Leave No Undergraduate Behind

Almost nobody on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences knows I’m graduating today.

They won’t miss me, because they didn’t know I was here in the first place.

Four years ago, I was warned this would happen. But unlike so many of the insidious rumors I heard about Harvard, this one turned out to be true. Students do get lost in the crowd. In fact, most of the crowd is lost. We know we cannot simply wait to be discovered, but it might be nice if someone noticed that we existed.

The sad truth is that I have arrived at Commencement with almost no meaningful faculty relationships. The sadder truth is that so have many of my classmates. And our college experiences have suffered for it. Great faculty relationships can yield stellar advising and inspirational mentorship. The absence of those relationships inevitably results in undergraduates lacking both. “If we can get the faculty—or, in the negligent departments, anyone at all—to pay more attention to students, the quality of the academic experience at Harvard will soar,” wrote then-Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 in a 2002 memo to University President Lawrence H. Summers.

It’s a truism that Harvard’s advising—if you can call it that—is in shambles. At long last, Harvard appears to be paying some attention. But the appointment of a dean of advising this spring is a quick fix, a cosmetic solution to a systemic problem. It allows the College to say it is addressing the issue without doing anything fundamental about it.

The problem lies deeper. I do not have an adviser. My department, economics, does not assign them to its undergraduates. Instead, there are departmental walk-in advising hours and House tutors. The result: I’ve never had a discussion about academic advising that lasted more than five minutes.

The lack of engagement between students and faculty also means that professors rarely really get to know their students. Of those who know me at Harvard, I have had intellectual discussions with only a handful; I’d be surprised if more than three knew what I’m doing after I graduate.

A great faculty-student relationship can be transformative, nurturing intellectual interests and contributing to a student’s personal development. I was reminded of this fact when I returned to my high school last week, where I caught up with no fewer than eight teachers who had a significant impact on my life. But that kind of relationship is a reality for precious few of us of at Harvard.

It may not be surprising that this happens in economics, with its student-faculty ratio of about 20 to 1, nor in government, which has a ratio of 14 to 1. But 15 percent of undergrads concentrate in economics, and another 10 percent concentrate in government.

While he was dean, Lewis conducted a biennial survey of seniors about their advising experiences. He found that economics and government consistently scored lowest in quality of advising: for instance, while 56 percent of all seniors reported that their academic interests were covered in advising conversations, only 28 percent of economics concentrators and 37 percent of government concentrators could say the same.

Fully 71 percent of undergrads graduated last year with degrees from the 10 concentrations with at least 50 seniors. So it comes as no surprise that in a 2002 survey of nearly three dozen elite universities by the Consortium on Financing Higher Education leaked last year, Harvard ranked near the bottom in faculty availability, quality of instruction, and quality of advising within majors. This problem plagues most seniors graduating today and most of the underclassmen we leave behind.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way; in fact, it’s a little hard to explain how it happened. We got to Harvard not just by overachieving in high school classes and activities but by forging relationships with our teachers. After all, recommendations are a key part of the college application. So why are we failing so miserably here?

For many students, this stems in part from a decision to focus on extracurriculars at the expense of academics: for me, this was The Crimson. In part, it can reflect the selection of a large concentration. And in part, we do not proactively seek out faculty often enough.

But to say that extracurricular commitments prevent student-faculty relationships is to give up on the education of many of Harvard’s most talented students. To say that large concentrations cannot do better is an abdication of the College’s responsibility to those interested in popular fields ranging from English to biology. And to say that students must share the burden of reaching out to professors is at once correct and irrelevant. Harvard’s best and brightest undergraduates are not connecting with the University’s world-class faculty even though they excelled at precisely that in high school. Something is fundamentally wrong at the institutional level.

Harvard has begun to address the problem. There are some bright spots: a few wonderful professors who transcend the divide and some nurturing concentrations that enjoy the luxury of small size. Even some large concentrations are better than others: history, which has about 80 concentrators a year, has met with some success through a system of faculty-led tutorial and conference courses; its student-faculty ratio of less than 7 to 1 helps as well. The number of freshman seminars has soared, Harvard is midway through an effort to expand the Faculty by 15 percent, and the ongoing curricular review aims to increase faculty-student interactions by raising the number of small classes and promoting opportunities that foster such dialogue. But most of the curricular review has focused on sexier issues like general education. The future of the Core Curriculum is admittedly important, but expending so much breath on the structure of the literature requirement misses the true problem with a Harvard College education.

Which is a shame because, despite some limited success, Harvard is still failing on the whole. While some star professors—including a few I’ve had—engage with their undergraduates regularly, many students’ only real opportunity to interact with faculty is at the faculty dinner each semester. To be fair, some professors are truly struggling under the weight of cultural inertia separating them from undergraduates. But others are unfortunately broadening this chasm, tacitly or otherwise. Former Dean Lewis wrote in his 2002 memo that “the problem is with the faculty and their attitude towards students, especially the faculty in certain departments.” And the economics department’s director of undergraduate studies told The Crimson last year that the approximately 30 percent of seniors who write theses in the department is too many because there are some who “just don’t have the skills and their expectations are all wrong.” While he added that this applies only to “a small number,” sending this kind of message is precisely the problem in a department that already has notoriously little faculty-student interaction.

Regardless of the source of the problem, the University needs faculty, administrators, and students alike to work toward a cultural transformation from top to bottom. It’s time to remember that at the heart of a great university is a great college, and that undergraduate education cannot succeed without attention to undergraduates. For too long Harvard has ignored this fact. Now we’re paying the price.

Stephen M. Marks ’06, an economics concentrator in Dunster House, was managing editor of The Crimson in 2005.