Café, and the hiring of a Greek-scene expert to oversee House community have sought to make omelets of Harvard’s broken eggs.
But talk about Harvard’s weaknesses can make for quite gloomy environs. The College, after all, does have its strengths, and perhaps its time we paid a little more attention to them. While Harvard may not have the house life of Yale, the student-professor interaction of Amherst, or a Yardfest to rival Penn’s Spring Fling, few of our peer institutions can hold a candle to the vibrancy of co-curricular life at Harvard. Rather then rest on its laurels, Harvard would do well to find ways to make the leap from good to great in this realm.
It’s easy to look at the co-curricular experience at Harvard and to believe that student groups are better off left to their own devices. The Institute of Politics, the Crimson, Harvard Student Agencies, the Phillips Brooks House Association, and some of the best organized cultural and ethnic groups in the country seem do be doing just fine without administrative muddling. In turn, the College has often taken a hands-off approach. But if the success of the events of the Leadership Institute at Harvard College (LIHC) over the past week are any indication, Harvard could be doing much more for its student-leaders.
Last Friday night, over 200 of them gathered in Eliot House for the LIHC’s Presidents Forum event. While skepticism often abounds when leaders are told they might improve their ability to lead in just a couple of hours, few left Friday’s dinner without a deep appreciation for the leadership project. Students learned from each other and from guest speakers—IBM Professor of Business and Government Roger B. Porter and McKinsey & Co. innovations expert, Abigail Levy—what they might have otherwise learned only by running into walls. Many also formed connections that will allow them to collaborate on large-scale projects, instead of suffering in the doldrums of redundancy. It’s no surprise then that the most popular refrain from attendees called for more College involvement. Charles W. Altchek ’07, captain of the varsity soccer team, called the gathering “overdue” and Amy M. Zelcer ’07, president of Harvard Students for Israel, noted it was “something the College should’ve done in the past.”
In the same week, the Leadership Institute also hosted an interactive “team strategies” session led by Lecturer on Sociology David Laurence Ager and HBS Professor of Business Administration Amy C. Edmondson ’80, in which groups of students from all walks of Harvard co-curricular life discovered better ways to tackle group dynamic challenges. Tonight, in Currier House, the LIHC is hosting the last of its public speaking seminars held in each of Harvard’s residential neighborhoods over the past four evenings. All these programs have been overwhelmingly well-received, helping equip student-leaders with the skills and networks necessary to excel in their leadership roles on campus and beyond.
Often, taking on a leadership role in a Harvard student group means entering the school of hard knocks. Campus organizations suffer a dearth of institutional history, and students find themselves frustratingly trying to reinvent the wheel—and doing it alone. Moreover, for many students, there is an intractable sense of competitiveness that pervades Harvard’s co-curricular landscape. Each group exists as an island to itself, developing unhealthy, insular tendencies. It doesn’t have to be this way, and Harvard students do not want it to be this way. In its first year being offered, Psychology 1508, “The Psychology of Leadership,” taught by Lecturer on Psychology Tal D. Ben-Shahar, is the third most popular course at Harvard, drawing over 500 students (despite the fact that it competes with Harvard’s most popular course, Psychology 1504, “Positive Psychology,” also taught by Ben-Shahar). The lessons taught and initiatives called for in the course are the very things the Leadership Institute hopes to put into action on an ongoing basis.
Ultimately, in order to not merely survive but to thrive, leadership development programs need large-scale institutional support. If it were not for the unparalleled dedication of some of faculty advisors, including Ager and Ben-Shahar, and alumni co-founder, Jonathan P. Doochin ’04-05, the Leadership Institute would be struggling. Without the helpful guidance of the College Dean’s Office, LIHC would still be stuck in square one.
Most experts in organizational behavior argue that the best way to improve an organization is not by shoring up weaknesses, but identifying and capitalizing on strengths. Other schools in the University have acted on this principle in creating the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Government and the Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School. They have realized that Harvard, perhaps more than any other institution in the world, attracts leaders, world-changers, to its gates. This is a strength that demands our attention and our maximal effort to cultivate it. With the support of the University, Harvard can jump to the head of the pack in a growing movement to offer leadership development programs to undergraduates. Then, perhaps, we can stare our shortcomings in the face and know that we have done better—done best—elsewhere.
Michael B. Broukhim ’07, a Crimson editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. He is the business manager of the Leadership Institute.
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