Faculty Approves Secondary Fields

From a sometimes-chaotic meeting comes first vote of curricular review

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences yesterday voted to allow undergraduates to declare secondary fields, akin to minors, as professors overwhelmingly endorsed the first legislation to emerge from the three-and-a-half-year-old curricular review.

The group of about 150 professors at yesterday’s Faculty meeting passed the measure on a nearly unanimous voice vote after more than an hour of sometimes chaotic debate. They ran out of time before being able to consider the second proposal on the meeting docket, which would delay concentration choice until the middle of sophomore year.

[On Thursday, Secretary of the Faculty David B. Fithian said that 175 voting Faculty members attended Tuesday's meeting, along with 28 non-voting members and guests.]

Many details of the legislation approved yesterday still need to be ironed out, such as whether courses taken for a secondary field can be double counted for Core requirements or a language citation. After becoming bogged down in debate on that issue yesterday, professors finally voted to refer the question back to the Educational Policy Committee (EPC), the group that drafted the legislation. The EPC was asked to report back to the Faculty in the fall.

But despite disagreements over the finer points of the legislation, yesterday’s vote left many professors and administrators beaming, after months of controversy dogging University President Lawrence H. Summers had delayed Faculty-wide discussion of the curricular review.

“I’m very pleased,” Berkman Professor of Psychology Elizabeth S. Spelke, the EPC member who presented the secondary fields proposal, said after the meeting. “It’s clear we’ve started the work we have to do.”

Others marveled at the legislation’s passage. “Something got done—it’s hard to believe,” one professor said to another right after Summers’ gavel adjourned the meeting.


Yesterday’s move will bring Harvard in line with its peer institutions, virtually all of which already offer minors.

Even so, some professors expressed unease with the plan, and Spelke emphasized that the EPC would undertake a “very serious” review of the program after five years.

“I must say, this vote is a shot in the dark,” Government Department Chair Nancy L. Rosenblum said at the meeting, prefacing her comments by saying she would vote for the legislation. “I can’t tell whether this is an entrepreneurial effort by the faculty or opening a Pandora’s box.”

One major uncertainty revealed yesterday was to what extent secondary fields would alter the numbers of students taking courses in various departments.

In introducing the legislation, Spelke said that the EPC hopes that the implementation of secondary fields “will serve to decrease the size of the largest concentrations and increase the size of the smaller fields.”

She explained that secondary fields would allow students to study popular and pragmatic areas—such as economics—while still choosing to declare a primary concentration in other, less popular disciplines.

But Freed Professor of Economics Caroline M. Hoxby ’88 said that while her department is “glad to teach any student who wants to learn economics,” she and her colleagues were worried that a quick increase in the number of students taking economics could swamp the department’s resources.

“At this point, I want to say we would hesitate to add an economics secondary field,” Hoxby said.

Economics, with over 700 concentrators, is the College’s largest concentration.


Anticipating the large number of professors wanting to speak about the legislation yesterday, Secretary of the Faculty David B. Fithian sat next to a little bell that he rang whenever a professor spoke for more than three minutes.

But even the new bell did not prevent some of the debate at the meeting from veering toward the chaotic.

After Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies Jay M. Harris introduced an amendment that would, among other things, delete seven words from the secondary fields legislation, Professor of German Peter J. Burgard pushed for an “amendment to the amendment” that would delete an additional four words.

The question boiled down to whether the legislation should specify the extent to which students will be able to fulfill Core requirements or a language citation with some of the same courses they take to get credit for a secondary field.

But the professors involved in the debate were soon ensconced in procedural confusion, while some of their colleagues became visibly frustrated that the debate was moving slowly.

As discussion became bogged down, Summers, who has been nearly silent at recent Faculty meetings, took a vocal and commanding presence as he urged professors to move to a vote.

“May I make a suggestion to you all?” the president interjected at one point, calling on professors to vote on Burgard’s amendment to the amendment. “Whatever you do is fine with me.”

Summers also cracked jokes and appeared to be in a good mood as the curricular review, which began in the second year of his tenure but never followed his fast-paced schedule, was set to finally see its first vote.

After Wilfried Schmid, the Robinson professor of mathematics, said that because the words “such as” appeared in an explanatory note to the secondary fields legislation, the debate over double counting might be moot, Summers quipped, “Seems like an appropriate comment for a mathematician to make—although I don’t understand it.”

Speaking after Summers, Dillon Professor of International Affairs Jorge I. Dominguez said, “As the conversation we’ve just had illustrates, this is a very complicated matter.”

—Staff writer Evan H. Jacobs can be reached at

—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at